Oscar Nominations In, Handicapping Begins

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The Oscar nominees are announced, and Dreamgirls leads the contenders. New York Times film critic A.O. Scott handicaps the nominees.

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

And now to the movies. The nominees for the 79th Academy Awards were announced earlier today. "Dreamgirls" racked up the most Oscar nods, but did not make it onto the short list for best picture. More on the other nominees in just a moment, but first we want to hear from you. Questions about Academy Award politics. Who do you want to win the big prizes in acting and directing? Who got snubbed this year?

Our number: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org.

And joining us now is New York Times film critic A.O. Scott. He joins us from the studios of our member station WNYE in Brooklyn, New York. And, Tony Scott, nice to have you back on the program.

Mr. A.O. SCOTT (New York Times Film Critic): Very nice to be here.

CONAN: And a lot of smaller movies dominated the slots for some of the top prizes this year. You can't call it quite the year of the indies I guess, but maybe the year of the major studio subsidiary?

Mr. SCOTT: Well, yeah. I think that's true and I think that confirms a trend that's been taking shape over the last few years, where the not-quite indies is what they call the art house or specialty divisions of the major studios -Companies like Fox Searchlight, Paramount Vantage, Miramax, which his part of Disney - really tend to dominate the awards.

It's part of, I think, a change in the way the movie industry is organized, that the big studios are more and more interested in kind of blockbuster, mass entertainment, and the kind of the A pictures, the prestige pictures that the studios used to put out now become the duty of the specialty division, which can make them for a little less money and then can sort of reap the awards and the prestige at the end of the year.

CONAN: And you look at some of the nominees for best picture this year. And they are "Babel," which is not - in terms of how much money they spent making it - not on the A list, "The Departed," "Letters from Iwo Jima," "Little Miss Sunshine" and "The Queen." None of these are box office smashes.

Mr. SCOTT: No. I think the one that's done the best so far is "The Departed," which is a big hit for Martin Scorsese and is a chance, I think, for - another chance for Martin Scorsese, who's the most passed-over director when it comes to the Oscars, to finally win.

But you're right. "Little Miss Sunshine" is probably just in terms of box office performance, not in terms of raw gross, but just in terms of being a fairly small movie that took a long time to get made, made by two first-time directors, the husband and wife Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. It was picked up by Fox Searchlight at Sundance a year ago. It was the most money ever paid for a Sundance acquisition - $10.5 million - and then has gone on to be quite a hit.

It was sort of the big surprise sleeper hit of the summer, and it just sort of kept going and generated a lot of critical good will. And audiences really liked it, and I think it was, you know, a smart, well-written, well-directed comedy with a handful of nice performances. And it really, it was kind of the -every year there's sort of an overachiever, I think, that comes out of these specialty divisions.

You know, whether it's "Sideways" or "Brokeback Mountain" or "Lost in Translation." And "Little Miss Sunshine" is that picture this year, and I think has a legitimate shot at the big prize, especially with "Dreamgirls," you know, which everyone had assumed was going to be one of the best picture nominees. And a lot of people had come out and declared was a lock to win best picture. With that one out of the running, it's a much more interesting and unpredictable field, I think.

CONAN: It is. I mean, you look at this list and you say "Babel." Well, normally you would say, you'd look at the list and say, well, that's not going to win. It's an independent. And you say, well, this picture won last year. It was called "Crash." You look at "The Departed." You got Scorsese and some wonderful actors. "Letters from Iwo Jima," well, Clint Eastwood has already won.

"Little Miss Sunshine," you just said. And "The Queen." Well, you're not going to go for that because she's going to win best actress. Who knows what's going to come out of that division?

Mr. SCOTT: Who knows? And the thing to remember is that, you know, this is the - it's a fairly small pool of voters. It's less than 6,000, the members of the Academy. And they are all film industry professionals. It's not - this is not critics, this is not the public, this is the film industry, the American film industry's kind of idea of itself that gets put out at Oscar time.

And since there are five nominees, you need, you know, 20 percent plus one vote to win Best Picture. So without a kind of a clear, dominating favorite, it, you know, something can squeak by on a very narrow margin. And of course, we never know the vote total. So it's all very - can be all very mysterious at the end.

CONAN: We're talking with film critic A.O. Scott about today's Academy Award nominations. If you think you've got what it takes to craft the perfect Oscar acceptance speech, enter NPR's speech writing contest. Winners will be featured on our Web site. You can go to npr.org.

And one of the actors who may be coming up with one of the speeches for real this year is Leonard DiCaprio. Not, though, for the film we were talking about earlier, "The Departed." In that - here's a scene from that movie. He plays Billy, who calls an officer, Mark Wahlberg, to inform him that there's a rat in the police unit.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Departed")

Mr. LEONARDO DICAPRIO (Actor): (As Billy Costigan) Look, there is a rat in your unit. That is a fact, all right? Where's Queenan?

Mr. MARK WAHLBERG (Actor): (As Dignam) He's not here.

Mr. DICAPRIO: (As Billy Costigan) They knew you had cameras in the building. They knew everything, all right? There is a leak from the inside. It's real, man. Smoke him out.

Mr. WAHLBERG: (As Dignam) Yeah, how do we do that?

Mr. DICAPRIO: (As Billy Costigan) Let it slip through SIU that you have the sealed wire tap warrant for Costello's apartment. Don't tell anyone in our division. But tell SIU. Flush it down the pipe and see if it comes out on my end, all right? That's what we do first. We narrow it down.

Mr. WAHLBERG: (As Dignam) You want to meet up or you got something real, call me back.

CONAN: Leonardo DiCaprio may be giving an address not in a Boston accent, but in - for his role in "Blood Diamond."

Mr. SCOTT: A South African accent.

CONAN: A South African accent. Though Mark Wahlberg…

Mr. SCOTT: He may be giving a speech in his authentic, real Boston accent.

CONAN: Because he's nominated for best supporting actor.

Mr. SCOTT: That's right.

CONAN: As you look at these nominees - best actor: Leonardo DiCaprio, Ryan Gosling in "Half Nelson," Peter O'Toole in "Venus," Will Smith in "The Pursuit of Happiness," and Forest Whitaker, "The Last King of Scotland." And I guess the buzz is that Forest Whitaker can put the last dot on the end of his speech because he's going to win.

Mr. SCOTT: Well, he seems to be the favorite. I mean he and Helen Mirren have been just sort of marching through all of the - the kind of the precursor awards from the various guilds and from the critics groups. And that's certainly a very big, very impressive performance. I don't think the movie "Last King of Scotland" is all that great, but in a way that's to Whitaker's advantage because this is such a dominant, original, interesting performance of this monster.

And I do think that, you know, the actors are the biggest single voting block in the Academy, and they like performances that are kind of big and ambitious and complicated. This is, you know, this evil, monstrous figure who's given all kinds of charm and human dimension by Forest Whitaker. So I think he has a good shot.

I'm glad to see Ryan Gosling on that list for "Half Nelson," a genuinely independent movie, very low budget. First feature by a Brooklyn filmmaker named Ryan Fleck, about a schoolteacher and - with some personal problems and his relationship with one of his students. And Ryan Gosling, I think, is - this confirms what a lot of people who have seen him in other roles from "The Notebook" to a movie called "True Believer" have said, which is that he's - he is a real up and coming, you know, if you're looking for the next Sean Penn, the next De Niro, the next Brando, Ryan Gosling may be your guy.

CONAN: We're speaking with Tony Scott, film critic for the New York Times. 800-989-8255, if you'd like to join our conversation about today's Oscar nominations. And let's get Mike on the air. Mike's calling us from Chicago.

MIKE (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi.

MIKE: Yeah, I think I agree with a lot of the things that were nominated this year, with one grave exception. I really think "Children of Men" was overlooked both in the director category and for best picture. And I wanted to ask if you felt that because it was released in such limited markets so late in the year that maybe a lot of the people in the Academy didn't have an opportunity to see it.

CONAN: Hard to release a film later in the year than "Letters fro Iwo Jima," but "Children of Men," Tony Scott, terrific movie.

Mr. SCOTT: Yeah, I think it is. It's an amazing piece of filmmaking. This is Cuarón, who directed "Y tu mamá también" and also "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," just one of the most prodigiously talented directors working from a book by P.D. James.

The thing about this is I think you're right that it, you know, they released it Christmas Day. And I think that this is an example of a big studio, Universal, had this movie, and didn't quite know how to sell it, how to get it out there, how to organize an Oscar campaign. It's a science fiction movie; it's kind of an action movie. It has all this sort of genre elements to it that often turn off Academy voters who tend, some ways, to be, you know, a lot of them are older and the tend to be a little more aesthetically conservative, though not usually politically conservative.

And so I think it was a hard sell, and that, I think, was - that movie was rescued, in a way, by critics and audiences. It came up late; it got an enormous amount of critical support, showed up on a lot of 10 Best lists, and has had, I think, terrific word of mouth among moviegoers. And it did squeak in with a few technical and secondary nominations. It does have a nomination for best adapted screenplay.

But - and probably, you know, if they had played it a little differently, it could have done more.

CONAN: And Mike was pointing out, and for cinematography as well because it -the film looks - it's very dynamic, the way it's cut.

Mr. SCOTT: And well - and there are a few sequences and shots in it that have already - I think they are already being assigned in film schools, you know, how they did that 360 panning inside the car during that chase scene in the middle, and how they did what looks like, you know, a 12-minute tracking shot through gunfire at the end. And that's the real sort of hardcore, the film geek manna.

CONAN: The "Touch of Evil" open, of course. Yeah. Okay.

Mr. SCOTT: Right.

CONAN: Mike, thanks very much for the call.

MIKE: Thank you.

CONAN: 800-989-82255 if you'd like to join us. You can also send us an e-mail: talk@npr.org. We're speaking with A.O. Scott, the film critic for the New York Times, about this year's Oscar nominations. What do you think was justly praised? What do you think was snubbed? You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, coming to you from NPR News.

And let's go to Aramis(ph) - is that right? - in Las Vegas.

ARAMIS (Caller): Whoo. Yeah. Neal, Neal Conan. How are you doing?

CONAN: I'm doing well, Aramis. Go ahead, please.

ARAMIS: Hey, I'm so excited about this. It's been the thing that I've been waiting for one year. Okay, guys. Just ask me. I don't even know. I'm so excited. Okay. I'll take Forest Whitaker -

Mr. SCOTT: Were you nominated?

ARAMIS: Me? Yeah, I should be. And guess what? You know what? If I was to make a speech - and I love this movie industry, I'm devoted to it, I mean today I have to hit, like, four or five movies today just to, you know, see them. And I'm going to class for it, but I can give you a speech, baby, they will never forget, coming from my heart. Okay, now, like, ladies and gentlemen -

CONAN: It's a family show, Aramis.

ARAMIS: Yes, yes. I'll be, like, this award that I received today is not mine. It's yours, it's for you. I found my family at last. Okay, anyway - yes. Forest Whitaker, for the best actor ever. He deserves it. He's dynamic. He's strong. He's beautiful. Okay, for "Last King of Scotland." Helen Mirren - but guess what? Helen Mirren, you have Kate Winslet in "Little Children." She was unbelievable, but then guess what? You have the great Cate Blanchett, who is doing two great jobs this year. I mean, she's got "Babel" and then she's got "Notes on a Scandal." Judi Dench…

Mr. SCOTT: And not nominated for either one.

ARAMIS: Yeah. Judi Dench. She's a titan. She, like, okay, whatever, you know? I'm too good. I don't care whether you nominate me or not. She's good anyway. Yeah. And then you have Leo. Leo puts so much energy in this movie, but he goes against some other great actors in there. Best picture, "Babel" - four countries, four different languages. This is - it was a great movie. But then, then you have "The Departed" on the other hand, Scorsese, the guy's coming back, you know. Clint Eastwood - well, you know what? He did it, back to back. Now it's Scorsese's turn, I guess, you know? He's coming back.

What else? I'm too excited, it's like I'm winning the Oscar, I swear to God. I don't know.

CONAN: I'd like to take a look at your pool tickets.

Mr. SCOTT: Yeah. Well, I think we know why the box office was up this year -because of this guy.

ARAMIS: But you know what? I'm going there and I hit, like, four, five movies in one time. Of course, sometimes the guys, they know me at Village Square or Orleans Theaters and they let me see, you know, like my movies. But I don't like Brandon. Brandon Theater's not good. Too dark. They have attitude. But Orleans - if you want to see a movie, if you want to see the greatest, greatest, you know, people coming…

CONAN: There is no best theater category, Aramis.

ARAMIS: It is, and I love it. And I hope one day somebody will actually, you know, honor me because I'm going there, and I support every single person. By the way - on that Razzie list, "The Protector." It was horrible. What's up with that? I mean, they had some other…

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Aramis, thanks very much for calling. We're going to give somebody else a chance.

ARAMIS: Thank you.

CONAN: Appreciate your time. Bye-bye.

Mr. SCOTT: He makes me feel very cynical. One thing about best actresses, which he brought up - this was, I think, a very good year. There are - it's a perennial complaint, you know, that there are no good roles in Hollywood for women, especially for women who are viewed in the movie industry as older, which means, you know, over 25.

But this year, we have Helen Mirren, Penelope Cruz, Judi Dench, Kate Winslet and Meryl Streep - three of them over 50 and, you know, standing out from I think a very crowded and impressive field. So it was a very good year in that regard, which is, I think, encouraging and worth mentioning.

CONAN: We were talking about the year of the semi-independent and the sort of surprise hit. Well, there was a surprise hit that was almost completely overlooked by the Oscar nominees, and that was "Borat." Let's listen.

(Soundbite of movie, "Borat")

Mr. SACHA BARON COHEN (Actor): (As Borat Sagdiyev) (unintelligible) My name - a Borat. I journalist for Kazakhstan. My government send me to US and A to make a movie film. Please, you look.

CONAN: "Borat" did not get a nomination for best actor.

Mr. SCOTT: Nor for best documentary, which would have been interesting.

CONAN: It would have been interesting. We can have the Michael Moore conversation at that point, but anyway.

Mr. SCOTT: That's right. There would been a lot of think pieces on the ethics of documentary. But, you know, "Borat" is probably a little risqué for a lot of the Academy's tastes. I mean the - it's a lifetime membership in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which means that, as they say in the business, the demographic skews old, a lot of retired executives who probably didn't make it all the way through the screener.

It did get an adapted screenplay nomination. It's not entirely clear adapted from what, I guess adapted from the sketches on "Da Ali G Show." But, you know, maybe Sacha Baron Cohen will get to make a speech. He was quite impressive and quite funny at the Golden Globes. And so it did get at least some notice, which - you know, which isn't always the case for the big, popular movies that lots of people actually went to see and laughed at.

CONAN: Yeah. That's curious, to leave them off the list somehow. Managed to do it again. A.O. Scott, thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. SCOTT: It was a pleasure.

CONAN: Tony Scott is a film critic for the New York Times and he joined us today from the studios of our member station in New York, WNYE in Brooklyn. I'm Neal Conan - much more, later today, on the Oscar nominations on NPR News. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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