LOS ANGELES, Jan. 25 (UPI) -- With a field-leading 11 Oscar nominations and a Producers Guild of America best picture prize safely in hand, "The Aviator" -- Martin Scorsese's biography of Howard Hughes -- seems to be cruising comfortably toward a smooth landing at this year's Academy Awards.
"Finding Neverland" and "Million Dollar Baby" had seven nominations each, including Best Picture. "Ray," with six nominations, and "Sideways," with five, rounded out this year's crop of Best Picture nominees.
Although leading contenders have been known to go down in flames on Oscar night -- "The Turning Point" and "The Color Purple" each had 11 nominations but came away empty-handed -- it is relatively rare for a movie to score double figures at the nominations and then fail to go on to Best Picture gold.
"The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring," "Mary Poppins" and "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" had 13 nominations each but failed to win Best Picture. At least five movies have gone into Oscars night with 12 nominations and come out without the top prize. As a rule though, in the 76-year history of the Academy Awards, getting the most nominations has tended to result in Best Picture gold.
In any case, "The Aviator" became the front-runner for Best Picture Oscar last Saturday, when it won the Producers Guild of America's Darryl F. Zanuck Award. That honor has been a fairly reliable indicator of eventual Oscar outcomes since it was first presented in 1989 -- with 11 of the 15 PGA winners going on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.
If "The Aviator" wins, that makes Scorsese a favorite to win his first directing Oscar -- after nominations for "Raging Bull," "The Last Temptation of Christ," "GoodFellas" and "Gangs of New York." Voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have shown a historic tendency to link the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars together.
It remains to be seen who will win the Directors Guild of America's top feature-film directing prize -- which will be presented Saturday in Los Angeles -- but, along with Scorsese, the other DGA nominees are Eastwood for "Million Dollar Baby"; Marc Forster for "Finding Neverland"; Taylor Hackford for "Ray" and Alexander Payne for "Sideways." Among them, only Scorsese, Eastwood, Hackford and Payne have a shot at the Oscar, since Forster was left off the academy short list, in favor of Mike Leigh, the director of "Vera Drake."
Eastwood won the Golden Globe for directing, but the DGA winner will have a considerable leg up on Oscar night. Since the DGA started handing out prizes for top feature directors in 1948, the winner has gone on to take the Oscar every year but six.
This year's Oscar nominations contained a few surprises, including Eastwood's nomination for Best Actor for "Million Dollar Baby" -- his second acting nomination. Eastwood has been nominated twice in the past for directing -- last year for "Mystic River" and in 1992, when he won for "Unforgiven," for which he was also nominated for Best Actor.
Two highly regarded performances that were left off the Best Actor short list were those by Paul Giamatti in "Sideways" and Javier Bardem in "The Sea Inside." Giamatti is up for a Screen Actors Guild award, along with Best Actor Oscar nominees Don Cheadle ("Hotel Rwanda"), Johnny Depp ("Finding Neverland"), Leonardo DiCaprio ("The Aviator") and Jamie Foxx ("Ray").
All discussion about the eventual winner of Best Actor has to center around Foxx -- whose remarkable performance as the late Ray Charles won the lion's share of trophies during this awards season, including the Golden Globe for best dramatic actor.
Likewise, Hilary Swank is widely regarded as the favorite to win her second Best Actress Oscar for her performance as a working-class woman who pays a heavy price to succeed as a professional boxer in "Million Dollar Baby." Swank previously won for "Boys Don't Cry" in 1999 -- and this year's Oscars shape up as a rematch between Swank and Annette Bening, who was nominated in 1999 for "American Beauty" and is up again this year for "Being Julia."
The other Best Actress nominees are Catalina Sandino Moreno ("Maria Full of Grace"), Imelda Staunton ("Vera Drake") and Kate Winslet ("Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind"). The five Oscar nominees are also up for Screen Actors Guild Awards, which will be presented Feb. 5 in Los Angeles.
During the early and middle parts of 2004, when Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" and Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" were putting up huge box-office numbers -- while largely catering to opposite sides in America's "culture war" -- there was much speculation that both might get consideration for Best Picture, but that didn't happen. "Fahrenheit 9/11" received no nominations, while "Passion" received three -- for cinematography, original score and makeup.
This year's nominees are not closely linked, overall, to box-office success.
"Shrek 2," "Spider-Man 2," "The Passion of the Christ," "The Incredibles" and "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" collected 14 nominations among them. Although "The Incredibles" and "Shrek 2" were nominated for best animated feature, and "The Incredibles" director Brad Bird was nominated for his screenplay, most of the Oscar nominations for the biggest commercial hits of the year came in the technical categories.
The 77th Academy Awards will be presented Feb. 27 at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, in ceremonies to be televised by ABC with Chris Rock as host.
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