This was a tough read


It almost feels like Barack Obama lost the election.

When the Oscar nominations were announced Thursday morning, the disappointment was palpable among my general demographic, men in their 20s and 30s, that "The Dark Knight" -- the popular, sexy and Internet-fueled choice of a young generation -- was overlooked for best picture.

These men aren't fanboys, strictly speaking. These are members of the media, entertainment and other industries who during the past few months had developed a strange sense of investment in the on-again/off-again chances of the Chris Nolan superhero picture. Its emergence as an awards season contender sparked the hope that the Academy's preferences, whether because of shifting demographics or astral coincidence, was finally coming into alignment with their own tastes.

That the so-called fifth slot went to the Weinstein Co.'s "The Reader," the Stephen Daldry film whose themes and sensibility haven't resonated that way with younger filmgoers, compounded the befuddlement. To this group, it was as if an old reliable -- like, say, John McCain -- had roared back from the brink to best their candidate.

I happen to like "Dark Knight" and thought it would have been a respectable choice. But I also don't share my contemporaries' sense of outrage about its omission (and at the same time happen to deeply admire the clean storytelling and moral ambiguities that fill "The Reader").

Yet the indignation is telling. The Academy for years has been talking about getting in tune with a new generation, and its determination to go so classic when something so young-skewing was sitting right there would seem to indicate a return to traditionalism.

Or did it?

Probably the only thing more traditional for the Academy than a post-Holocaust movie like "The Reader" is a Clint Eastwood nomination. Three of the past four pictures he directed were nominated, and this year was supposed to be bring his swan song as an actor. And yet whether because of mixed reviews, a late release or other factors, "Gran Torino" got nada.

As one awards consultant said, "There's a cult of Harvey and a cult of Clint, but only one was worshipped today."

Other Academy choices were not exactly traditional either. Two of its acting spots went to Melissa Leo and Richard Jenkins, Hollywood outsiders starring in word-of-mouth festival films. Members also went for a performance in a $100 million summer comedy in its nod to Robert Downey Jr. And it recognized a blood-spattered, darkly ironic Sundance opener with an original screenplay nom for "In Bruges" (to go along with one for "Frozen River"). The Academy chose some serious films, but it's not like voters went with "Ben-Hur" and "Lawrence of Arabia."

As it happens, even the five noms for "The Reader" -- including a best actress slot for Kate Winslet in a category Harvey wasn't even pushing for -- might have been fueled by something other than tradition.

Part of the reason voters went for "The Reader" is no doubt their love for the movie's intimacies as well as its European sense of structure. Part of it might be an affection for its two late producers, Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella. But part of it might also be its backstory, which like a good political ad at least drew attention to a movie that might have been lost in the crowd.

First the film's original star, Nicole Kidman, fell out. Then two of its champions and producers, Minghella and Pollack, died before the movie was completed. And to top things off, Weinstein and producer Scott Rudin were fighting as recently as October over whether the movie would even be released this year, a situation that resulted in Rudin taking his name off the film and which Weinstein on Thursday colorfully dismissed as "the harking and barking" of the fall. (The movie's producer credits are listed by the Academy as TBD, but that's about whether a fourth credit for line producer/producer Red Morris will be allowed to accompany Pollack, Minghella and Donna Gigliotti, who stepped in during the summer.)

Weinstein was back to his awards-season brio Thursday. "If people watch 'The Reader' again, it's a wide-open race," he said. "I know what the common wisdom is, but I knew what the common wisdom was 24 hours ago: 'The Dark Knight.' "

As he and a host of miffed young men are finding out, when it comes to the Academy, sometimes the wisdom is uncommon. There is, after all, no popular vote.