Eddie Murphy and ''Dreamgirls'' were the night's surprising losers

By Gregory Kirschling
Updated March 02, 2007 at 05:00 AM EST

It was the kind of surprise we’ve come to expect from the supporting categories, but how, exactly, did Alan Arkin eclipse Eddie Murphy for Best Supporting Actor? While Murphy enjoyed front-runner status, Arkin campaigned quietly but effectively, hitting only a few key events, like an American Cinematheque tribute in L.A. on Jan. 21. And many feel the post-nomination release of Murphy’s lowbrow comedy Norbit hurt him. Estelle Lasher, Arkin’s manager, says ”everybody” she talked to cited Norbit: ”I don’t think there was one person that didn’t call me and say, ‘This is kind of good [for Arkin].”’

But one longtime Oscar campaigner argues that Norbit had no effect at all. ”It was meaningless,” he says, also dismissing the theory that Hollywood feels antipathy toward the notoriously reclusive star. ”You keep hearing ‘People don’t like Eddie.’ And that’s true. There are a lot of people who don’t like him. But they nominated him!” This insider felt that in a race so competitive, the deciding factor may have been simply that Arkin’s film was up for Best Picture while Murphy’s Dreamgirls was not.

For a minute, it looked like Pan’s Labyrinth would rule the night. Mexican director Guillermo del Toro’s dark Spanish-language fantasy — nominated for six awards — won early on for its art direction, cinematography, and makeup. But then it lost Best Foreign Language Film to Germany’s The Lives of Others. What happened? Chances are those who voted for Labyrinth in the technical categories didn’t even vote for Foreign Language Film. Academy rules dictate that you must see all five nominees in a theater (no screeners allowed!) to vote in the category, and the Academy estimates that no more than 500 of its 5,800 members did that this year. ”The people that vote are very rigorous, or are fans of foreign-language films,” explains Tom Bernard, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, which distributes Lives. These diehards might favor a more traditional pic like Lives over a violent, popular fantasy like Labyrinth (already the highest-grossing Spanish-language film in the U.S.). After all, in 2002 the Bosnian war drama No Man’s Land won over the French hit Amélie. ”A lot of people saw Pan’s and loved it,” says Mark Johnson, chair of the Academy’s foreign-film committee, ”but they hadn’t seen Lives and didn’t know how good it was. Those of us who’d seen all five nominees knew how strong a year it was, and that it wasn’t a lock for anybody.”

”You’d probably like to hear that we were so miffed about Melissa Etheridge winning best song that we all went out and bought Hummers,” jokes Dreamgirls producer Laurence Mark. The musical supplied three of the five nominees, yet they all lost to Etheridge’s ”I Need to Wake Up” from the Al Gore documentary An Inconvenient Truth. While Mark declined to speculate, it’s possible that the Dreamgirls tunes split the vote, or that people just really didn’t like the movie.

But one, more elaborate theory involves the stringent voting process for Best Documentary, which (like the foreign-film category) demands that members see all five nominees in the theater. As another Oscar campaign veteran explains: ”If I love An Inconvenient Truth and I want to vote for it, and I’m too lazy to go to the Academy to see the five nominees, I can vote instead for An Inconvenient Truth in another category,” like song. Plus, think of all the natural resources these Academy members saved by not driving to the theater.