It's the end of another year in Hollywood, and the Oscars are here again. Prada and Armani may still be wrapping red-carpet stars in their latest rags while host Chris Rock practices comedy in a tux, but something feels off. Is it Fahrenheit 9/11's absence from the ballot? No, the film was simply ineligible for best documentary. Maybe Shark Tale's soupy inclusion in the best animated feature category spoiled the whole pot? Nope, we've seen worse. There can be only one explanation: no big frontrunner, a.k.a. no Lord of the Rings (gasp!). So what's an Academy to do? Go to plan B: the Biopic.
Sure, it's tough stuff trying to cram a human life into two or three hours while keeping it both true enough and interesting, but biopic-hungry Oscar doesn't let a little thing like that stop him from handing out dozens of nominations and awards to these films. And sure enough, this year three out of the five nominees for best picture fit the bill, making 2004 the official year of the biopic.
So whose inspirational story is ahead in the nominations race? Blind blues powerhouse Ray Charles (Ray)? J.M. Barrie, creator of Peter Pan (Finding Neverland)? Or Howard Hughes, crazy millionaire genius Hollywood playboy who also happened to build, fly, and crash big dangerous planes? Peter may have flown past the second star on the right, but Hughes did it on a bigger budget, as the 11 nominations to The Aviator versus seven for Finding Neverland evidence. The Aviator, Martin Scorsese's high-flying, high-spending epic drama leads the whole pack in total nominations, including nods for best picture, director, Leonardo DiCaprio for best actor and Cate Blanchett?playing a stunning Katharine Hepburn?for best supporting actress.
Scorsese may have dominated the sky, but this year Clint Eastwood delivers a knockout in the ring with Million Dollar Baby, the bad-girl boxing flick with a twist starring Eastwood and Hilary Swank. It earned seven nominations and looks to put up a good fight against The Aviator and the raft of biopics. Along with best picture and director, this includes a surprising nod to its lead actor just months before the gun-slinging legend turns 75. These two films split the awards at the Golden Globes; Aviator took best drama, while MDB took Best Director. Will Scorsese lose to Dirty Harry? Scorsese must be asking himself, "Do I feel lucky?" Well, do ya punk?
The surest best actress contender is Swank, who is again pitted against Annette Bening like in 1999, when another Swank tomboy role in Boys Don't Cry beat out the American Beauty queen. With a Golden Globe and numerous critics awards under her belt she should be confident she'll leave the Being Julia star begging for mercy in Round 2 of Swank vs. Bening. Also looking for a piece of the action are Imelda Staunton for Vera Drake, Kate Winslet for the criminally underappreciated Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Colombian actress Catalina Sandino Moreno for her film debut in Maria Full of Grace.
Sadly Eastwood's gain in best actor was Paul Giamatti's loss. His performance in Alexander Payne's feature length wine and cheese party Sideways was seen as one of the surest bets for recognition. The film swept through top critics awards and won the Best Picture comedy Golden Globe but slightly underperformed here with only five nominations. It is still a bona fide contender especially in screenplay, where it's up against Richard Linklater's Before Sunset, Million Dollar Baby, Motorcycle Diaries and Finding Neverland.
Neverland star Johnny Depp last played a pirate, and now he writes about one with a hook for a hand. The inimitable Captain Jack Sparrow is again up for a best actor Oscar, but the film's lack of a key director nomination is a likely sign it has little chance of beating out Scorsese and Eastwood's cinematic behemoths.
Depp himself will find it nearly impossible to overcome the recent critical sensation that is Jamie Foxx, star of Ray. After 3 Golden Globe nominations, four from the Screen Actors Guild and now two Oscar nods, he should have no problem getting the golden guy. Foxx is also up for supporting actor for his L.A. taxi-driving in Michael Mann's Collateral.
There were no famous female biopics this year. What a surprise. The closest we've got is Vera Drake, a fictional story of a plump, rosy-cheeked British woman who performs under-the-table abortions. The single biggest nomination surprise was Mike Leigh's nod for his direction here; Leigh's unorthodox production prep includes months of improv and rehearsal, after which he tailors his screenplays to fit his actors' strengths.
In contrast to the lead acting categories, both supporting groups have no clear frontrunner. In supporting actor it's come down to Thomas Haden Church (Sideways) vs. Morgan Freeman (MDB) vs. Clive Owen (Closer), with Foxx and Alan Alda?who plays Maine Senator Ralph Brewster, Bowdoin '09 in The Aviator?along for the ride. Owen won the Golden Globe for his portrayal of a jealous doctor in a cinematic love quadrangle, Church swept the critics awards for his portrayal of the reckless best friend to Giamatti's connoisseur of forlorn depression, and Freeman is riding on a wave of sentimentality for his long career. In supporting actress Virginia Madsen (Sideways), Cate Blanchett (The Aviator), and Natalie Portman (Closer) are in contention for the win. Sophie Okonedo (Hotel Rwanda) and Laura Linney, playing the wife of Bowdoin grad Alfred Kinsey '16 in Kinsey, will probably sit this one out.
Who will come out ahead in the end? Tune in to ABC for its live coverage of the Academy Awards on Sunday, February 27, at 8:00 p.m. We'll offer our Oscar predictions before the ceremony.