"Braveheart," actor-director Mel Gibson's violent but inspiring battlefield epic set in medieval Scotland, captured 10 nominations Tuesday to lead all contenders as the race for the 68th annual Academy Awards officially got underway in Beverly Hills.
In what is considered a wide-open contest, other nominees included "Apollo 13," a tense drama about astronauts in peril; "Sense and Sensibility," a romantic costume drama based on the Jane Austen novel; "Babe," a barnyard fable featuring talking animals; and "The Postman (Il Postino)," a tender Italian comedy made all the more poignant by the death of its star shortly after filming ended.
"Apollo 13" had nine nominations overall, while "Sense and Sensibility" and "Babe" had seven apiece and "The Postman" had five.
If a theme could be discerned from this year's top picture nominations, it was that films with strong story lines that tug at emotions held sway. Heroism, romance and whimsy scored big among academy voters. With the exception of "Braveheart," which was rated R, the other nominees were rated either PG or, in the case of "Babe," G.
Darker, grittier fare such as "Leaving Las Vegas" or "Dead Man Walking" were bypassed in the best picture category, although their directors were nominated.
Gibson, long an international box-office star known more for his action movies like "Mad Max" and "Lethal Weapon" than for his directing talents, has attempted in recent years to break out of the mold of heartthrob actor and become a heralded filmmaker like Robert Redford and Clint Eastwood.
Gibson, who got his first Oscar nomination for directing "Braveheart," said he never expected to lead the pack with 10 nominations. "It's a nice round number, isn't it?" he said from New York, where he is shooting "Ransom," a thriller directed by Ron Howard.
"A few months ago, I would never have suspected it," the actor-director said. But in the recent weeks, he has won a Golden Globe Award and was nominated for best director by the Directors Guild of America.
"It was just a real good surprise this morning," Gibson said. "I was in the middle of a take. Gary Sinise and I were having a kind of heated discussion. They said, 'Cut!,' and my assistant came in and put all his fingers up. I thought he was pulling my leg."
Going up against Gibson in the director category will be Chris Noonan for "Babe," Tim Robbins for "Dead Man Walking," Mike Figgis for "Leaving Las Vegas" and Michael Radford for "The Postman." It was the first time that all directors selected were first-time nominees.
Ironically, the films that Robbins and Figgis directed were overlooked by the academy in the best picture category. And, in something of a surprise, Ang Lee was not nominated for "Sense and Sensibility," although the film had a best picture nomination.
Just as the competition will be fierce among the films, the contests among actors will also likely be hard to predict.
Richard Dreyfuss was nominated for "Mr. Holland's Opus" and Anthony Hopkins for "Nixon." Both men are previous Oscar winners and will face first-time nominees Nicolas Cage for "Leaving Las Vegas," Sean Penn for "Dead Man Walking" and the late Massimo Troisi for "The Postman."
Troisi, who died of a heart ailment in June 1994 shortly after filming ended, also shared a screenwriting credit with four other writers nominated for the film. His is the first posthumous lead acting nomination since Peter Finch's for "Network" in 1976.
Troisi's sister told the Italian news agency AGI that the family was "feeling a mix of crossed emotions" because of the nomination.
"It's a very great satisfaction, but satisfaction doesn't signify joy," Rosaria Troisi said in an interview quoted by the Associated Press. "What can I say? We're smack in the middle of an emotional storm. I can say that Massimo has given another happy moment to all those he already gave joy to. We're proud."
Cage, meanwhile, said he had not expected to be named even though he had won every critics' group award and a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Ben Sanderson, an alcoholic hellbent on drinking himself to death.
"I'm never one to assume," Cage said. "Every step of the way, I've been thrilled and just tried to be happy for what was occurring at that particular moment. Now I feel like I can relax and be happy about this."
Cage said that the film's four nominations are a testament to the low-budget film's appeal, even though it was turned down by nearly every studio before being picked up by MGM/UA.
"It's kind of ironic that there was a best actress, director and actor nomination for a movie that almost didn't get a release," he said.
The best actress nominees included previous winners Meryl Streep in "The Bridges of Madison County" and Emma Thompson--who also was nominated for the screenplay--in "Sense and Sensibility." They'll face Sharon Stone in "Casino," Elisabeth Shue in "Leaving Las Vegas" and Susan Sarandon in "Dead Man Walking."
"I feel just great," Stone said. "I was desperately trying to sleep and the phone went off and the doorbell went off all at the same time. I think I was whirring like a dervish and hyperventilating. I am the little train that could."
"It's an early Valentine," said Sarandon, whose longtime mate, Tim Robbins, was nominated for best director for the same film. Sarandon sees the film as about "love, loss and compassion."
"If ever there was a year I'd like to get up and thank people, it most certainly was this year," said Sarandon, who earned her fifth best actress nomination. "The fact that we could work and get through it and produce something that's unique and still be talking to each other is quite an accomplishment."
Robbins said he was shocked at being nominated. But the film was left out of the best picture race, which is unusual since often directors and their pictures get nominated.
"I don't know how to figure out any of this," Robbins said. "The only thing I guess you could look to is that the directors' branch nominates directors and the entire academy nominates pictures so I bet your answer lies in there somewhere."
Shue, who was nominated for best actress for her role as a prostitute who falls in love unconditionally in "Leaving Las Vegas," said she hopes that the film's critical success and Oscar nominations will inspire other filmmakers to take risks in making films.
"I went for a walk at 6:30 in the morning with my dog and my husband today," Shue added. "And I remembered how many times I take this walk and whenever I would get to the top of the hill, I'd say, 'One day I'll find a role that I'll be able to express myself in.' It was really emotional to walk up the hill this morning knowing I had been included in a group of actors that I look up to and a group of women I've always wanted to be like."
Supporting actor nominations went to James Cromwell in "Babe," Ed Harris in "Apollo 13," Brad Pitt in "12 Monkeys," Tim Roth in "Rob Roy" and Kevin Spacey in "The Usual Suspects."
Harris, who played flight director Gene Kranz, said: "My original response when I saw the character on the page was that he was a cut-and-dry techno-person, but after talking to [director Ron Howard], I realized that there was a lot of emotion running beneath it. We lead the audience through the picture, explain what's going on."
Nominees for best supporting actress were Joan Allen in "Nixon," Kathleen Quinlan in "Apollo 13," Mira Sorvino in "Mighty Aphrodite," Mare Winningham in "Georgia" and Kate Winslet in "Sense and Sensibility."
Quinlan received the news she was nominated while in the Bahamas filming "Zeus and Roxanne."
"It happened to be a day off," she said. "I was watching cartoons with my son and drinking tea. I got a call from my publicist and a call from my husband, who was sweet enough to get up at 5:30 in the morning. I was really surprised and very excited and still am. I will probably be exhausted at the end of the day."
Winslet, who at 20 is the youngest acting nominee this year, said she was "upset" upon learning that director Lee was not nominated. But, she said of her own nomination, "when I was younger, I always dreamed of being nominated for an Oscar and never anticipated that it might happen, but it has and it is such a joy. I am really honored."
Winningham, who won a best supporting actress nomination as a country singer in "Georgia," could not understand the omission of the film's star, Jennifer Jason Leigh.
"I feel like it won't be right until I hold her in my arms and thank her personally," Winningham said. "I feel like she deserved to be up there. I think a lot of people thought so, too."
The saga of "Babe" is, perhaps, the most telling about how one finds fame and fortune in Hollywood. That a movie featuring talking pigs, dogs and sheep would be nominated for best picture was not lost on George Miller.
The Australian producer of "Babe" was attempting to assess the film's appeal at 4 a.m., Sydney time. Miller was awakened at 2 a.m. with the news that the film had been nominated for seven Oscars. In what he interpreted as a kind of omen, Miller said, his 6-month-old son had awakened moments before, laughing.
"When a film has a certain intangible quality, it's hard to rationalize or at least intellectualize its appeal," Miller said. "I don't know what it is about this film. I think it invites everyone to be a child again. . . . "
Brian Grazer, producer of "Apollo 13," said that the film's nine nominations were a real testimony to the cinematic storytelling involved, given that everyone knew the story of the imperiled Apollo mission.
"Ron [Howard] found such a great way of telling the story, a story that everybody knew the end to because it was a global event," Grazer said. "But somehow he found a way to tell a compelling and palpable story that was so human."
The Academy Awards will be presented on March 25 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion of the Los Angeles Music Center and will be telecast at 6 p.m. on ABC. Honorary awards will go to Kirk Douglas and animator Chuck Jones. John Lasseter, the director of "Toy Story," is the recipient of a special Oscar for his work on the computer-animated film.
Times staff writers Elaine Dutka and Susan King contributed to this story.
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Oscar Nominations by Distributor
* How they fared, studio by studio:
Buena Vista (Disney): 15
Miramax *: 11
Warner Bros.: 6
New Line Cinema: 3
* Miramax is a subsidiary of Buena Vista.