A UN gala? Try this year's Academy Awards

For once, Billy Crystal may not be the best choice to host the Academy Awards. Tuesday's Oscar nominations included such an unprecedented array of nominees from around the globe that Kofi Annan might be a more appropriate emcee.

This year's acting nominees included not only the usual British contingent, but also an Iranian actress, a teenager from New Zealand, a Japanese thespian and - this, surely a first - a nominee from Benin. (In the future, James Lipton may have to employ a translator for "Inside the Actor's Studio.")

Add to the list Brazil's Fernandi Meirelles for best director, the French-Canadian director Denys Arcand for best original screenplay, France's "The Triplets of Belleville" in the animated category, and, oh yes, all those people from New Zealand for "The Lord of the Rings," and it's a year in which the American film industry doesn't look quite as dominant as before.

There have been notable foreign nominations in the past (remember "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon") and, of course, Hollywood still sets the standard for moviemaking and marketing, but the sheer geographic and ethnic diversity of this year's nominees reflects an indisputable internationalization of cinema.

"It's getting more and more difficult to draw a line around the notion of the Oscars as being the American film industry, it's more and more the international film industry," says Garth Jowett, a communication expert at the University of Houston. "The voters here are pushing the envelope for American audiences and challenging them to go out and see movies that are not the usual Hollywood films."

Of course, there's nothing that unusual about this year's biggest nomination harvester, "Lord of the Rings: Return of the King." It's a US-financed film and a popular blockbuster. But, here too, foreign filmmakers - in this case New Zealanders - can take credit. Almost every aspect of the film's creation, including the remarkable special effects, originated in the upturned boot of an archipelago. "Rings" notched up 11 nods, one more than "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World."

The director of that seafaring epic, Peter Weir, is among the small corps of Australians who will walk the red carpet this year. He's joined by Naomi Watts, who was noticed for her work in "21 Grams." Also, from the Southern Hemisphere is Charlize Theron, a South African, was also nominated for Best Actress following her win at Sunday's Golden Globe Awards.

To portray serial killer Aileen Wuornos in "Monster," Theron waxed off her eyebrows, gained 30 pounds, and used prosthetic makeup to give her skin a mottled appearance. Hollywood loves it when an actress undergoes what amounts to an ugly duckling transformation and, come Award night, the Aphrodite-like Theron will gracefully swan past Joan Rivers as a favorite.

This year, the only American to be nominated in the category was Diane Keaton. She's going up against surprise nominee Keisha Castle-Hughes, a half-Maori teen, who became the youngest ever nominee in the Best Actress category. Her film, "Whale Rider," introduced audiences to the complexities of indigenous New Zealand culture and the difficulty the native Maoris have in holding on to their traditions.

Indeed, one of the most striking themes among some of the nominated movies is that of cultural integration. "In America," which garnered out-of-the-blue nominations for Brit Samantha Morton and African Djimon Hounsou, is about a poor Irish family's move to New York. Two Iranian immigrants' struggle to realize the American dream is a central theme of "The House of Sand and Fog," which picked up acting nominations for Ben Kingsley and Iran's Shohreh Aghdashloo.

On the flip side, best-picture candidate "Lost in Translation" is a tale of two Americans' dislocation inside modern-day Japan. (Director Sofia Coppola became the first US woman to be nominated for best director.) "The Last Samurai" - featuring best supporting actor nominee Ken Watanabe - traces the cultural awakening of an arrogant 19th century American inside a traditional Japanese village.

"What we would call the internationalizing of America is making us a lot more comfortable with the context of other worlds, other cultures," says Jim Farrelly, a film and literature professor of the University of Dayton, Ohio. "Audiences, particularly college students who wander all over the world before they get a job, have no problem at all to go to a movie with an international theme."

There's another reason so many of Tinseltown's productions have more international flavor than a WTO protest. As films rely more on overseas financing, producers are sensitive to including international themes and actors that will resonate with a global audience. Even purely Hollywood projects rely on foreign grosses to put films into the black. Films often gross as much as half or more of their revenue from overseas.

"The amount of money made outside the US is much more significant than inside the US," says Professor Farrelly. "These days, you find as much money as you can [from overseas]. Different countries with different involvement will try to push and market the film there."

But some say the focus on international themes is part of a cycle that has existed for years. "In the '60s, there used to be a joke that the Oscars seemed to be more like the British Academy Awards," says Damien Bona, author of "Inside Oscar." "It's not unprecedented, but I guess the range of nominees this year sets it apart [for] international flavor."

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