Warners duo 2 good 2 be overlooked


PARK CITY -- On Oscar nominations morning, there were happy faces all around at Warner Bros. Pictures, as the studio faced an embarrassment of riches with four nominations for Clint Eastwood's "Letters From Iwo Jima" and five each for Martin Scorsese's "The Departed" and Edward Zwick's "Blood Diamond," both starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

DiCaprio and Eastwood both emerged with nominations, but in an unpredictable awards season, things could have taken a different course because both men were competing with themselves.

At the start of the Oscar season, Warners had to juggle the demands of two movies starring DiCaprio, who scored rave reviews for both. The studio at first drew criticism for its initial Oscar strategy favoring DiCaprio as best actor in "Diamond" over "Departed."

For the SAG Awards, where studios can slot actors into categories, it submitted DiCaprio's "Departed" performance in the supporting actor category. The Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., which decides these things for itself, took a different tact and nominated DiCaprio for both films in its leading actor category. (He won for neither and Forest Whitaker took home the Globe for "The Last King of Scotland.")

However, once DiCaprio accepted the fact that Academy voters, who decide which category an actor belongs in, were likely to follow the studio's lead and consider him as best actor in "Diamond" and supporting in "Departed," he refused to campaign against his "Departed" co-stars in the supporting actor category, according to the actor's press agent, Ken Sunshine.

Warners bought no supporting actor ads for DiCaprio. "There were 800 different narratives of what might happen," Sunshine said. "The last thing we wanted to do was manipulate the system."

A popular contender who has two horses in any race risks splitting his own vote.

"Leo did two amazing performances in two movies," said Graham King, who produced both films. "For me, one wasn't better than the other. 'The Departed' was more of an ensemble piece. The other, he was obviously the star of the film. Which one won the Oscar didn't matter. We just wanted the Academy to reward his work this year."

King said that early on nobody considered an Oscar campaign for "Departed," which was seen as more of a commercial genre picture. "We didn't want an Oscar campaign, there was no talk of the award season beforehand with the filmmakers," he said. "On this film, we never discussed it. On 'Blood Diamond,' a risky film for a studio to make, we needed the awards behind them to drive boxoffice."

In the end, DiCaprio's best actor turn in "Diamond" proved his ticket to the Oscars. "I've never seen Leo happier, he's basking in the success of (fellow nominees) Djimon Hounsou and Mark Wahlberg," Sunshine added. And Warners could get the boxoffice boost it needs for "Diamond."

As if Warners didn't have enough to worry about, at the height of the fall madness, the studio responded to a plea from its in-house actor-director-producer Eastwood. Paramount Pictures already had released his "Flags of Our Fathers," a DreamWorks/ Warners co-production. Warners was planning to hold "Letters" for a February release.

But Eastwood told Warners that it might be best for the two films to be seen together as companion pieces. The studio listened -- after all, this was the man who pulled off Oscar surprises with "Mystic River" and best picture winner "Million Dollar Baby." "For whatever reason, 'Flags' didn't spark people the way 'Letters' did," said Dawn Taubin, Warners president of domestic marketing. "As Clint always does, he surprises people."

The studio went into hyperdrive to open "Letters" in December for Oscar consideration. "We didn't even have a trailer," Taubin laughed. "We worked very fast, and the movie took off."

"Letters" came into the Oscar race too late to land an official Academy screening, but Warners invited members to multiple screenings and did a late DVD mailing.

As soon as "Letters" entered the fray, "Flags" withdrew, sources close to the campaign said. "The minute 'Letters' came out, you pick that one horse and ride it," one campaigner said.

At the Globes, Eastwood received two directing nominations. It might have been double jeopardy because he lost the award to Scorsese, though "Letters" was named best foreign-language film.

Still, the move to put "Letters" out at year's end paid off handsomely, as Eastwood's star power and critics' raves turned what might have been a difficult-to-watch foreign-language war film into a must-see. Clearly, Oscar voters picked one film over the other, while wanting to reward the popular eminence grise for the astonishing achievement of turning out two such master works at the grand old age of 76.

Eastwood knows what he's doing. The $20 million "Letters" was perceived as being more like Eastwood's other low-budget come-from-behind movies, as opposed to the $75 million massive scale front-runner wartime epic "Flags," which perhaps too closely resembled its producer Steven Spielberg's Oscar-winning "Saving Private Ryan."

As for Spielberg, as a producer on "Letters," he got to share in its best pic nom, while Eastwood took home yet another directing nomination.

Still, Eastwood can't be considered the inevitable winner. While the Academy's admiration for him is huge, it might decide it finally is time to honor fellow veteran Scorsese, who so far has gone home empty-handed whenever he has been nominated.

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