In saluting movies that were often made outside the nation's borders and that grappled with disquieting international issues such as terrorism, global warming and the personal costs of war and violence, Oscar voters Tuesday honored a collection of movies that were decidedly not Hollywood-centric.
The plots of three best picture nominees ("Babel," "The Queen" and "Letters From Iwo Jima") unfold overseas. Four of the five women competing for the best actress Oscar (Penelope Cruz, Judi Dench, Helen Mirren and Kate Winslet) are not American. Britain's Paul Greengrass ("United 93") and Stephen Frears ("The Queen") were nominated for best director, as was Mexico's Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu ("Babel").
"The world is changing, and I think that the film community is now a global film community," Gonzalez Iñarritu said. "It's not anymore about cultural barriers or language barriers. It's emotion and humanity. We are using the power of cinema to cross borders. We are understanding that now there's a cultural connection that needs to happen. Most films can reveal the nature of other countries and other people around the world."
The Spanish-language fascism story "Pan's Labyrinth" was nominated not only for foreign-language film but also for original screenplay, cinematography, art direction, makeup and original score. Two films that earned best actor nominations — Leonardo DiCaprio's "Blood Diamond" and Forest Whitaker's "The Last King of Scotland" — were inspired by African economics, politics and internal strife.
At the same time, the Oscars surprisingly spurned the year's most typically Hollywood production, "Dreamgirls," in the academy's most prestigious race: the contest for best picture. Even though the big-budget musical collected a leading eight nominations, the DreamWorks movie was not nominated in the top category, and neither was the studio's "Flags of Our Fathers." DreamWorks was also shut out of the animation race, with no nominations for "Over the Hedge" or "Flushed Away."
Another notable absence was Sacha Baron Cohen, who some had predicted would receive a best actor nomination for his outrageous mockumentary "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan." The film was nominated for adapted screenplay.
In addition to "Babel," "The Queen" and "Letters From Iwo Jima," the other best picture nominees were "The Departed" and "Little Miss Sunshine." Joining DiCaprio and Whitaker in the actor race were "Half Nelson's" Ryan Gosling, a Canadian; Britain's Peter O'Toole for "Venus"; and Will Smith for "The Pursuit of Happyness."
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The most dramatic sign of the international reach came in the best actress selections, where American Meryl Streep faces Spain's Cruz and England's Mirren, Dench and Winslet. Cruz's nomination for "Volver" marks the first best actress nomination for a Spanish-speaking part.
"At the end of the day, the true language of the world is film, and it's not English or Spanish or French," said Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, director of the German foreign-language nominee "The Lives of Others."
In a way, the nominations for the 79th annual awards — to be presented Feb. 25 — were a throwback to the 1960s and '70s, when Algeria's "Z" was nominated for both foreign-language film and best picture and Italy's Sophia Loren won the best actress trophy for "Two Women."
The new twist is that many of today's most international stories have their genesis in the Southern California offices of American studio executives.
"Babel," which got seven nominations, including best original screenplay, was produced by the art film division of Paramount Pictures. "United 93," the account of the Sept. 11 plane that crashed in Pennsylvania, was directed and produced by British filmmakers, but it was financed by Universal Pictures.
"It's a testament to the global power of moviemaking," said director Greengrass.
That global power is perhaps best represented by "Babel," which was filmed in four countries and told in five languages, with a screenwriter and a director from Mexico. The multinational drama incorporates interlocking stories about two Moroccan boys, a Mexican nanny and the two white children she cares for, an American couple and a Japanese father and his daughter. The stories all revolve around the universality of familial love.
The presumptive favorites for both the best actor and actress trophies both hail from England — "The Queen's" Mirren, who plays Queen Elizabeth II, and O'Toole, cast as an aging actor falling for a young girl in "Venus."
Although "The Queen" takes place in England, "it is a story that touches people's emotions and also is a movie that deals with all sorts of subjects that are very relevant to people in this country and around the world," said Daniel Battsek, whose Miramax Films released both "The Queen" and "Venus." "It looks at how people relate to their leaders; it looks at the way in which a woman goes through the generation gap, if you like, and loses touch and then regains touch with the people."
The returns for "The Queen" have been impressive for a movie of its kind, with nearly $36 million in ticket sales to date.
Even though it's still in limited release and has grossed only $9.9 million, foreign-language film nominee "Pan's Labyrinth" is on track to become the highest-grossing Spanish-language movie ever in the United States (a record held by 1993's "Like Water for Chocolate," with $21.7 million). Though not exactly a box-office sensation, "Babel" has still grossed $23.7 million.
"I hope it continues to go in that direction," said Mark Wahlberg, who was nominated for best supporting actor for "The Departed." "They had a lot of films that I wanted to see this year, and it hasn't been like that for a while. So it was certainly a beautiful change."
The Oscar nominations, and the box-office boost they generally bring, come at an especially good time for "Blood Diamond." The Warner Bros. picture premiered in London this week, the first international market in which it has opened. So far, the film has grossed about $50 million domestically.
Another Warner Bros. picture, "Letters From Iwo Jima" — director Clint Eastwood's take on the bloody World War II battle from the Japanese perspective — has grossed just $2.4 million domestically and $39.1 million worldwide. But the studio expects the Japanese-language film to gross more than $40 million in Japan alone.
It is against this backdrop that Warner Bros. aggressively pursues local projects in France, Germany, Italy, Britain and Japan: Audiences in those countries are increasingly buying tickets to films in their own languages, said Alan F. Horn, president and chief operating officer of Warner Bros. Entertainment.
"We have an increasing recognition and acceptance and even embracing of the reality that we are in a global business, and it is very important for us to make pictures as much as we can that appeal to an audience worldwide," he said. "Upwards of 50% of the box office in each of these respective countries is local-language projects. We want to participate in that."