Oscar Nominations 2000--The inside scoop on this year's contenders, including ''Cider House Rules'' and ''American Beauty''

By Benjamin Svetkey
Updated February 25, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

If you happened to be driving past the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences building on Wilshire Blvd. before dawn last Tuesday, you may have noticed…well, nothing in particular. The place looked dead.

On the outside, anyway. Inside, hundreds of journalists, publicists, agents, producers, studio executives — representatives from pretty much every corner of the entertainment-industrial complex — were gathering to hear this year’s Oscar nominations. Bleary-eyed and bed-headed (except for the TV reporters, whose slick ‘dos bobbed above the crowd like blow-dried buoys), they crammed into the Academy auditorium, waiting until — at precisely 5:38 a.m. — Dustin Hoffman and Academy head Robert Rehme would tick off the names. There was even a countdown.

The annual announcement of the Oscar nominees is, of course, always something of a thrill ride. This year, though, with the race so utterly open, the atmosphere in the audience was even more roller-coastery than usual. This year, the gasps were a bit louder, the claps a little harder, the yelps slightly more earsplitting.

Take Best Picture. Reaction from the crowd ran from dead silence (for American Beauty, a nomination that shocked nobody) to a booming chorus of WOWS! (for The Cider House Rules, a nomination that did shock). There were stunned OHMYGODS! (for The Green Mile), relieved COOLS! (for The Sixth Sense and The Insider), and more than a few murmurs of discontent when people started realizing that The Hurricane and The Talented Mr. Ripley hadn’t made the cut. There was solid applause when Sense‘s Haley Joel Osment’s name was read in the Best Supporting Actor category (not bad for an 11-year-old), as well as some surprised chatter for Sean Penn’s Best Actor nomination (for Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown).

Minutes later, there was another sound: the collective beep of hundreds of cell phones being dialed in a feverish rush to spread the news. The 21st-century equivalent of that scene in old movies when reporters stampede out of the courtroom and into a bank of phone booths, it was, in a way, the most poignant moment of the morning. Because this is, after all, the very first Oscar race of the new millennium — even if it still looks like an old-fashioned Hollywood catfight.

Typically enough, the Internet got it wrong. A day before the nominations were announced, Hollywood was hit with what was purported to be the biggest leak in Oscar history: Cyber-cineast Harry Knowles had published what he claimed were the finalists for each category on his Ain’t It Cool News website. The scoop turned out to be bogus — Cider House, for instance, was nowhere to be found on Knowles’ Best Picture list — but it touched off panic attacks all over town. ”I called my contact at the Academy,” says one Miramax exec, ”and asked, ‘Can I sleep tonight or is this thing real?”’ She was told to sleep.

Of course, false rumors and shaky speculation are as integral to the Oscars as tacky dance numbers (although the latter, at least, will be eliminated this year). Just last week, for instance, one studio chief (not Disney’s) stated with absolute certainty — off the record, of course — that Disney’s Toy Story 2 was a shoo-in for a Best Picture nomination. But the surprise is how little impact technology has made on the process. The Internet may be humming, but for the most part Oscar gossip is still spread the traditional way, over double-decaf lattes at the Ivy.