Oscar telecast a hot 'Button' issue

'Dark Knight' slight makes show a tougher sell

Oscar show producers Laurence Mark and Bill Condon have promised to pitch a big tent at the 81st Annual Academy Awards, hoping to draw in as many movie lovers -- and TV viewers -- as possible. But the 5,810 voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences just made their job a little bit harder.

While the Academy showered the romantic fable "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" with 13 nominations, it refused to admit "The Dark Knight," the most popular movie of 2008, into the best picture circle. Even though the directors, writers and producers guilds all testified that the comic book-inspired movie transcended its genre by showering it with noms, the Academy stopped short of giving the Warner Bros. release its full endorsement. Instead, the film garnered seven noms in the technical categories, plus a posthumous supporting actor nomination for Heath Ledger and his demented performance as the Joker.

The Academy turned its back on other crowd-pleasers as well.

Clint Eastwood didn't make an appearance in the best actor list; in fact there was no mention of "Gran Torino," a critical fave that has grossed more than $77 million domestically and counting. "WALL-E" earned six noms -- tying the animated film record set by 1991's "Beauty and the Beast" -- but, despite all its critical hosannas, failed to make the best picture cut. And though Bruce Springsteen was invited to open and close Sunday's inaugural concert in Washington, his title tune for "The Wrestler" was overlooked.

Instead, when ABC airs the Oscar telecast Feb. 22 from Hollywood's Kodak Theater, viewers should expect Bollywood spectacle. Only three songs merited a nom in the eyes of the music branch: One is Peter Gabriel and Thomas Newman's "Down to Earth" from "WALL-E"; the other two -- both from "Slumdog Millionaire" and Indian film composer A.R. Rahman -- are titled "Jai Ho" and "O Saya" and well might require subtitles.

That might prove a boon for the awards show's international reach, but it could present an added challenge in luring U.S. viewers.

In the best picture circle, the Academy nominated just one movie that's become a mainstream hit: "Button." The Paramount/Warners co-production, which director David Fincher fashioned from a decades-old F. Scott Fitzgerald short story and enhanced with the most up-to-the-minute-visual effects, has already grossed $104 million domestically.

But the remainder of the best picture lineup represents blue-chip specialty fare that hasn't yet broken through to a mass audience.

"Slumdog," Fox Searchlight's Mumbai-set, rags-to-riches tale, has attracted a passionate fan base, though. Even before it won the Golden Globe for best drama, it was gathering momentum. This weekend, it should pass the $50 million mark in domestic grosses.

The other three best pic contenders -- the political dramas "Milk" and "Frost/Nixon" and the Holocaust-inspired drama "The Reader" -- are still unknown to the wider public.

The Academy Awards -- at least in recent decades -- have hardly been a boxoffice popularity contest. Academy president Sid Ganis hailed this year's list, saying: "We have good, solid surprises this year. I like it. The conventional wisdom is that we're predictable. We're not. And this shows it."

And if the ceremony comes down to a face-off between "Button" and "Slumdog," that contest could generate its own suspense. "Slumdog" might have been handicapped because its cast -- unfamiliar names to a Western audience -- failed to capture any acting noms, but it still triumphed in such key categories as director, film editing and cinematography, going head-to-head with "Button."

But though such a duel between the two pics might fascinate film aficionados, it might not intrigue the general public.

In getting TV viewers to tune in to the Oscarcast, the more $100 million grossers the better.

Crunching the data, Nielsen Preview reports that the last year to feature an upswing in Oscar ratings was 2004, when "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" bested other substantial grossers including "Seabiscuit" and "Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World." Household ratings surged 28% above those of the previous year. In recent years, with few commercial hits in contention, ratings have declined.

The Academy's choices this go-round might well alienate the younger male audience that is always most resistant to the lure of Oscar glitz and glamour. The fanboy Web sites were full of cries of betrayal Thursday over the Academy's refusal to knight "Knight."

But there will be other factors that could offset that challenge.

Nielsen Preview also found that the right host can compensate for more obscure films. When Chris Rock emceed the Oscars in 2005, he was able to convince the fickle demo of males 12-24 to come back after "Lord of the Rings" -- despite the lack of boxoffice draw for the best picture nominees.

Enter Hugh Jackman, this year's host.

The star of the recent "Australia" and the upcoming "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" might not be as well known as such recent hosts as Rock, Ellen DeGeneres, and Billy Crystal, but, per Nielsen Preview, he earns a higher favorability rating -- 56% -- than any of those except Rock.

In any event, Jackman certainly won't be the only celebrity on hand.

The top acting categories include such red-carpet royalty as Brad Pitt, nominated for his age-defying performance in "Button," and Angelina Jolie, earning her first best actress Oscar nom for her desperate mother in "Changeling."

In fact, the top categories offer a nice mix of established pros including Sean Penn ("Milk"), Frank Langella ("Frost/Nixon") and Meryl Streep ("Doubt"); rising stars like Anne Hathaway ("Rachel Getting Married"); professional actors enjoying a rare moment in the limelight such as Richard Jenkins ("The Visitor") and Melissa Leo ("Frozen River"); and a rousing comeback story in Mickey Rourke ("The Wrestler").

Kate Winslet's nom for her turn as a former concentration camp guard in "The Reader" proved a particular surprise because she had been promoted in the lead actress slot for her role in "Revolutionary Road" and in the supporting category for "The Reader" (even though her character is the dominant figure in the latter, too). She won the Golden Globe in both categories this month.

Borys Kit contributed to this report.
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