UPDATED: Here’s a story I have appearing in the Calendar section of the Los Angeles Times tomorrow:
There are always a lot of emotions on Oscar nomination day, but there was an especially bittersweet surge on Thursday when the late Heath Ledger’s name was called out in the category of best supporting actor for his portrayal of the maniacal Joker in "The Dark Knight" — it was, after all, one year to the day after his death.
Even as the team behind the Warner Bros. film embraced the posthumous honor for Ledger, they also dealt with the disappointment that the acclaimed blockbuster was left out of the best picture race.
No superhero movie has come close to the marquee category in the past, but Warner Bros. had high hopes that "Dark Knight" could follow in the footsteps of "Star Wars," "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Beauty and the Beast" and "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial" as a youth-skewing hit able to transcend its popcorn-genre roots and earn a best picture nomination from the stuffy academy.
In the barest appraisal, "Dark Knight" was yet another summer sequel about a masked-man fighting crime. But after its July release, the film, directed by Christopher Nolan, started racking up so much box-office success (it now stands as the second-highest grossing movie of all-time in the U.S. behind "Titanic") and such intense critical acclaim (only "WALL-E" scored a higher quotient of raves among the year’s wide-release films, according to Rotten Tomatoes) that Oscar talk began to gain traction.
Ledger’s performance as the scabby and diabolical Joker was clearly regarded as an Oscar contender early on, but the conversation widened considerably this month when Nolan was nominated by his peers for the Directors Guild award for achievement in a feature film. That came on the heels of a best picture nomination from the Producers Guild, whose top category typically mirrors the academy’s picks for the best films of the year.
On Thursday, "Dark Knight" was nominated in eight categories but not the ones Warner Bros. had pursued with a lavish promotional campaign and the re-release of the film in theaters Friday.
It’s been an especially bruising month for Warner, with pending layoffs and a forced settlement with rival Fox that will cut into the profits of the studio’s next superhero epic, "Watchmen" in March.
Still, a legacy moment for "Dark Knight" might be yet to come — an Oscar night victory for Ledger.
"His performance was an amazing thing to watch, thrilling and exciting," said "Dark Knight" producer Charles Roven. "Everybody from his peers to the audience to, now, the academy has seen fit to give him these accolades and these honors and I’m sure his family feels completely wonderful."
The other nominees for "Dark Knight" are Wally Pfister for cinematography; Lee Smith for film editing; John Caglione Jr. and Conor O’Sullivan for makeup; Richard King for sound editing; Lora Hirschberg, Gary Rizzo and Ed Novick for sound mixing; Nathan Crowley and Peter Lando for art direction; and Nick Davis, Chris Corbould, Tim Webber and Paul Franklin for visual effects.
"A lot of amazingly talented people worked on the film and many of them have been rewarded with these nominations today, one of them who is not with us anymore," Roven said. "And all of us were following this amazing vision of Chris Nolan and that’s the only little thing for me that seems too bad. The movie gets eight nominations, and he’s not on that list in any place."
It’s telling that by the end of the film’s journey of credibility, Hollywood insiders were surprised when it wasn’t called out as a best picture nominee.
"People were surprised ‘The Reader’ got the fifth slot instead of ‘Dark Knight,’" said Michael London, a producer on "Milk" and "The Visitor." "That seemed to be the biggest surprise. People are talking about it. I don’t know what it means. I love ‘The Dark Knight.’ It was a fantastic movie, but I suppose it’s difficult for successful popcorn movies to get serious attention from the academy. It’s a knee-jerk thing where smaller movies are perceived as more artistic."
— Geoff Boucher
This story updated from an earlier version with minor edits and added links.
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