It doesn't matter that he hasn't got a chance of winning, or that the film failed to be nominated in any other category; this gesture alone makes me feel good about the Academy.
Because, let's face it, they screwed up a lot of other stuff. With the exception of some mad love for Slumdog Millionaire - which landed ten nominations, including Picture, Director and Adapted Screenplay, just three fewer than the ostensible front-runner The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button - this is one of the most conventional slates in years. The other three Best Picture contenders were built to win awards: Doubt and Frost/Nixon are high-powered, prestigious stage adaptations, and The Reader is a machine-tooled piece of Holocaust-themed Oscar pandering from professional manipulator Stephen Daldry.
The Wrestler and Rachel Getting Married, beloved by critics and audiences, had to settle for acting nominations. After all, Mickey Rourke and Anne Hathaway staged their respective career reinventions entirely on their own, with no help from their screenwriters or directors. Wendy And Lucy, with its searing central performance from Michelle Williams? Sorry, the American indie slot went to Melissa Leo in Frozen River - which, while a fine performance, is only revelatory if you've never seen her in anything else.
Not that Williams would have won if she had been nominated - not this year, anyway. This one's clearly Kate Winslet's to lose, for hitting some kind of actor's trifecta (She's naked! She's illiterate! She's a Nazi, but one of the nicer ones!) in The Reader. Never mind that her character is emotionally unbelievable, or that the scenes of her in old-age makeup are kind of silly; it's a much easier role to throw prizes at that her depressed, distressed housewife in Revolutionary Road.
And how about that one, by the way? Sam Mendes, whose American Beauty was Oscar's baby nine years ago, brings his high-minded filmmaking style back to the suburbs and comes away with a poke in the eye. The only reason to recognize supporting player Michael Shannon - who has perhaps ten minutes of screen time, and spends it in a markedly different register than Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio - is to make a point of how forced and artificial the rest of the movie seems when Shannon isn't in it. Yeah, they threw a few technical nominations at the expensive production, but those were going to happen regardless of the dramatic quality of the film.
You spend a lot of money, you can count on an art-direction nomination; it's the same reason Clint Eastwood's prestige sensibility landed Changeling in the category. There may have been other films with more diverse worlds, but there are people in the Academy who still remember 1955 Connecticut and 1929 Los Angeles, and they respond to the details.
Also: Poor Clint Eastwood. He made two movies this year, neither of which was very good, but it hurts to see him get smacked down so hard. I was sure he'd land a Best Actor nomination for Gran Torino; as horribly miscalculated as that performance may be, it's the last we're likely to see of the Eastwood Growl, and I figured the Academy would respond to that. And I'm really glad we don't have to watch Jamie Cullum struggle to sell the lyrics of Eastwood's atrocious closing-credits song on Oscar night.
Let's get back to some happier stuff, shall we?
- The excellent ground-level Katrina documentary Trouble The Water is up for Best Documentary Feature, as are Werner Herzog's Encounters At The End Of The World and Ari Folman's thrilling Waltz With Bashir; Bashir may not have made it into the Animated Feature category, but that's WALL*E's territory this year.
- Speaking of WALL*E, it's gratifying to see Presto, the short that preceded it theatres, land its own nomination in the Animated Short category. It's a broad grin where WALL*E is a throbbing heart, but that doesn't make it any less wonderful.
- Robert Downey Jr.'s amazing turn in Tropic Thunder landed a nomination; unfortunately, he doesn't have a chance opposite Heath Ledger's Joker ... but if anyone could emerge as a dark horse and not be loathed by the industry for winning, it's Downey.
- Amy Adams scored a nomination for her supporting performance in Doubt, which is great news; Viola Davis got all the ink (and a nomination of her own), but Adams' role is the tougher sell, and I'm glad she wasn't overlooked. And let's hear it for Taraji P. Henson, whose work in The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button provides the only warmth in a cold, cold film. I fear they'll all lose to Penelope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, in some kind of collective apology for her Volver Best Actress loss a couple of years back, but you know what they say; it's nice to be nominated.
This column is already getting fairly epic, so I'll throw to our official in-house Oscar Nominations Podcast; check that out, and start in on your Oscar pool with confidence.
Just remember, Best Film Editing almost always goes to the longest nominee, so it'll be Benjamin Button this year. I'm, like, 90% certain.