The Downsizing of Oscar

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Paramount Vantage; Miramax; Fox Searchlight

Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood, Josh Brolin in No Country for Old Men, and Ellen Page in Juno

Why not just change the name, from the Oscars to the Independent Spirit Awards? That was the first thought on hearing today's nominations for the Academy Awards. All five finalists for Best Picture were made independently of the big studios, and four of the five — Atonement, Juno, No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood — were released by the so-called indie subsidiaries of the majors. Michael Clayton is the one official studio release, and that got made only when its star, George Clooney, ever so charmingly put a gun to Warner's corporate groin, cocked the trigger and said, in effect, "Please. Or I'll squeeze."

Each of the five films was made for $30 million or less — unheard of when the average studio project costs three times that — and Juno had a ludicrously low budget of $2.5 million. Yet that endearing/annoying (take your pick) comedy about a pregnant teenager is the one solid hit among the Big Five. The movie, which has been in wide release only since Christmas day, has already earned $87 million. None of the others has yet topped $50 million at the domestic wickets (though the Brit Atonement is in Juno's league if you count the international gross).

This lack of a big-studio pedigreed film makes predicting the winners a daunting task. No Country may be a masterpiece, but it's a cold-blooded one, perhaps too much a splatter fest and a museum piece for Oscar voters. There Will Be Blood has packed them in at a relatively few theaters since its Christmas day opening; as it rolls out for wider release, will it pick up steam or antagonize the mass audience? Even if Blood doesn't cop the top prize, as I uneasily predicted, it will win Daniel Day-Lewis the Best Actor award over everybody's favorite movie star (Clooney). DDL's performance is so manic, so intense, and he slips so deeply into his roles, that Academy members will be afraid to vote against him. He might come to their homes and devour their young.

Other categories are less obscure than infuriating. After disqualifying Alan Menken's score for Enchantment, the Academy nominated three of his tunes for Best Song. The Foreign Language Film category, almost always a botch, had disqualified The Diving Bell and the Butterfly because its screenwriter is English and its director American. (That's Julian Schnabel, who still copped a Best Director nomination). Ang Lee's Chinese-language erotic thriller Lust, Caution was missing, as was The Romanian drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days, the Palme d'Or winner at Cannes and a near-unanimous critics' fave. The snubbing of these well-known films left room for five films (four from Eastern Europe) that even most reviewers haven't heard of. Zut alors!

Names everyone has heard of were left off the finalists' list. Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts were snubbed for their adept roles in Charlie Wilson's War. (Sorry, too entertaining.) Brad Pitt had a scuzzy majesty as Jesse James, and his missus was nobly agonized in A Mighty Heart, but neither Bra nor ngelina was nominated. Meanwhile, foreigners flourished: nine of the 20 acting slots went to the Brits, the Aussies and the tragic, singing Frenchwoman — Marion Cotillard, giving a Susan Hayward-meets-Judy Garland performance in La Vie en Rose. Sorry, Marion who? It's as if the voters thought, there might still be a strike, no big names will show up, so let's give the prizes to the honorable second tier.

It looks as though Oscar has stopped thinking of Joel and Ethan Coen as those smart-ass kids from Minnesota. After nearly a quarter-century making movies, they've arrived in style with No Country. It earned the brothers four nominations: three under the own names for Best Picture (i.e., producers), Direction and Screenplay, and with the pseudonym Roderick Jaynes for Editing. Now Blood-letter Paul Thomas Anderson is the potential upsetter; and Jason Reitman, 30-year-old son of Canadian comedy conglomerator Ivan Reitman, is the scion to watch.

You have to wonder who filled out the Academy ballots this year. A good portion of the membership is old enough to call John McCain "Kid." Did the old-timers really go for the ultra-violent No Country and Blood enough to give those two films the most nominations? I know of some octogenarian members who'd let their grandchildren do the voting, under the theory that the job should be done by people who'd actually seen the movies. But this is, by and large, a very Generation Y, double-frappuccino list. The main exceptions are Atonement, an old-fashioned period romance with a modernist endgame, and the supporting acting nominations for Hal Holbrook, 82, and Ruby Dee, 83. Not to forget, so to speak, Away from Her, the Alzheimer's drama with Julie Christie. I imagine the elder members saying, "Let's vote for, you know, that movie about the thing, with that Darling girl in it."

Perhaps the kids in the house did vote for Away from Her, since it was directed by Sarah Polley, who turned 28 this month; Polley also got a nomination for Adapted Screenplay. A slot for Best Actress slot was filled by Juno's Ellen Page, the 20-year-old Nova Scotian, and for Supporting Actress, Saoirse Ronan, 13, as the girl whose first view of sex shocks her into a lie that outlives its victims.

I wrote in today's Predictions box that voters might not want to give an Oscar to an actress so young, figuring she had a lifetime to win one. And now I think: what a mistake it is to defer any award to a worthy achiever of any age. Two years ago, Heath Ledger's brilliantly opaque performance in Brokeback Mountain just missed getting Best Actor. He was 26 then. And now he's dead.