Frontrunners Unclear in Oscar Race

Members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are starting to receive their ballots for Oscar nominations. Aside from clear support for Brokeback Mountain, the field still seems relatively open.

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The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences yesterday mailed the ballots for Oscar nominations. NPR's Kim Masters reports that this year might bring surprises.

KIM MASTERS reporting:

At this point, early in the game, there is less consensus about which five pictures will get nominated than there is about which one will win.

(Soundbite of "Brokeback Mountain")

Unidentified Man: The bottom line is, we're around each other, and if this thing grabs hold of us again in the wrong place, in the wrong time, then we're dead.

MASTERS: In fact, "Brokeback Mountain" is the opposite of dead when it comes to the Oscar race. Things could change, but it's been anointed the front-runner. Some in the industry question whether older and presumably more conservative Academy members would embrace what has come to be known as `the gay cowboy movie.' Los Angeles Times film columnist Patrick Goldstein thinks whatever controversy might have attached to the film isn't the kind that would put off Academy members.

Mr. PATRICK GOLDSTEIN (Los Angeles Times): This is a movie, like most Oscar winners, that's set in the past, and I think the Academy's always more comfortable set back in history than they are with movies set today.

MASTERS: Goldstein adds that "Brokeback Mountain" has many elements that are both familiar and comfortable for Academy voters. Larry McMurtry, who co-wrote the screenplay, has been providing material to Hollywood for decades.

Mr. GOLDSTEIN: And it has a feel of an old Western, with a new wrinkle to it. And it's made by Ang Lee in a very traditional style.

MASTERS: Aside from the solid support for "Brokeback Mountain," Oscar watchers say this year's race remains unusually fluid. There's a spate of other movies that could be nominated, and almost all of them, like "Brokeback Mountain," come from art house labels and have budgets that are modest by studio standards. More costly big-studio films, like "Memoirs of a Geisha," seem to have missed the connection. There was only one seemingly sure thing from a big studio, and even that cost less than $30 million.

(Soundbite of "Walk the Line")

Mr. JOAQUIN PHOENIX: (As Johnny Cash) Hello. I'm Johnny Cash.

MASTERS: Pete Hammond, film critic for Maxim magazine, thinks the Academy will show all kinds of love for "Walk the Line," with certain acting nominations for Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon. In fact, he says, some wonder whether the best actor categories are turning into a best impersonation of a celebrity contest.

Mr. PETE HAMMOND (Maxim Magazine): Last year, Jamie Foxx and Cate Blanchett both won Oscars for playing celebrities, Ray Charles and Katharine Hepburn. And this year, you have the Johnny Cash and you've got Truman Capote and you've got Edward R. Murrow and you've got all these likely nominees of people that have been in show business one way or another, or in the public eye.

MASTERS: Actors make up the largest bloc of voters in the Academy, and for that reason, Hammond and other pundits think "Good Night, and Good Luck," George Clooney's film about Edward R. Murrow, will also do well. Clooney enjoys tremendous popularity in Hollywood, and Hammond says Academy members embraced the film at a special screening.

Mr. HAMMOND: A lot of those people actually remember Edward R. Murrow, and they remember when movies were made in black and white, and this has played extremely well at the Academy. People were shocked. Even people that are working on rival films that saw that screening were amazed and talked about the enthusiastic reaction. And enthusiasm translates into votes.

MASTERS: If "Brokeback Mountain," "Walk the Line" and "Good Night, and Good Luck" seem likely nominees, there's far less clarity about Steven Spielberg's latest film. "Munich" had been anointed as a front-runner by handicappers who had only seen the trailer advertising the film. But as Patrick Goldstein explains, the release of "Munich" was misplayed.

Mr. GOLDSTEIN: They kept the movie secret and kept the movie secret, and then they talked about keeping the movie secret, and no sooner did they do that, than they turned around and gave a big cover story exclusive to Time magazine. And I think that rubbed everyone the wrong way and has only earned them an enormous amount of negative sniping press.

MASTERS: Pete Hammond agrees that "Munich" is in trouble.

Mr. HAMMOND: Now if this was a political campaign and this happened to a presidential candidate, they'd be out. They'd be down in the polls and gone.

MASTERS: But Goldstein thinks Spielberg can still manage a nomination.

Mr. GOLDSTEIN: The Academy is a very receptive audience for a Spielberg movie, especially one that has serious intent and I think is incredibly well-made. So I think it's still in the race, but it is no longer the front-runner.

MASTERS: At this point, "Munich" appears to be fighting it out with films like "Capote," "Crash," "A History of Violence," "The Constant Gardener" and a few others for the last couple of slots.

Another dark horse contender, "Match Point," the new Woody Allen film. Like a prodigal son, Allen has been courting votes at some Hollywood events. Academy members have a lot to choose from, and they must mail in their nominations by January 21st. The awards are handed out on March 5th.

Kim Masters, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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