Angelina Jolie vs. Meryl Streep! Brad Pitt vs. Sean Penn! While they compete for gold in this year's dizzying Academy Award race, Dave Karger says a humble indie movie and posthumous nominee Heath Ledger seem poised for a memorable night on Feb. 22

By Dave Karger
Updated January 31, 2009 at 05:00 AM EST
Winslet: Melinda Sue Gordon; Bale: Stephen Vaughan

As soon as the first Oscar category was announced, you knew something was up. When Sid Ganis, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, read off Best Supporting Actress nominees at the annual crack-of-dawn confab, there was one notable omission: Kate Winslet for The Reader.

Two categories later, it became clear why. The Academy’s acting branch had ignored Winslet’s Supporting Actress campaign for The Reader, and nominated her for Best Actress instead. Then came a nod for The Reader‘s director, Stephen Daldry. Then one for David Hare for its adapted screenplay. And finally, a Best Picture nomination for the Holocaust drama that had gotten mixed reviews, grossed just over $8 million to date, and been overlooked by that triumvirate of Oscar predictors: the Producers Guild, Directors Guild, and Writers Guild.

Holy gut-punch, Batman! The Reader‘s inclusion in Best Picture and Best Director was the domino that ultimately knocked down The Dark Knight, which had been recognized by most of the important pre-Oscar guild awards. Though the Batman sequel picked up eight nominations, none went to its director and co-writer, Christopher Nolan. ”It’s an honor to be a part of a movie that has eight nominations,” Dark Knight producer Charles Roven says gamely. ”I find it hard to believe, though, that when you have a movie that has eight nominations, that the visionary behind that movie doesn’t get nominated. I can’t say I’m not a little saddened by that.”

The rest of the world may have been surprised, but Reader producer Donna Gigliotti was always a believer in the movie’s chances. ”I have seen this film screened maybe a hundred times,” she says. ”People would weep and they would be stunned into silence, they’d get to a point in the movie where they couldn’t breathe.” But will the Academy persuade moviegoers to give it a try? ”Here’s a film about a Nazi war criminal who’s unrepentant and is having an affair with an underage boy,” says Reader screenwriter Hare. ”You’d have to be a complete idiot not to know that that’s going to be very difficult subject matter to sell to the mainstream American cinematic audience.”

NEXT PAGE: ”We don’t think about the TV show,” says long-time Academy member and 2009 Oscar nominee Ron Howard. ”I don’t know anyone who says, ‘Jeez, you know what the Academy really needs? Superstars.”’