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A gutless batch of nominations

Diane Sawyer and Joel Siegel are doing their annual, cozy, post-nomination Oscar schmooze on "Good Morning, America." The subject of Ryan Gosling's nomination for Best Actor in the tiny-budget film "Half Nelson" comes up.

It is, says Siegel, the Motion Picture Academy's way to prove that it's "young and hip" -- which, it seems to me, is more or less in the same league as '60s Hollywood executives thinking they were going to ensnare a young audience by making a movie that was actually called "For Those Who Think Young" (a virtual guarantee that no one under 50 would go anywhere near the thing).

I respectfully beg to differ. Nothing against Gosling, but he was very, very far, this year, from the "young, hip" Oscar nomination for Best Actor.

That would have gone to Sacha Baron Cohen for "Borat." And, if you ask me, "Borat" would also have been a far gutsier nomination for Best Picture than "Little Miss Sunshine," a film I love and was delighted to put on a Top 10 list but also a film that, for all its minibudget and ragtag triumph, is a perfect traditional nominee for Hollwyood's biggest prize.

Why? Because it's a film whose message is that there's no big prize in the world more important than a loving family, no matter how dysfunctional. And what sentiment could possibly be more awardable than that? Frank Capra would have loved it. (Even as we speak, somewhere in heaven, there's an angel getting his wings.)

On the other hand, Capra wouldn't have known what to make of "Borat" (I interviewed Capra in his late years and you can trust me on this: he wouldn't have liked the film -- or Cohen -- one bit.)

"Borat" is all of the following: hilarious, provocative, fearless and devoted to the proposition that America the Beautiful is a lot of other things besides beautiful.

So let's be frank here: Tuesday's Oscar nominations were a clumsy and gutless and old-fashioned set masquerading as "young and hip." Anyone looking for a New Hollywood that is clearly struggling to be born -- multiracial, internationalist, tough-minded, politically engaged -- could find only reluctant and dutiful glimmers of it.

As a whole, it was a soft-headed and traditionally risk-averse batch of nominations. Why?

Here are just a few ways.

1. Mark, Not Jack. Imagine in your mind's ear the phone call to Mark Wahlberg: "You got a Supporting Actor nomination for 'The Departed.' But uh, Jack (Nicholson) didn't." Huh? That's for people who think that HBO's "Entourage" is "young and hip" Siegel-style -- and who haven't figured out yet that the only place Nicholson will ever be where he is entirely without edge will be the grave.

Nicholson was extraordinary in "The Departed." And entirely, 100 percent unnominated, Oscar-wise.

2. A 'Dream' Deferred. No Best Picture nomination was forthcoming for "Dreamgirls" for all its strong showing in small categories. Even more scandalous, there was no director nomination for "Dreamgirls" director Bill Condon for doing more for the movie musical than anyone since Baz Luhrmann made "Moulin Rouge." The idea that something as crass and callow as "Chicago" could hit the Oscar Big Casino and "Dreamgirls" couldn't even scare up a Best Picture and Best Director nomination is a little scary.

One obvious explanation is that the insiders know that "Dreamgirls" stars Eddie Murphy and Jennifer Hudson are such shoo-ins in the Best Supporting categories that they could afford to ignore the movie for the big ones.

But one question begs to be asked: Did other cities besides Buffalo experience crowd unrest on the movie's opening day? And, if so, did that cause a shudder of fear of the film up and down the West Coast?

3. Realism, Not Cynicism. "Little Miss Sunshine" -- this year's "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" -- is a truly delightful little American film. I haven't met a soul who dislikes it yet. Here is a partial list of films that would have been far more honorable nominees for Best Picture than it was: "Borat," "Notes on a Scandal" (opening Friday), "United 93," "Children of Men" and "Pan's Labyrinth."

4. His Heart Does Go On. Leonardo DiCaprio for Best Actor in "Blood Diamond?" Come now. DiCaprio has indeed been proving for the last few years that he is an actor and not a titanic heartthrob and pretty boy. But, as good as he was in "Blood Diamond" and "The Departed," there were a few performances for Best Actor just as deserving if not more so: Brad Pitt (no kidding) in "Babel," Sacha Baron Cohen, Matt Damon in "The Good Shepherd," a performance that is, paradoxically, very gutsy in its willful drabness and self-effacement.

But then, it's the female performances where the real action is for this year's Oscars.

Some day, no doubt, there will be a set of Oscar nominations that is every bit as progressive as the most progressive elements in the Hollywood community.

But it will probably be 10 years from now. And they'll just be catching up to what's "most progressive in the Hollywood community" circa 2006.

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com

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