PSU Vanguard Shield Icon

Oscar-nominations, surprises can be found

On the surface, Tuesday’s Oscar nominations seemed almost less than ordinary. Two successful, expensive mainstream films, the fantasy adventure “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” and the inspirational drama “A Beautiful Mind,” won 13 and eight nominations, respectively; a daring commercial and critical disappointment, “Moulin Rouge,” won eight.

But, as a recent Oscar-winner implored, look closer.

Though none of the experts who were trotted out to do instant analysis for the morning TV shows seemed to notice, Oscar’s big 2002 breakthrough was the color barrier. For only the second time in Oscar history, three African-Americans were nominated in major acting categories.

Denzel Washington, who played the corrupt cop in the intense “Training Day,” and Will Smith, who had the title role in the impressionistic biography “Ali,” will be competing against each other for best actor. Their other competition will be Tom Wilkinson (“In the Bedroom”), last year’s winner Russell Crowe (“A Beautiful Mind”) and Sean Penn (“I Am Sam”).

Halle Berry, who dispelled arguments that she was just a pretty face with her powerful portrayal of an abusive mother and widow of an executed killer in “Monster’s Ball,” will attend the big dance on March 24. She’ll be in the company of other best-actress nominees Judi Dench (“Iris”), Nicole Kidman (“Moulin Rouge”), Renee Zellweger (“Bridget Jones’s Diary”) and presumed front-runner Sissy Spacek (“In the Bedroom”).

It is the first time two black actors have been in competition. In 1972, two black actresses, Cicely Tyson (“Sounder”) Detroit’s Diana Ross (“Lady Sings the Blues”), vied for the best-actress award, while Paul Winfield (“Sounder”) was nominated for best actor. None won. Never before have all the African-American nominees appeared in three different films.

Look deeper yet, and you’ll also see a seismic shift in both the Hollywood power structure and Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voter allegiances.

The major studios have spent the past decade acquiring independent companies in an effort to gain critical prestige and respectability while they concentrated on audience-pleasing blockbusters and star-driven spectacles. And it is now the rebellious children who are bringing home both the awards and the bacon for their parents.

While Warner Bros. earned only seven Oscar nominations this year, its New Line division brought home 14.

Walt Disney Studios, which produced the most expensively budgeted film in history last year with “Pearl Harbor,” earned seven nominations, all in technical categories (three for “Pearl Harbor,” two for “Monsters, Inc.,” one for “The Royal Tenenbaums”). But Disney-owned Miramax had 14 – six in major categories, with three of the best-actress nominees appearing in Miramax films.

While Universal had to share its 13 “A Beautiful Mind” nominations with co-producer DreamWorks, its boutique arms USA and Universal Focus had seven nominations between them – six for Robert Altman’s stylish murder mystery/class comedy “Gosford Park” and one for David Lynch, who directed “Mulholland Drive.”

As always, the Oscar nominations had their share of anomalies, surprises and mysteries. Lynch and Ridley Scott (“Black Hawk Down”) were both nominated for best director, but their films were not nominated. Australia’s Baz Luhrmann and Todd Field were not nominated, but the films they directed – “Moulin Rouge” and “In the Bedroom” – were.

Gene Hackman, who won a Golden Globe for his performance as the wayward patriarch in “The Royal Tenenbaums,” failed to get a nomination, which would make Russell Crowe, who won the best-actor prize last year, the favorite to repeat.

And, though Miramax lobbied hard for a best-actress nomination for Kidman in the supernatural thriller “The Others,” she was instead nominated for the musical “Moulin Rouge.”

“Moulin Rouge” is the longest shot in the best-picture category; the last musical to win a best-picture Oscar was “Oliver!” in 1968. And, while “The Lord of the Rings” won the most nominations, Oscar voters do not traditionally reward fantasy epics with best-picture awards. None of the “Star Wars” films has won best-picture Oscars, while Steven Spielberg’s classic “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” was defeated for the 1982 best-picture Oscar by “Gandhi.”

If there are any front runners at this stage of the game besides Spacek, they would be Jennifer Connelly, who plays the supportive wife of Crowe’s schizophrenic genius in “A Beautiful Mind,” for supporting actress, and veteran maverick director Altman for “Gosford Park.” Altman’s primary competition will be Ron Howard (“A Beautiful Mind”); despite having directed the Oscar-nominated “Apollo 13,” this is Howard’s first best-director nomination.

ABC will broadcast the Oscar ceremony live at 8:30 p.m. ET March 24 from its new permanent home at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood. Whoopi Goldberg will return as host.