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Academy tips hat to low-budget films

Voters snubbed Kidman, Crowe, Cruise
/ Source: Reuters

There are no small roles, the acting cliche has it, and Tuesday Oscar voters showed that there are no small movies either.

Academy Award voters favored bravura performances in low-budget films over the likes of established stars such as Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe and Tom Cruise in the annual run toward the U.S. film industry’s highest honors.

The Oscars, given out by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, traditionally favor performances in big-budget films like Kidman’s in Civil War drama “Cold Mountain,” Crowe’s in seafaring adventure “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,” or Cruise’s in “The Last Samurai.”

That rule has changed somewhat as independent movies gained prominence in the 1990s, but this year it was nearly erased as actors dominating their Oscar categories came from films that emphasized character over epic subjects and glitzy effects.

That turn was especially surprising given the controversy last year over an early ban on sending videos of award hopeful films to Academy voters that was eventually repealed.

The so-called “screener ban” had been expected to handicap low-budget films that do not have big advertising budgets to promote their actors or are showing in limited release.

“This shows really great performances do get nominated ... There is great specificity in the detail of these performances, and actors always say God is in the detail,” said Marcia Gay Harden, a best supporting actress nominee for “Mystic River.”

Harden’s work won critical attention early, but she was considered and Oscar underdog after having been left out of other awards like the Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild.

Other supporting actress nominees were Holly Hunter in ”Thirteen,” “ Patricia Clarkson for “Pieces of April” -- both independent movies -- and Shohreh Aghdashloo, an Iranian who is relatively unknown in the United States, for “House of Sand and Fog.”

The only supporting actress nominee who had seemed assured of placing in the group going into Tuesday was Renee Zellweger for “Cold Mountain.”

Performances over ads
Keisha Castle-Hughes, 13, of New Zealand’s “Whale Rider” became the youngest best actress nominee ever. She was joined by Samantha Morton for “In America,” a low-budget film that won early critical praise but was seen as something of a longshot in the run-up to the Oscar nominations.

“(The studios) have lots of money to buy their advertising” for awards, she said. “So often, small movies like ours don’t get the chance to be seen.”

Other actress nominees were Golden Globe winner Charlize Theron playing a serial killer in independent “Monster” and Naomi Watts in low-budget drama “21 Grams.” Rounding out the group was Diane Keaton for “Something’s Gotta Give.”

Several choices among actors were just as notable for their surprises, including Djimon Hounsou for “In America.”

More widely anticipated nominees in that group were Alec Baldwin in “The Cooler,” Benicio Del Toro for “21 Grams” -- two more independent films -- Golden Globe winner Tim Robbins in ”Mystic River” and Ken Watanabe in “The Last Samurai.”

Finally, best actor nominations went to Jude Law for “Cold Mountain,” Ben Kingsley for “House of Sand and Fog,” Bill Murray for low-budget “Lost in Translation,” Sean Penn in ”Mystic River,” and Johnny Depp for “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.”

Depp’s nomination proved mildly surprising -- dramatic films and performances are generally favored at the Oscars over comedies like the action-packed “Pirates.”

“Everybody gets obsessed about (Oscar advertising) campaigns, and this shows how meaningless they are,” said ”Seabiscuit” director Gary Ross, “But eventually everybody finds the films they love and performances they love.”