'Benjamin Button' leads Oscars charge

"Benjamin Button" bagged 13 nominations as it led the field of contenders for the 81st Academy Awards, ahead of 10 nominations for "Slumdog Millionaire". The late Heath Ledger received a posthumous nomination for his part in "The Dark Knight".


REUTERS -  Period love story "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" emerged as the front-runner for the Academy Awards here Thursday, after landing a whopping 13 nominations.

The critically acclaimed romance, starring Brad Pitt as a man who ages in reverse, edged out India-set, rags-to-riches drama "Slumdog Millionaire," which scored 10 nominations.

"Benjamin Button" picked up nominations in several high-profile categories including best picture and best director for David Fincher, while the film's leading man Pitt also earned a best actor nod.

The film's 13 nods was just one shy of the all-time record of 14 nominations held by 1997's "Titanic" and 1950's Bette Davis classic "All About Eve," which both went on to earn best picture.

Speaking in France, Pitt described the slew of nominations for "Benjamin Button" as "a great honor for the film."

"The Oscars are the highest honor. For the film to be seen this way is a really nice thing for us," Pitt said. "I'm especially happy for David Fincher who's been working nine days a week shaping this for five years."

But there was disappointment for Batman blockbuster "The Dark Knight," which failed to earn nominations in either the best picture or best director categories, two areas where the film had been tipped to score.

However the film did earn a poignant posthumous Oscar nomination for Australian actor Heath Ledger, one year to the day after the heart-throb died of an accidental overdose in New York.

Ledger picked up a best supporting actor nomination for his spell-binding performance as the Joker and is now the heavy favorite heading into the February 22 awards extravaganza at Hollywood's Kodak Theater.

Thursday's nominations have reignited the Oscars hopes of "Benjamin Button," which was all but ignored earlier this month at the Golden Globes when "Slumdog Millionaire" walked away with four honors.

On paper, Fincher's epic love story appears to be the film to beat. On 15 occasions in the past 20 years the movie with the most nominations has won the coveted best picture Oscar.

However Oscar-watcher Tom O'Neil of the Los Angeles Times' awards blog, said he believed "Slumdog" remained the front-runner.

"'Benjamin Button's' 13 nomination is impressive. But Slumdog is the one that the Oscar voters are talking about. You're hearing of Oscar voters who are watching their DVD six or seven times," O'Neil told AFP.

"It's unusual that we see a contender like 'Slumdog' that voters talk about so warmly."

Other contenders in the best picture category are political drama "Frost/Nixon" and Gus Van Sant's biopic "Milk," starring Sean Penn as trailblazing gay politician Harvey Milk.

The surprise nominee which appeared to squeeze out "The Dark Knight" is Stephen Daldry's Nazi drama "The Reader," which earned five nominations.

In the acting categories, "Benjamin Button" star Pitt will be up against sentimental favorite Mickey Rourke, superb as a washed up prize-fighter in "The Wrestler," Penn for his role in "Milk" and Frank Langella, who plays disgraced former US President Richard Nixon in "Frost/Nixon." Richard Jenkins of "The Visitor" completes the line-up.

Pitt's domestic partner Angelina Jolie is meanwhile nominated in the best actress category for her performance in Clint Eastwood's "Changeling." Her rivals will be Kate Winslet, Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway and Melissa Leo.

Winslet, a double winner at the Golden Globes, surprisingly received her sixth nomination for "The Reader," when most pundits had expected her to be named for "Revolutionary Road." At 33, Winslet is the youngest performer ever to be nominated for six Academy Awards.

The directing categories mirrored the best picture race. Fincher earned a nod for "Benjamin Button," while Briton Danny Boyle was also nominated for "Slumdog Millionaire."

Ron Howard, a best director Oscar-winner for "A Beautiful Mind," was also nominated along with Van Sant for "Milk," and Stephen Daldry for "The Reader."

In the supporting acting categories, Ledger's rivals include Robert Downey Jr for "Tropic Thunder," Josh Brolin "Milk," Philip Seymour Hoffman "Doubt" and Michael Shannon "Revolutionary Road."


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