African-American actors catch Oscar's eye

Most of the surprises in yesterday's 2001 Academy Award nominations were small ones. But there could be a big message coming in the unusually strong presence of African-American Oscar contenders.

The 10 nominees for best actor and actress include three black stars: Halle Berry for the downbeat "Monster's Ball," Denzel Washington for the police drama "Training Day," and Will Smith for the boxing biopic "Ali."

This doesn't break new ground for Hollywood, which nominated three blacks - Diana Ross, Paul Winfield, and Cicely Tyson - for top honors once before, in 1972.

But it signals a progressive step since 1996, when the Rev. Jesse Jackson used the near-absence of black Oscar nominations to spark a highly publicized protest against racism in film and television.

"This definitely signals change," says Nina Henderson Moore, a senior vice president at Black Entertainment Television. "But progress can only be measured in years after ... whether this is the beginning of something or just a point in time."

African-American actor Sidney Poitier will also receive an award on Oscar night, March 24, honoring his overall career. No black actor has won a Best Actor Oscar since his victory for "Lilies of the Field" in 1963.

Steep challenge for women

This year's female black contenders face even steeper historical odds, since no African-American woman has ever been named best actress. Not until the winners are announced next month will Oscar-watchers know whether the nominations reflect a momentary coincidence or a deepened appreciation of African-American contributions.

Even if black contenders do triumph, it won't necessarily signify a new direction for Hollywood, any more than the triple nominations in 1972 marked real change in the cultural landscape.

"There's essentially two changes. One is more recognition for minority players. The other - and more significant - change is that more minority actors are getting Oscar-quality roles," says Robert Thompson, professor of film, TV, and pop culture at Syracuse (N.Y.) University. "There are more solid, good roles for minority actors to play in and then be recognized."

When you look at "Monster's Ball" or "Ali," Mr. Thompson says, "It's not as much as question of ethnicity or race - it's an issue of really good stories about race, with really good actors starring in them."

But one group of three nominations doesn't automatically signal a changed landscape in Hollywood. "We're not there yet. There still needs to be more of diversity of characters and simply more roles for more actors to play before we really feel like we've reached any kind of [equality]," Thompson says.

'Lord' rings up 13 nods

In other respects, the nomination list is a mixture of the mildly surprising and the utterly predictable. "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" tops the list with 13 nominations, showing that popular appeal and critical acclaim can occasionally trump the resistance to fantasy films that made hits like "Star Wars" and "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial" also-rans in the Oscar race. In academy history, only the megahit "Titanic" and the drama "All About Eve" have earned more than 13 nominations, snagging 14 apiece in 1997 and 1950, respectively.

Other films nominated for best picture are largely what observers expected. "A Beautiful Mind," about a psychologically troubled scholar, has tried-and-true ingredients - romance, suspense, a hero with a disability, and a bravura star performance - that could produce a sweep in many categories.

Giving a nod to "Gosford Park" allows Hollywood to honor maverick filmmaker Robert Altman for his most audience-friendly work in years.

The nomination of "Moulin Rouge" for best picture shows lingering respect for the near-moribund musical genre. "In the Bedroom" is the token art film on the list: intimate in scale, mildly controversial in theme, and directed by a newcomer (Todd Field) who, like "Moulin Rouge" helmer Baz Luhrmann, did not win a nod for best director.

While some analysts see a resurgence of box-office clout as a factor in Oscar nominations, only two of the year's major contenders - "The Fellowship of the Ring" and "A Beautiful Mind" - rank among the 25 highest-grossing films of 2001.

"Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" has earned more than $300 million to date, but this translated into a mere three nods for art direction, costume, and music. Loudly touted hits like "Ocean's Eleven" and "Hannibal" were shut out altogether.

Animation gets its own Oscar

The academy's new animation category has proved its relevance to the movie marketplace, allowing the high-grossing "Shrek" and "Monsters, Inc." to compete in a major slot. Still, the academy came up with only one competitor for those big-budget productions - "Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius" - suggesting that Hollywood studios still see animation as a secondary niche.

The most heartening aspect of the nomination list is its intermittent signs that today's Hollywood is sometimes willing to dodge time-tested formulas, and to honor the results with occasional Oscar nods. The murder mystery "Memento," which tells its story backward, and the psychological comedy-drama "Ghost World," a sympathetic look at deeply eccentric characters, are nominated for original and adapted screenplay, respectively.

On the flip side, some Hollywood mainstays did not find places at the table. Veteran actor Gene Hackman received no chance at the crown for "The Royal Tenenbaums" despite his Golden Globe win, and Billy Bob Thornton isn't there for "The Man Who Wasn't There" or "Monster's Ball," the latter film's other major nods (supporting actress, original screenplay) notwithstanding.

Some pundits predicted that the aftermath of Sept. 11 might influence the Academy Award race. It's possible the World Trade Center tragedy did raise the profile of offbeat films like "In the Bedroom" and "Monster's Ball," which deal with death and grief.

In all, however, the highly diversified nominations seem more akin to the 2000 presidential race, when a deeply split electorate failed to send clear signals of what it wanted or expected.

This year's Oscar derby is split in similar - if more numerous - ways, suggesting that Americans remain mercurial and uncertain in their attitudes and tastes.

• Monitor staff writer Stephanie Cook in Boston contributed to this report.

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