Elizabethan, WWII pix compete for top prize

Oscar is wearing combat fatigues. And a codpiece.

Three World War II pics and a pair of Elizabethan titles are up for best film in the 71st annual Academy Awards, paced by the 13 nominations for Miramax’s “Shakespeare in Love” and 11 for DreamWorks/Paramount’s “Saving Private Ryan.”

Those two are competing for the top prize, as are Gramercy’s “Elizabeth,” Miramax’s “Life Is Beautiful” and 20th Century Fox’s “The Thin Red Line,” with seven noms each.

While many years — as recently as 1993 — have included a pair of World War II-era pics, the last time there were two WWII combat films was 1949. And you’d have to go back to the 1940s to find a year when there were more than two WWII-themed pics.

And, in a subtle statement about the state of the industry, every one of this year’s best-pic entrants did all or most of its lensing overseas.

Four directors of those films were also nominated: Roberto Benigni (“Beautiful”), Steven Spielberg (“Ryan”), John Madden (“Shakespeare”) and Terrence Malick (“Red Line”). The fifth helming nom went to Peter Weir of Paramount’s “The Truman Show,” while “Elizabeth’s” Shekhar Kapur failed to make the cut. However, he can console himself with the fact that over the decades, there have only been three five-for-five correlations of best pic and director: 1957, 1964, 1981.

Of the five top pics, four were based on original scripts. Three of the originals and the one adaptation — “Red Line” — also garnered script noms. But “Elizabeth” again was absent, with Michael Hirst failing to get a bid, though “Truman” scribe Andrew Niccol was nominated. All of the best-pic contenders, except “Red Line,” had at least one acting nomination.

Raising the Bard

Ever since “Private Ryan” opened last July, pundits have said it’s the one to beat for the big prize. Tuesday’s announcement shifts the odds a bit to “Shakespeare’s” advantage: In 14 of the past 15 years, the pic that grabbed the most nominations went on to win the best-picture Oscar.

However, the other best-film contenders are still in the game. When “Silence of the Lambs” won in 1991, it wasn’t even the runner-up in terms of the most noms. And there’s more good news for the other contenders: If ever there was a chance to defy the odds, this is it.

It’s hard to remember a year in which there were so many question marks and surprises. Before Tuesday morning, predictions of best picture nominees were all over the map, though many thought “The Truman Show” was a lock for a bid.

Beyond the few “sure” bets, best-film guesses ranged from “There’s Something About Mary” to “A Civil Action,” and included “Waking Ned Devine,” “Pleasantville,” “Bulworth,” “The Prince of Egypt” and “A Bug’s Life.” None seemed a shoo-in, and a few seemed unlikely, but in a year with few favorites, all seemed possible.

And it’s hard to remember a year when so many individuals honored by critics and other year-end awards (e.g., the Golden Globes) failed to receive even an Oscar nomination. That list includes directors Steven Soderbergh (“Out of Sight”), John Boorman (“The General”) and Kapur (“Elizabeth”); and actors Jim Carrey (“Truman”), Cameron Diaz (“There’s Something About Mary”), Ally Sheedy (“High Art”), Joan Allen (“Pleasantville”), Michael Caine (“Little Voice”), Brendan Gleeson (“The General”), Lisa Kudrow and Christina Ricci (“The Opposite of Sex”), and Bill Murray (“Rushmore”).

The conclusion is either that there was a plethora of good work to be recognized in 1998, or that more candidates had a hard time sustaining Oscar heat.

Though there are five period pics in contention for the top prize, Oscar voters offered a fair mix of dramas and comedies, indies and majors, box office bonanzas and more modest grossers, and summer openers vs. year-end launches.

All the best-film nominees are thoughtful, intelligent period pieces, with “Shakespeare” the only one without an undercurrent of darkness. In the past, Oscar voters have usually included at least one breezy piece of entertainment, such as “The Fugitive,” “Jerry Maguire” or “The Full Monty,” but there was none this year.

B.O.-Oscar link

Globally, “Saving Private Ryan” was the second highest-grossing pic released last year. Pointing up the volatile relationship between Oscar and box office, the other nine top global grossers that were Oscar-eligible — “Armageddon,” “Godzilla,” “Deep Impact,” “There’s Something About Mary,” “Lethal Weapon 4,” “Dr. Dolittle,” “Mulan,” “The Truman Show” and “The Mask of Zorro” — collectively nabbed only 10 noms: four for “Armageddon,” three for “Truman,” two for “Zorro” and one for “Mulan.”

“Ryan” includes vivid re-creation of D-Day, and Spielberg, reached in Berlin on Tuesday, said, “My main concern was, would people be able to get through this experience.” He was surprised that so many people “had the courage to sample the film. I didn’t make the move for commercial reasons.”

While conceding that casting Tom Hanks might seem like a commercial move, “Tom and I made this because we were right for each other.”

He said the film is “more experimental cinema” than a sure-bet money-maker.

As for stretching his artistic boundaries in “Schindler’s List” and now “Ryan,” he mused, “I have more courage in my career because I have less fear of failing.”

With 13 bids overall (including two for “The Prince of Egypt”), DreamWorks made a big jump: Two years ago it got its first bid, for live-action short subject; last year it nabbed four.

But Tuesday was a bittersweet day for Polygram. It had a surprisingly strong showing with Gramercy’s “Elizabeth” and Polygram’s “What Dreams May Come” (two noms). However, Polygram Films is on ice, while Gramercy’s future is a question mark.

Miramax earned 23 noms, breaking its record of 22 (from 1994, the “Pulp Fiction” year). Otherwise, tallies for studios and distribs become tricky due to co-productions and distribution pacts (see separate story).

Company of 5

With its 13 noms, “Shakespeare” is in rare company. The 1950 “All About Eve” and last year’s “Titanic” hold the nomination record with 14, but only five other films in 70 years have received 13: “Gone With the Wind,” “From Here to Eternity,” “Mary Poppins,” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and “Forrest Gump.”

“Shakespeare” helmer Madden said he’s pleased that a “challenging” movie has been embraced by audiences. “The movie incorporates so many different colors and forms: Comedy, action, love story, and there are several stories going on at once. I love material that sails right into the wind, and puts comedy side-by-side with strong emotions.”

Madden also theorized that audiences respond to the film because it’s about “the importance of the collective experience.” It’s always good to see a film, particularly a comedy, with a big audience, he said, but the film reflects that communal experience in its scenes of stage performances: “You have a movie audience sitting there watching an audience.”

Miramax’s other best-pic entry, “Life Is Beautiful,” scored a double whammy: As Italy’s official submission for the foreign-lingo pic, it landed in that race and was eligible in the top category since it played in Los Angeles during calendar 1998.

Only five previous foreign-language films were nominated for best pic, and none of them won (though 1969’s “Z,” the only other pic up in both categories in the same year, did win the foreign-language film trophy).

“The Emigrants” was nominated in 1971 for foreign-language, and the next year for best pic. The other foreign-lingo best pic contenders were 1938’s “Grand Illusion,” the 1973 “Cries and Whispers” and the 1995 “Il Postino” — none mentioned in the foreign-language race.

In other races:

Director

The five nominees for Oscar are identical to the Directors Guild of America choices — only the third time that’s happened since 1970 (the other times were in 1977 and 1981). The unanimity is remarkable, considering that there are only 350 directing members of the Academy (all feature helmers), while there are 11,000 eligible DGA voters (and only a portion of them are film directors).

Actors

For the second consecutive year, no racial minority was repped. Exactly half of the 20 nominated actors were foreign-born: Benigni, Blanchett, Dench, Ian McKellen and Lynn Redgrave (“Gods and Monsters”), Geoffrey Rush (“Shakespeare”), Fernanda Montenegro (“Central Station”), Emily Watson and Rachel Griffiths (“Hilary and Jackie”), and Brenda Blethyn (“Little Voice”).

Six were playing real people: Blanchett, Dench, McKellen, Watson and Griffiths and Robert Duvall (“A Civil Action”). There are seven first-timers and two repeats from last year: Dench and Duvall.

Screenplay

Four of the five candidates for original screenplay mirror the Writers Guild of America nominations: Warren Beatty and Jeremy Pikser, “Bulworth,” story by Beatty; Robert Rodat, “Saving Private Ryan”; Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, “Shakespeare in Love”; and Andrew Niccol, “The Truman Show.”

The fifth Oscar nominee was Benigni and Vincenzo Cerami, for “Life Is Beautiful,” replacing WGA choice Don Roos, “The Opposite of Sex.”

Four of the five adapted screenplays were the same: Bill Condon, “Gods and Monsters”; Scott Frank, “Out of Sight”; Elaine May, “Primary Colors”; and Scott B. Smith, “A Simple Plan.” Malick, for “Thin Red Line,” shoved aside Steven Zaillian, “A Civil Action.”

Sound

A quartet of men nabbed double noms. For sound work, they were Kevin O’Connell and Greg P. Russell for “Armageddon” and “The Mask of Zorro” and Andy Nelson for “Private Ryan” and “Red Line.” Gary Rydstrom is up for both sound and sound effects editing, for “Ryan.”

For “Red Line,” Anna Behlmer — the only woman ever nominated in the sound category — landed her fourth consecutive nom.

Music

While very few others (like Marvin Hamlisch) have nabbed three music nominations in one year, Randy Newman (with nine previous noms) did it for three different films.

Other Oscar vets in this race include Jerry Goldsmith (17 previous noms).

The scoring is divided into original dramatic score and original musical or comedy score. This year marks the last time the nominees in the docu and scoring races will be in this form: Next year, they’ll be combined.

Editors

Academy Award voters saluted four of the five editing jobs nominated by the American Cinema Editors: Anne Coates for “Out of Sight” (she has four previous Oscar noms, with one win, for 1962’s “Lawrence of Arabia”); Michael Kahn, “Private Ryan” (five previous noms, with two wins); Oscar newcomer David Gamble, “Shakespeare”; and first-timers Leslie Jones and Saar Klein, and second-timer Billy Weber, “Red Line.”

In the Oscar race, Simona Paggi of “Beautiful” replaces the ACE choice of “The Horse Whisperer’s” team.

Live action shorts

The writing-directing-producing team of Kim Magnusson and Anders Thomas Jensen received their third consecutive bid, the first time this has occurred since the heyday of short films in the 1930-50s.

Members of each branch select nominees in their respective categories, while all branches vote on the best-pic nominees. Final ballots will be mailed March 2, with polls closing March 16. As of mailing for nomination ballots, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences had 5,467 voting members.

The kudos will be presented Sunday, March 21, at the L.A. Music Center’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Whoopi Goldberg will host the Gilbert Cates-produced kudocast, which will be broadcast live on ABC starting at 8 p.m. EST, with a half-hour pre-show seg preceding the ceremony.

For a complete list of Oscar nominees, CLICK HERE

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more