BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. (AP) — The musical “Dreamgirls” led Academy Awards contenders Tuesday with eight nominations, but surprisingly was shut out in the best picture category after being considered a potential front-runner.
The sweeping ensemble drama “Babel” was close behind with seven, including best picture and acting honors for two newcomers to U.S. audiences, Adriana Barraza and Rinko Kikuchi.
Other best-picture nominees were Martin Scorsese’s bloody crime saga “The Departed,” Clint Eastwood’s World War II spectacle “Letters From Iwo Jima,” the road-trip comedy “Little Miss Sunshine” and the monarchy-in-crisis chronicle “The Queen.”
Going into nominations day, the best-picture competition looked unusually wide open, with no consensus on a favorite. With Golden Globe musical winner “Dreamgirls” out of the running, the race could come down to Golden Globe drama winner “Babel” and “The Departed,” though “The Queen” could be a dark-horse contender as well.
But front-runners in all four acting categories nabbed nominations and seem poised to come home with Oscars on Feb. 25: Helen Mirren for best actress as British monarch Elizabeth II in “The Queen”; Forest Whitaker for best actor as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in “The Last King of Scotland”; and Eddie Murphy and former “American Idol” finalist Jennifer Hudson as soulful singers in “Dreamgirll."
The best-actress category featured a 14th nomination for two-time Oscar winner Meryl Streep, padding her record as the most-nominated actor ever, this time as a demonically demanding boss in “The Devil Wears Prada.”
Joining Mirren and Streep as best-actress nominees were Penelope Cruz as a woman dealing with bizarre domestic crises in “Volver”; Judi Dench as a scheming teacher in “Notes on a Scandal”; and Kate Winslet as a woman in an affair with a neighbor in “Little Children.”
Other best-actor nominees were Leonardo DiCaprio as a mercenary hunting a rare gem in “Blood Diamond”; Ryan Gosling as a teacher with a drug addiction in “Half Nelson”; Peter O’Toole as a lecherous old actor in “Venus”; and Will Smith as a homeless dad in “The Pursuit of Happyness.”
Whitaker is expected to come away with best actor, though sentiment is high for O’Toole, who has been nominated seven times, losing each. An eighth loss for O’Toole, who nearly turned down an honorary Oscar three years ago because he hoped to earn one outright, would put him in the record books as the actor with the most nominations without winning.
This finally may be the year for another perennial loser, Scorsese, who’s tied with four other directors for the Oscar-futility record of five nominations and five losses.
“The Departed” marks Scorsese’s return to the cops-and-mobsters genre he mastered in decades past and is considered his best shot to finally win an Oscar, though a sixth defeat would put him alone in the record book as the losingest director ever.
Prim Oscar voters maintained their track record of ignoring over-the-top comic performances, snubbing Sacha Baron Cohen for his Golden Globe-winning role in the raucous “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.”
The comedy front did bring supporting nominations for Alan Arkin as foul-mouthed grandfather and Abigail Breslin as a girl obsessed with beauty pageants in “Little Miss Sunshine,” though the film’s three key performers, Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette and Steve Carell, were overlooked.
Ten-year-old Abigail Breslin became the fourth-youngest actress ever nominated.
The supporting actor category also includes Mark Wahlberg as a caustic cop in “The Departed,” his scene-stealing performance outshining his higher-billed co-stars including DiCaprio, Jack Nicholson and Matt Damon.
With five blacks, two Hispanics and an Asian, it was the most ethnically diverse lineup ever among the 20 acting nominees. After decades in which the Oscars were a virtual whites-only club, with minority actors only occasionally breaking into the field, the awards have featured a much broader mix of nominees in the last few years.
Black actors in particular have come into their own, with Oscar wins by Halle Berry, Denzel Washington, Jamie Foxx and Morgan Freeman, and three of the four acting front-runners this year.
Asians and Hispanics still lag behind, though nominations for Cruz, Barraza and Kikuchi are signs that Hollywood is making strides toward greater diversity.
While Cruz’s “Volver,” from Spanish director and past Oscar darling Pedro Almodovar, was shut out for foreign-language picture, another Hispanic film scored well. Mexican director Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” had six nominations, including foreign-language film, screenplay, cinematography and score.
Mexican filmmaker Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu earned a best-director nomination for “Babel.”
Inarritu and Scorsese were joined in the best-director category by Eastwood for “Letters from Iwo Jima,” Stephen Frears for “The Queen,” and Paul Greengrass for the Sept. 11 docudrama “United 93.”
“Dreamgirls” looked as though it might follow 2002’s “Chicago” as a rare musical to win best-picture, but like last year’s music-themed “Walk the Line” it was a startling omission from the Oscar’s top category.
While Murphy and Hudson made it into the supporting categories, lead players Foxx and Beyonce Knowles and director Bill Condon were left out.
Three of “Dreamgirls” eight nominations came in a single category — for original song.
Two-time best-picture and director winner Eastwood’s “Letters from Iwo Jima” had been considered a longshot and clearly was the film that denied “Dreamgirls” its chance at the top trophy.
The year’s top-grossing movie, “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest,” grabbed four nominations in technical categories, including visual effects.
Eastwood continued his late-career surge and Oscar magic with four nominations for the Japanese-language “Letters” including original screenplay. His World War II companion film “Flags of Our Fathers” also had two technical nominations, including sound editing in which it will compete against “Letters.”
Also in the sound editing category is Mel Gibson’s violent tale of the ancient Mayan civilization “Apocalypto,” which had three nominations.