Oscar's seasonal switch

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In The Season of surprise, it turns out Oscar had a few of his own.

As press and publicists gathered for this morning's Oscar nomination announcement by Academy president Sid Ganis and Kathy Bates (a last-minute substitute for a scheduled but unannounced presenter who was stuck in North Carolina), tensions were higher than we've ever seen and the overall crowd, even in the lobby at 5 a.m., was the largest we've seen.

As we sat in the back rows of the academy's Goldwyn Theater with the studio Oscar consultants, who spend the better part of their year living and breathing these campaigns, it was all about the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.

Sad times for the New Line publicist who came hoping to hear "Hairspray" make the cut. Not a single nomination.

And again for Dreamworks, who watched in horror from the same seats last year when "Dreamgirls" was passed over for a widely predicted best picture nomination. It must have felt like deja vu this year when the studio's highly touted "Sweeney Todd" racked up only three nominations, just one more than another Stephen Sondheim musical, the roundly panned "A Little Night Music" received in 1977. It's fair to say it was not a good morning for Broadway musical adaptations at the Academy Awards.

The Fox Searchlight contingent was jumping out of its seats at every mention of "Juno" and "The Savages," which nailed a deserving, if somewhat surprising, nod for Academy fave Laura Linney.

It was also good times to for the Miramax/Paramount Vantage groups who share distribution of the two critically acclaimed co-leaders, "No Country for Old Men" and "There Will Be Blood," both from prolific producer Scott Rudin, capturing eight nominations apiece.

"No Country's" Joel and Ethan Coen had a great morning, having personally received four nominations (picture, screenplay, editing, directing) -- marking the first time a duo has done that hat trick.

Also cheering in the back rows was the Focus gang who seemed resigned to watching "Atonement" shut out in best picture after all the major guilds snubbed it, only to go ballistic when it was the first name called when the big one was announced.

For pundits who are having a particularly hard year getting a handle on this race, the inclusion of "Atonement" for best picture is ironic considering at the beginning of the season it was an overwhelming favorite to be nominated and even win.

When it was ignored by SAG, DGA, WGA and PGA voters, the nail seemed to be in the coffin and all the pundits jumped ship (including a few of us). Now the nail has been removed. "Atonement's" Golden Globe best picture drama win, 14 BAFTA nominations and seven academy nods have put it back in the game. Big time.

It's hard to remember the last time a best picture nominee was so completely ignored by the guilds, but one consultant for a competing movie told us it had to be the votes from Europe -- particularly England where "Atonement" has been widely seen since early fall -- that made all the difference.

Still, as always seems to be the case, "Atonement" is the one best picture nominee without a corresponding nomination for its director, Joe Wright who of course, also did not make the DGA list. That spells trouble for its ultimate prospects of winning the big prize in the end, but considering the odds it has already overcome, don't count it out.

Most likely the movie "Atonement" knocked out was another European favorite, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," which did receive noms for director, screenplay, editing and cinematography. Coupled with its PGA, DGA and WGA mentions, the developments would seem to indicate a best pic nod as well.

But it didn't happen with the Oscars just as it didn't happen when BAFTA announced its nominees last week. The fact that the film was in French could have hurt its chances.

Despite Miramax's best efforts to educate academy members, there may have been confusion for some voters as to whether the film was eligible instead for the foreign language category. The academy rarely nominates foreign language flicks in the best picture category.

This being the odd year that it is could still see "Diving Bell" director Julian Schnabel walk away with the directing prize since he has already won the directing Golden Globe as well as several critics awards and at the Cannes Film Festival (over the Coens). Oscar odds are not in his favor, however. The last time a director won for a film not nominated for best picture was in 1928-29, the academy's second year, when Frank Lloyd picked up the award for "The Divine Lady."

Speaking of directors, Jason Reitman's surprise nomination for "Juno" indicates real strength for that "little movie that could." Although Reitman would seem a long shot to win, it could mean big things for "Juno" in the best picture category where it is a light alternative to the more serious pictures, particularly "No Country" and "Blood."

Both those films have a lot of violence in them. The academy went down that route last year with "The Departed" and may not want to go there again so soon. Should "No Country" (probably the favorite in a race with no real front-runner) and "Blood" split their votes, watch for "Juno" -- the only certified box-office smash of the five nominees and soon to hit $100 million for Fox Searchlight -- to walk right in and become the rare comedy to take the prize.

And to think, "Juno" wasn't even going to be released this year until Searchlight saw what they had and thought there might be the possibility of an Ellen Page nomination and/or one for Diablo Cody's original script. They obviously now have gotten more than they bargained for and its stock continues to rise.

In addition to Cody, three other women ("Away From Her's" Sarah Polley, "Lars and the Real Girl's" Nancy Oliver and "The Savages'" Tamara Jenkins) also got writing nominations, a record showing, proving girl power is alive and well in the writers branch.

"Michael Clayton" is the other picture nominee that cannot be counted out as it nearly ran the board for key nominations with three actors (George Clooney, Tilda Swinton and Tom Wilkinson) and Tony Gilroy's directing and screenplay. That's a great showing for a well-respected film that also has been nominated by all the guilds.

A win could also be a nice sentimental nod to its beloved co-producer (and costar) Sydney Pollack who has been seriously ill of late. An Oscar might be a nice get well soon gift.

Look for Warner Bros. to step up to the plate and go for it, beginning with a national re-release this Friday.

As for the acting races, Daniel Day-Lewis and Clooney will battle it out as expected for lead actor and it appears at this point that Lewis is the heavy favorite. Johnny Depp/b> and Viggo Mortensen were widely predicted to be nominated but Tommy Lee Jones had been all but written off after "In the Valley of Elah" failed at the box office and disappeared.The actors branch most likely saw the film on DVD, recognized a great performance and did the right thing. Ironically, Jones is up for a SAG award Sunday for his supporting work in "No Country," not "Elah."The lead actress contest offered an upset for "A Mighty Heart's" Angelina Jolie, robbing the Oscarcast (if there is one, and we think there will be) of some much-needed serious Brad and Angie star power. The list of nominated performers is not exactly loaded with household names this year.Look for front-runner "Away From Her's" Julie Christie to square off against French beauty Marion Cotillard, whose performance as Edith Piaf in "La Vie En Rose" is a revelation. Cotillard is making up for lost campaign time by hanging out in L.A. for a month and in fact, is even going to be doing another Q&A tonight for SAG . No rest for the Oscar bleary.One good sign for Cotillard is the fact that since 2000, no less than eight actresses in lead and supporting categories have won Oscars for playing a real-life person. Call it the biopic factor.Ellen Page is a possible spoiler, but it's a tough road for comedic performances to break through against highly dramatic ones so she's a longer shot, but "Juno" momentum could get her there.The supporting races went pretty much as forecast and it was nice to see a couple of never-nominated 80-somethings, Ruby Dee and Hal Holbrook getting some Oscar love. File it under "it's about time."Their nominations were just about the only bright spots for two fizzled best picture contenders, "American Gangster" and "Into the Wild," which, with only two nods apiece, were pretty much AWOL from the proceedings."Wild's" near shut-out was particularly surprising considering its strong showing in the guild contests. But adding that snub in with "Atonement's" success, perhaps the tuild tea leaves in predicting Oscar just aren't what they used to be.Conventional wisdom be damned, as they say.Favorite nom of the day has to be in the best makeup category where Eddie Murphy's "Norbit" made the list.This is the critically reviled movie advertised on billboards all over town during last year's voting period that many think cost Murphy the Oscar (for "Dreamgirls"). He just received four not-so-flattering Razzie nominations for worst actor but in its own ironic way, "Norbit" is taking Murphy back to the Oscars.Like we said, The Season is just full of surprises.

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