'Babel' hones int'l Oscar flavor

'Dreamgirls' tops noms with 8, but is no-show in best film race

The multilingual "Babel" clearly spoke Oscar's language when nominations for the 79th Annual Academy Awards were announced this past week (HR 1/23). The musical "Dreamgirls" might have earned the most nominations, eight, but it was shut out of the best picture race.

Instead, it earned the unenviable distinction of becoming the first movie in Oscar history to fail to earn a best picture nomination while collecting the most noms.

"Looking at the whole awards season, there is no clear front-runner," Miramax Films president Daniel Battsek said as he celebrated six noms for "The Queen" and one for Peter O'Toole's autumnal performance in "Venus."

For best picture honors, "Babel" will compete against the crime drama "The Departed," the Japanese-language war film "Letters From Iwo Jima," the quirky comedy "Little Miss Sunshine" and "Queen," a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II under siege from the modern media.

So far, though, a definite front-runner hasn't emerged during an awards season in which "Babel" earned the title of best drama at the Golden Globes but "Little Miss Sunshine" took the Producers Guild of America's film prize.

"Babel" might tell a globe-hopping story of cultural misunderstandings, but the 5,830 voting members of the Academy seemed to be in a particularly international mood. In the acting categories, they nominated two actresses who deliver foreign-language performances: Penelope Cruz, who stars as a ghost-haunted widow in the Spanish-language "Volver," and Rinko Kikuchi, who plays a deaf student speaking Japanese and also signing in "Babel." Kikuchi's castmate Adriana Barraza, appearing in a role that combines English and Spanish dialogue, also was rewarded with a nomination.

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuaron, the trio of Mexican-born directors dubbed the Three Amigos, all figured prominently as well. Gonzalez Inarritu's "Babel" picked up seven noms, del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth" was close behind with six — including a best foreign-language film nomination — and Cuaron's "Children of Men" took three, including best adapted screenplay.

Commenting on the multiculturalism of this year's crop of nominees, Forest Whitaker, nominated as best actor for "The Last King of Scotland," said: "We're finally recognizing that we're all here on the planet together. We all have lives and stories that connect each other. It's amazing, really."

Said IFC Entertainment president Jonathan Sehring, "If you look at a lot of nominated films and filmmakers — from Alfonso Cuaron to 'Babel' to 'Pan's Labyrinth' — you see that filmmaking is now a global world, and both Hollywood and audiences aren't intimidated by subtitles anymore." IFC was behind two of the foreign-language film nominees: Denmark's "After the Wedding" and Algeria's "Days of Glory."

As often happens, the best director noms didn't exactly match up with the Academy's best picture choices. Nominated for their helmsmanship were Gonzalez Inarritu for "Babel," Martin Scorsese for "Departed," Clint Eastwood for "Iwo Jima" and Stephen Frears for "Queen." But instead of the "Sunshine" directing team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the Academy nominated Paul Greengrass for the docudrama "United 93."

The actors branch, meanwhile, ignored a number of established performers — including Brad Pitt in "Babel," Jack Nicholson in "Departed" and Ben Affleck in "Hollywoodland" — in favor of newcomers like 10-year-old Abigail Breslin of "Sunshine" as well as comeback performers like Jackie Earle Haley in "Little Children."

In the best actress race, "Volver's" Cruz will face off against Judi Dench, who plays a manipulative schoolteacher in "Notes on a Scandal"; Helen Mirren for "Queen"; Meryl Streep for her comedy turn as a fearsome magazine editor in "The Devil Wears Prada"; and Kate Winslet, who portrays an adulterous wife in "Little Children."

In the best actor category, the nominees are Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays a soldier of fortune in "Diamond"; Ryan Gosling, who appears as an addicted teacher in "Half Nelson"; O'Toole, giving him his eighth nomination; Will Smith, who plays a father determined to improve his lot in life in "The Pursuit of Happyness"; and Whitaker, who stars as the late Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in "Last King."

Pedro Almodovar's Spanish entry "Volver," though it earned Cruz an acting nomination, failed to score a best foreign-language film nomination. Those nominations went to "After the Wedding," "Days of Glory," Germany's "The Lives of Others," Mexico's "Pan's Labyrinth" and Canada's "Water."

A complete list of nominees is at www.hollywoodreporter.com.