'Aviator' flies high with 11 Oscar bids

HOLLYWOOD - The Aviator, an old-fashioned Hollywood epic about Howard Hughes' obsessions, romances and crippling neuroses, captured 11 nominations to top all contenders for next month's 77th annual Academy Awards, including best picture, best actor for Leonardo DiCaprio and best director for Martin Scorsese.

Tied for the second-most nominations, with seven apiece, were Finding Neverland, a story of Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie, and Million Dollar Baby, Clint Eastwood's drama about an older boxing coach and his female student. Both films were nominated for best picture, as were the Ray Charles biography Ray and the Pinot Noir-infused road movie Sideways.

The nominations by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences were announced yesterday at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills, Calif. Winners will be named Feb. 27, in a Los Angeles ceremony broadcast on ABC with comedian Chris Rock as host.

Five black and Hispanic actors were nominated in this year's lead and supporting competitions (see related story, Page 1A). Jamie Foxx was nominated for best actor for portraying the late blind singer in Ray, and also was nominated for best supporting actor for Collateral. Don Cheadle, who played a deal-making rescuer in the midst of genocide in Hotel Rwanda, received a best actor nod, while the film's Sophie Okonedo was named in the best supporting actress category. Million Dollar Baby's Morgan Freeman was nominated for supporting actor, and Catalina Sandino Moreno, a Colombian student who made her movie debut as a drug mule in Maria Full of Grace, was among the best actress nominees.

Besides Foxx, DiCaprio and Cheadle, the other nominees for best actor are Eastwood for Million Dollar Baby and Johnny Depp playing the playwright Barrie in Finding Neverland.

"We focused on a man achieving his dreams and simultaneously spiraling down mentally," DiCaprio said of playing Hughes. "It was like finding a great piece of Shakespeare that hadn't been put into production yet."

Joining Moreno in the best actress category were Annette Bening as an aging actress in Being Julia, Imelda Staunton as an abortionist in Vera Drake, Hilary Swank as the scrappy female boxer in Million Dollar Baby, and Kate Winslet as an amnesiac lover in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Competing against Scorsese for best director will be Taylor Hackford for Ray, Alexander Payne for Sideways, Mike Leigh for Vera Drake and Eastwood, who, if he were to win, would become the oldest director winner at 74.

Taken as a group, the best picture nominees marked a shift in how Hollywood's best movies are made. Rather than being financed entirely by major studios or their specialized film divisions, three of this year's best pictures were bankrolled by an array of funding sources.

Ray was underwritten by billionaire businessman Philip Anschutz; Million Dollar Baby, a late addition to the 2004 release schedule, was developed and underwritten by Tom Rosenberg's Lakeshore Entertainment; and The Aviator was funded largely by investor Graham King. In part because of their hodgepodge financing, the academy has yet to determine who will be named as the three films' official producers.

As is inevitable in any Oscar race, there were several major surprises and oversights in the list of nominees announced in Hollywood yesterday. Critical favorite Paul Giamatti, who starred as the wine-swilling novelist in Sideways, was not nominated for best actor. And Javier Bardem's much-praised performance as the quadriplegic at the center of The Sea Inside also was bypassed.

There were several upsets among those nominated for best director. Finding Neverland's Marc Forster was not among the nominees, even though the film is in the running for best picture.

Alejandro Amenabar, who both directed and co-wrote The Sea Inside, was not nominated in either category, although the film was selected to compete for best foreign language feature.

Kinsey, the drama about sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, was considered a possible nominee in several top categories, including best picture and best actor for Liam Neeson. The film collected but one nomination, best supporting actress, for Laura Linney.

Although it was not expected to draw any top nominations, Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ did collect three technical selections, including cinematography. Michael Moore's inflammatory Fahrenheit 9/11 was blanked; the filmmaker had gambled on a bid for a best picture nomination by avoiding the documentary feature category.

Several people received unanticipated nominations. At the top of that list was English filmmaker Leigh, who was honored for both directing and writing Vera Drake.

Along with Foxx and Freeman, the supporting actor nominees were Aviator's Alan Alda, Sideways co-star Thomas Haden Church, and Closer's Clive Owen. Besides Okonedo and Linney, the supporting actress picks were Natalie Portman for Closer, Aviator's Cate Blanchett, and Virginia Madsen from Sideways.

Unlike last year's awards, which crowned global blockbuster The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King with 11 statuettes, there is no huge box-office hit among the best picture selections. Ray is the highest grossing of the five, with more than $73 million in ticket sales.

But two of the year's biggest hits, Shrek 2 and The Incredibles, were named in the animated feature category. The Incredibles also was nominated for original screenplay and two sound awards.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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