This year, the nominees are world-class

February 23, 2007|By michael sragow | michael sragow,Sun Movie Critic

The 2007 Oscar ballot has been rightly hailed for its diversity. So it might seem like a paradox that the closest thing to a sure shot is about as white Anglo-Saxon Protestant as you can get: Dame Helen Mirren, the prohibitive favorite to win best actress for playing Queen Elizabeth II in The Queen. Even the other dame in the running, Judi Dench for Notes of a Scandal, has conceded the position.

This year's entries generally remind us that the Academy Awards, at their best, have saluted an aristocracy of merit. The difference now is that the nominees in all categories finally echo the ethnic and racial makeup of the global population.

The multiple nominations for three films by Mexican directors - Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Babel, Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth - in their own way continue a tradition that dates to 1938, when, at the very height of the studio system, French genius Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion crashed what was supposed to be a closed Hollywood party and earned a best picture nomination.

It's terrific that one of Mirren's competitors is Penelope Cruz, who gives the performance of her career in Spanish master Pedro Almodovar's Volver. But it's not unprecedented: Sophia Loren won her sole best actress Oscar for her performance in Italian master Vittorio De Sica's Two Women more than four and a half decades ago.

For that same year, 1961, not only did Loren win best actress, but Federico Fellini was nominated for best director (for La Dolce Vita), and three of the best original script nominees were the Soviet Ballad of a Soldier, La Dolce Vita and another Italian maestro's film, Roberto Rossellini's General Della Rovere (which starred De Sica).

Over the next 30 years, big talents from Old Europe and Old Asia - not just Ingmar Bergman and Akira Kurosawa, but also lesser but still amazing directors like Pietro Germi (Divorce - Italian Style) and Japan's Hiroshi Teshigahara (Woman in the Dunes) - often competed against American legends like Elia Kazan and William Wyler.

It's an honorable extension of this legacy that the potential winners for 2006 are all over the map, literally and aesthetically. Even nominations that may seem merely politically correct reflect Hollywood's saving grace: its urge to enlist talent from any source or location.

This year, Tinseltown is telling movie-lovers everywhere, "May the best talents win - no matter what their nationality, pedigree or accent."

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

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