Oscars 2012: ‘Hugo’ emerges as a serious best picture contender

The two-horse Oscar race has a third entrant: “Hugo.”

Director Martin Scorsese’s first family film collected a leading 11 nominations Tuesday for the 84th Academy Awards, propelling the 3-D orphan story into a pitched contest with the black-and-white, nearly silent film “The Artist” and the Hawaiian drama “The Descendants” in the best picture race.

Though Oscar voters showed regard for some unusual entries, such as the experimental “The Tree of Life,” they sidestepped some of last year’s more challenging performances and troubling films. And though many of the nominations tilted toward uplifting movies, voters denied the bawdy “Bridesmaids” a best picture slot.

Films made outside the major studios fared well. Producer Graham King bankrolled “Hugo”; a French financier underwrote “The Artist” (which collected 10 nominations); and specialty label Fox Searchlight produced the domestic drama “The Descendants” (which had five nominations). In the animated feature race, Pixar Animation Studios’ “Cars 2" and Steven Spielberg’s “The Adventures of Tintin” were denied nominations, while a two-person movie outfit landed a pair of obscure films in that category.

Oscar nominations are coveted in part because they help sell tickets, and the accolades for “Hugo” arrive at a crucial time for the ambitious, approximately $170-million production. The movie has taken in just $83 million at the box office worldwide since it premiered two months ago.

“I think this could help the audience understand that it’s an enjoyable and very moving experience — that it has some depth to it,” Scorsese said. Added King: “I knew this was never going to be an easy film to make or an easy film to market. But we wanted to make it that badly.”


“Hugo” isn’t the only best picture selection needing a box-office bump. In last year’s race for the top trophy, three adult dramas — “True Grit,” “Black Swan” and “The King’s Speech” — all went on to gross more than $100 million in domestic release. While some of this year’s selections have yet to expand into wide release — “The Artist” is playing in just 662 locations, for example — only “The Help” has surpassed the $100-million mark.

Under new voting rules that allow for between five and 10 films to be nominated for best picture, nine movies made the cut. Joining “Hugo,” “The Artist,” “The Descendants” and “The Help” in the field are Woody Allen’s time-travel comedy “Midnight in Paris,” Steven Spielberg’s historical drama “War Horse,” the 9/11 story “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” and two Brad Pitt films — the baseball tale “Moneyball” and director Terrence Malick’s nonlinear family drama “The Tree of Life.”

“I’m just so happy that these films are being recognized,” said Pitt, nominated in the lead actor race for “Moneyball.” “Both films are complex — built around complicated material. It’s not only a thrill, but it means that more films like this will have an easier time getting made.”

Sarah Green, a producer of “Tree of Life,” echoed that sentiment, saying its three Oscar nominations (it was also nominated for director and cinematography) prove “you can be extremely bold and extremely inventive.”

In the lead actor and actress races, though, Oscar voters played it a bit more conservatively, snubbing Michael Fassbender for his emotionally and physically naked performance in “Shame” and Tilda Swinton, who played a grieving mother of a teen who commits a massacre in “We Need to Talk About Kevin.”

In addition to Pitt, the lead actor nominees are George Clooney for “The Descendants,” Jean Dujardin in “The Artist,” Gary Oldman in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and, in a mild surprise given the film’s limited commercial and critical success, Demián Bichir from the illegal immigrant drama “A Better Life.”

The lead actress picks were Glenn Close for her cross-dressing turn in “Albert Nobbs,” Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe in “My Week With Marilyn,” Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher in “The Iron Lady,” Rooney Mara as cyber sleuth Lisbeth Salander in “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” and Viola Davis as a stoic maid in “The Help.”

In contrast to last year, when no minorities were nominated in the acting categories, this year there are three — Bichir, Davis and Octavia Spencer. “At some point you have to be moved,” Davis said. “I’m happy that the heart films got in: ‘The Help’ and ‘Extremely Loud,’” in which Davis plays a small but key part.

Many people expected that Albert Brooks would be honored in the supporting actor race for his bad-guy turn in “Drive,” but he was overlooked. Parodying Sally Field’s 1985 Oscar acceptance speech, Brooks tweeted his reaction: “You don’t like me, you really don’t like me.” The heavy favorite in the race is 82-year-old Christopher Plummer for “Beginners,” who will square off against another octogenarian, “Extremely Loud’s” Max von Sydow, 70-year-old Nick Nolte (“Warrior”), Kenneth Branagh (“My Week With Marilyn”) and Jonah Hill (“Moneyball”).

Spencer, who costars in “The Help,” is seen by many as the leading candidate in the supporting actress race, where she will join “The Help’s” Jessica Chastain, Janet McTeer (“Albert Nobbs”), Melissa McCarthy (“Bridesmaids”) and Bérénice Bejo (“The Artist”).

David Fincher, who directed “Dragon Tattoo,” and Spielberg, who made “War Horse,” were not nominated in the directing category. Instead, the picks were Allen, Scorsese, Malick, “The Artist’s” Michel Hazanavicius and Alexander Payne for “The Descendants.”

Payne said he was “hard-pressed” to categorize his film, but considered it more dramatic than his last three features, “Election,” “About Schmidt” and “Sideways.” Payne, who co-wrote the film, said he was grateful that the academy was willing to honor a movie with so much humanistic comedy.

Spielberg was blanked in the animated feature race, where his “The Adventures of Tintin,” considered a likely nominee, was left on the sidelines. For the first time that it had an eligible film, Pixar Animation Studios was not nominated in the category, but tiny New York distributor GKIDS had two picks in the category — “A Cat in Paris” and “Chico & Rita.” Said GKIDS President Eric Beckman: “Nothing prepared me for what happened.”

With big studios largely focused these days on sequels and remakes, some executives took heart in the fact that six of the nine best picture nominees were adapted from literary works.

“It’s rewarding for me to see films with profound themes recognized,” said Stacey Snider, whose DreamWorks made “The Help” and “War Horse.” “All these acknowledgments are meaningful.”

With nominations now locked up, the studios, filmmakers, actors and craftspeople in contention for statuettes have about a month to try to sew up a win.

The three leading best picture contenders — “The Artist,” “The Descendants” and “Hugo” — each face different challenges.

Harvey Weinstein, the distributor of “The Artist,” has to sell tickets (the film has grossed just $12.4 million to date) while not turning off academy voters by pushing too hard. “Hugo” must convince actors, the largest branch in the academy, to support the film, even though it received no nominations for its performances. And “The Descendants” needs to capitalize on the very thing that makes it look plain in comparison — its warts-and-all depiction of an ordinary family.

The awards will be presented Feb. 26 at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, in a ceremony hosted by Billy Crystal.

Times staff writer Nicole Sperling contributed to this report.