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Scoping the field of Best Picture contenders

Scoping the field of Best Picture contenders. For this year’s nominees, it was music that charmed the Academy voter, both as temptress (”Chicago”) and as savior (”The Pianist”). Which film ”Towers” above the rest?

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When the 75th Annual Academy Award nominations were finally announced on Feb. 11, the honorees could be heard whooping it up from L.A. to Paris. Chicago star Renee Zellweger was in the City of Lights promoting the film that earned 13 nominations, tying Mary Poppins’ record for a musical. While watching Marisa Tomei and Academy president Frank Pierson call out Oscar’s chosen few on TV, Zellweger hollered so loudly that security at the Ritz hotel phoned to make sure everything was all right. ”As you can tell from my voice,” says the actress in a strained whisper, ”there was much screaming going on today. [But] I could not be happier to have lost my voice, I have to say.”

With the highest nominations tally, Chicago solidified its position as this year’s Best Picture front-runner, despite formidable competition from Gangs of New York, The Hours, The Pianist, and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. (Interestingly, all five Best Picture nominees were released in the last two weeks of 2002.) But if Zellweger can still manage to speak a few words, it’s only because of the most obvious oversight of the year: the omission of costar Richard Gere from the Best Actor category. ”It sounds so churlish to say on a day like this when almost everybody got remembered,” says Chicago screenwriter Bill Condon, who received a nomination, ”but there’s a little bittersweet note for all of us, and it’s Richard Gere.” According to Zellweger, Gere (who won a Best Actor Golden Globe) wasn’t so glum: ”He’s jumping up and down in the halls with the rest of us.”

Gere’s wasn’t the only notable snub. Where, for instance, was Dennis Quaid for Far From Heaven? Or director Peter Jackson for The Two Towers? Or the Golden Globe-winning adapted screenplay for About Schmidt? And although the inclusion of Talk to Her’s Pedro Almodovar in the Best Director list was rightly applauded (see sidebar), it may have accounted for the absence of Heaven’s Todd Haynes, who did earn a nod for his original screenplay. ”It’s reminiscent to me of a couple times where directors who might be called outsiders to the Hollywood establishment were honored for their script as a kind of nice gesture to their entire work,” says Haynes. ”Perhaps that’s comparable here.”

But while Haynes went one-for-two, his leading lady, Julianne Moore, batted a thousand with nominations for both Heaven and her supporting role in The Hours. ”People say, ‘Oh, yeah, maybe two,’ but you don’t think that’ll actually happen,” she says. ”It makes you feel like a real actor. It makes me feel like I’ve done what I set out to do.” Her Hours costar Meryl Streep, meanwhile, failed in her bid for Best Actress, but scored a supporting nod for Adaptation. ”I’m disappointed about Meryl,” says Hours producer Scott Rudin. ”But you know, Meryl is probably the greatest living actress in the world, so I can’t get myself to think of her as an object of pity.” Indeed, Streep’s nomination — her 13th — breaks her tie with Katharine Hepburn, making her the most honored performer in Oscar history.