EXTRA! EXTRA! Looking Forward: Connections (#34)

Collin Firth and Geoffrey Rush in "The King's Speech"

The race is on.In the weeks leading up to Oscar nomination day, David Fincher’sFacebook movie “The Social Network” had all but been anointed the winner of this year’s best picture Academy Award, racking up nearly every critic’s prize across the country, in addition to taking the top Golden Globe. But Tuesday morning the race heated up significantly with the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences handing the British drama “The King’s Speech” 12 nominations — the most of any film this year.Joel and Ethan Coen’s PG-13 western “True Grit” landed 10 nominations while “Social Network” and “Inception” each walked away with eight.

“It seems like an extremely even playing field,” said Scott Rudin, who with “The Social Network” and “True Grit” became the first producer since 1974 to have two films in the best picture race. “I don’t think it’s a two-horse race, I don’t think it’s even a three-horse race. I think it’s going to be a very fun and interesting month.”

The rest of the films in the best picture category include director David O. Russell’s “The Fighter,” which earned seven nods; the James Franco – starring “127 Hours,” which landed six; and “Black Swan” with five; plus “Toy Story 3,” “The Kids Are All Right” and “Winter’s Bone.”

Leaving aside “Toy Story 3,” all of the nine other best-picture nominees are adult-oriented dramas, most of which have done exceedingly well at the box office. “Inception,” “True Grit” and “The Social Network” all passed the $100-million mark, and “Black Swan” is on track to do so. “These are all grown-up, sophisticated movies that are mostly big hits in a genre that people thought was finished,” added Rudin.

This crop of films also serves as a reinforcement for the academy’s decision to expand the best-picture category from five films to 10 last year as a way to better reflect the most popular movies (especially in comparison to the 2010 race, in which top-grossing “Avatar” was nominated but the little-seen indie “The Hurt Locker” won the top prize).

Now the teams behind the nominated films and actors will enter the final leg of their marketing campaigns, with four weeks remaining to get their movies seen and admired by all academy voters before ballots are due on Feb. 22. The awards will be handed out Feb. 27.

“The King’s Speech” took home top honors at Saturday’s Producers Guild Awards and seems to be gaining momentum. But the film’s backers aren’t taking anything for granted.

“I do not believe that of the 6,000-plus Oscar members, that everybody saw the movie,” said Harvey Weinstein, whose Weinstein Co. distributed “The King’s Speech,” echoing the sentiments of most Oscar campaigners. “We have to get them all to see the movie.”

In the top acting categories, the boxing drama “The Fighter” rivaled “The King’s Speech” for the most nominations, with three each. Melissa Leo, Christian Bale and Amy Adams were all selected for their portrayals of characters in the real-life Lowell, Mass., family surrounding boxing champion Micky Ward (played by Mark Wahlberg, who was not nominated for his performance).

“We are here because of all these actors and their performances,” said Russell, who also walked away with a best director nomination along with Darren Aronofsky (“Black Swan”), Tom Hooper (“The King’s Speech”), Fincher (“The Social Network”) and the Coen brothers (“True Grit”). “It’s been very emotional for me and my family.”

The one striking omission in the directing category was Christopher Nolan, whose mind-bending thriller “Inception” landed eight other nominations.

As for “The King’s Speech,” Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter were recognized for their portrayal of British royalty, while Geoffrey Rush was rewarded for his role as speech therapist Lionel Logue in the period drama about friendship and loyalty. “It’s a simple thing,” said Weinstein. “The reason the movie got that many nominations is a tribute to this cast. Our actors are our special effects on this movie.”

In contrast, “The Social Network” only received one acting nomination — for Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal of Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg. Andrew Garfield’s role as Zuckerberg’s friend-turned-courtroom rival Eduardo Saverin was bypassed in the supporting actor category in favor of turns by Bale, Rush, John Hawkes for “Winter’s Bone,” Jeremy Renner in “The Town” and Mark Ruffalo for “The Kids Are All Right.”

“It’s pretty crazy,” said Ruffalo of his first-time recognition for his role as sperm donor in director Lisa Cholodenko’s family drama. “I think this is as close as you can be to becoming royalty in this country. It’s like being a duke. I was pretty much blown away.”

One of the other actors landing a nomination for the first time was “127 Hours” star Franco, who will also be hosting the show with Anne Hathaway on Feb. 27. Franco said he’s relieved to have double duty on Oscar night.

“It’s great,” he said. “The hosting duties will have me thinking about the show and not thinking about my category.” He will compete in the lead category against rookie Eisenberg, veterans Javier Bardem in “Biutiful,” Jeff Bridges in “True Grit” and Firth in “The King’s Speech.”

The lead actress category pits Annette Bening (“The Kids Are All Right”) versus Nicole Kidman (“Rabbit Hole”), Natalie Portman (“Black Swan”), Michelle Williams (“Blue Valentine”) and Jennifer Lawrence (“Winter’s Bone). At 20, Lawrence is the youngest nominee in the category for her role as the determined teenager in “Winter’s Bone.”

There was a chance that Lawrence would be competing against the plucky 14-year-old Hailee Steinfeld for her starring role in “True Grit,” but Paramount Pictures pushed her in the supporting category — as is somewhat traditional for someone of her age and inexperience. The academy responded, nominating Steinfeld opposite four more seasoned actresses: Adams, Leo, Bonham Carter and Australian Jacki Weaver for her role in the crime drama “Animal Kingdom.”

Steinfeld is still marveling at the luck of her first acting role turning into an Academy Award-nominated performance.

“Just a year ago, I was auditioning for the role and thinking whoever gets this is winning the lotto,” she said. “All of this coming with it is just so crazy.”

Copyright © 2011, The Los Angeles Times

Though blockbusters created through the studio system once had a lock on these awards, things have so changed that “The King’s Speech,” the most classically Hollywood film on the best picture list, was distributed not by a major studio but by the savvy Weinstein Co.

While the studios focus almost exclusively on dumbing down their product on an often-fruitless quest to increase revenue, five of the 10 best picture nominees were distributed by specialty divisions or small companies.

Aside from the Weinstein’s “King’s Speech,” Roadside Attractions handled “Winter’s Bone,” Universal Picture’s Focus Features division did “The Kids Are All Right” and Fox Searchlight put out both “Black Swan” and “127 Hours.”

One might even argue that many of the Oscar-nominated movies distributed by the majors were so free of studio control (because of the power and status of their filmmakers) that they were independent films in spirit, if not in name. No one is going to tell the auteurs behind “Toy Story 3” at Pixar how to operate, no one is going to give notes to Joel and Ethan Coen on “True Grit” and no one but Christopher Nolan could have persuaded Warner Bros. to go through with as nervy a project as “Inception.” More power to Sony, then, for taking a risk and giving the green light to David Fincher’s “The Social Network.”

Speaking of Nolan, one of the real scandals of this Oscar season is his absence from the best director list. Why that branch didn’t recognize Nolan’s vision and skill, not only with special effects but with actors as well, is a mystery. It’s similarly disheartening to see Lesley Manville’s marvelous performance in Mike Leigh’s “Another Year” slighted, and to have Mark Wahlberg’s non-showy but absolutely essential work as the heart of “The Fighter” sadly ignored.

And don’t get me started about this year’s foreign-language category, which inexplicably excluded France’s marvelous “Of Gods and Men,” which won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes and dominated the recent Cesar nominations, France’s version of the Oscars. If not for the inclusion of Susanne Bier’s richly humanistic “In a Better World,” the likely winner, it would be an unusual group indeed. No, Bier’s film didn’t premiere at Sundance, but it is playing here now.

For this wintry Utah town, it’s been that kind of a year

Times staff writer Chris Lee contributed to this report.

kenneth.turan@latimes.com

Copyright © 2011, The Los Angeles Times

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