"The Aviator," an old-fashioned Hollywood epic about Howard Hughes' obsessions, romances and crippling neuroses, captured 11 nominations to take the lead for the 77th annual Academy Awards, including best picture, best actor for Leonardo DiCaprio and best director for Martin Scorsese.
Tied for the second-most nominations announced Tuesday, with seven apiece, were "Finding Neverland," a story of "Peter Pan" playwright J.M. Barrie, and "Million Dollar Baby," Clint Eastwood's drama about an older boxing coach and his female student. Both films were nominated for best picture, as were the Ray Charles biography "Ray" and the Pinot Noir-infused road movie "Sideways."
Three years after Denzel Washington and Halle Berry took home the top acting trophies, the 5,808 voters of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recognized the performances of five black and Latino actors in this year's lead and supporting competitions (although all were directed by white filmmakers).
Jamie Foxx, who starred as the late blind singer in "Ray," was honored for best actor and also was nominated for best supporting actor for "Collateral." Don Cheadle, who played a deal-making rescuer in the midst of "Hotel Rwanda's" genocide, received a best actor selection, while the film's Sophie Okonedo was named in the best supporting actress race. "Million Dollar Baby's" Morgan Freeman was nominated for supporting actor, and Catalina Sandino Moreno, a Colombian student who made her movie debut as a drug mule in "Maria Full of Grace," was among the best actress nominees.
Foxx was hailed as an Oscar favorite as soon as "Ray" arrived in theaters, but director Taylor Hackford was considered a far less certain nominee. It had become a sore spot for Foxx, who arrived on the project after his director had worked for the better part of two decades to get the movie to the screen.
"I knew he was hurting," Foxx said of Hackford's increasingly gloomy mood before the nominations, one of which did go to Hackford. "He worked on this for so long, took the pay cut, made everything happen. I stopped talking about it around him because I didn't want to make him feel worse."
Black performances were also recognized in the documentary feature category (for "Tupac: Resurrection") and foreign-language film (for South Africa's "Yesterday"). "It is always an inspiration when any artist can kind of transcend these boundaries, and Tupac was able to do that," said "Tupac" co-director Lauren Lazin.
Freeman said moviemakers haven't discriminated on racial grounds for years. "Hollywood is only interested in one color now," the actor said. "And that's green."
In addition to Foxx, DiCaprio and Cheadle, the other nominees for best actor were Eastwood for "Million Dollar Baby's" boxing coach and Johnny Depp, playing Barrie in "Finding Neverland."
"We focused on a man achieving his dreams and simultaneously spiraling down mentally," DiCaprio said of playing Hughes. "It was like finding a great piece of Shakespeare that hadn't been put into production yet."
Joining Moreno in the best actress category were Annette Bening as an aging actress in "Being Julia," Imelda Staunton as an abortionist in "Vera Drake," Hilary Swank as the scrappy boxer in "Million Dollar Baby" and Kate Winslet as an amnesiac lover in "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind."
"This film came out so long ago," Winslet said of the movie that was released 10 months ago and is now in video stores. "I am so delighted it has been remembered like this."
Winslet wasn't the only "Eternal Sunshine" collaborator voters remembered. The film also was nominated for best original screenplay. "I just wanted to make an honest relationship story," screenwriter Charlie Kaufman said.
Taken as a group, the best picture nominees marked a shift in how Hollywood's best movies are now made. Rather than being financed entirely by major studios or their specialized film divisions, three of this year's best pictures were bankrolled by an array of funding sources.
"Ray" was paid for by billionaire Philip Anschutz; "Million Dollar Baby," a late addition to the 2004 release schedule, was developed and underwritten by Tom Rosenberg's Lakeshore Entertainment; and "The Aviator" was largely funded by investor Graham King. In part because of their hodgepodge financing, the academy has yet to determine who will be named as the three films' official producers.
"Whenever you get one of these movies that is put together with multiple financing deals, there are a lot of producers" wanting credit, said Albert S. Ruddy, one of "Million Dollar Baby's" producers.
Hackford said "Ray's" six nominations were a "sweet vindication" of his 15-year quest. "We made a film that didn't have a distributor. I finished the picture and showed it, and it was still turned down. My point is you have to become obsessed with your material and you have to prove them wrong."
Obsession also governed the making of "The Aviator," one of nine Hughes movies that were once on the drawing boards. "There were a lot of impediments to getting this made," said Michael Mann, one of "Aviator's" producers. "It's not a slam-dunk: It's not walking out there with a perfect screenplay for 'Spider-Man 2.' "
King, another "Aviator" producer, previously collaborated with Scorsese on 2002's "Gangs of New York," a sprawling historical drama that went wildly over schedule and budget. Rather than head toward safer waters, King immediately reunited with Scorsese and "Gangs" star DiCaprio for the $116-million Hughes saga.
"I got a lot of phone calls saying, 'You've lost it. You're madder than Howard Hughes,' " King said. "But when Marty read the screenplay, he said, 'This is old Hollywood. We're going back 30 years to the old classics.' "
In all likelihood, "The Aviator" and "Finding Neverland" will mark the Academy Award swansong for Miramax Films under its founders, Bob and Harvey Weinstein. The brothers, whose company aggressively changed how award season campaigns are conducted, are expected to leave Disney-owned Miramax in the coming weeks to form their own production company.
As is inevitable in any Oscar race, there were several major surprises and oversights. Critical favorite Paul Giamatti, who starred as the wine-swilling novelist in "Sideways," was not nominated for best actor. And Javier Bardem's much-praised performance as the quadriplegic at the center of "The Sea Inside" also was bypassed.
There were several upsets among those nominated for best director. "Finding Neverland's" Marc Forster was not among the nominees, even though the film is in the running for best picture. "I was really disappointed about that. When a film is nominated for seven awards and the man at the center isn't nominated, it is really disappointing," said the film's nominated screenwriter, David Magee.
Alejandro Amenábar, who both directed and co-wrote "The Sea Inside," was not nominated in either category, although the film was selected to compete for best foreign-language feature.
"Kinsey," the drama about sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, was considered a possible nominee in several top categories, including best picture and best actor for Liam Neeson. The film collected but one nomination, best supporting actress, for Laura Linney.
"You just feel emotionally awkward," Linney said. "I owe half of my nomination to Liam, and half of my nomination" to writer-director Bill Condon.
Although it was not expected to draw any top nominations, Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" did collect three technical selections, including cinematography. Michael Moore's equally divisive "Fahrenheit 9/11" was blanked; the filmmaker gambled in bypassing the documentary feature category in a bid for best picture.
Conversely, there were several people who received unanticipated nominations. At the top of that list was English filmmaker Leigh, who was honored for both directing and writing "Vera Drake." The film also collected a predicted nomination for best actress for its star, Staunton.
Along with Foxx and Freeman, the supporting actor nominees were "Aviator's" Alan Alda, "Sideways" costar Thomas Haden Church and "Closer's" Clive Owen. Besides Okonedo and Linney, the supporting actress picks were Natalie Portman from "Closer," "Aviator's" Cate Blanchett and Virginia Madsen from "Sideways."
Unlike last year's awards, which crowned global blockbuster "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" with 11 statuettes, there is no huge box-office hit among the best picture selections.
"Ray" is the highest-grossing of the five, with more than $73 million in ticket sales. But two of the year's biggest hits, "Shrek 2" and "The Incredibles," were named in the animated feature category. "The Incredibles" also was nominated for original screenplay and two sound awards.