The crowd-pleasing musical "Dreamgirls" led Academy Awards contenders Tuesday with eight nominations, but surprisingly was shut out in the best picture category after being considered a potential front-runner.
The sweeping ensemble drama "Babel" was close behind with seven, including best picture and acting honors for two newcomers to U.S. audiences, Mexico's Adriana Barraza and Japan's Rinko Kikuchi. The gothic fairy tale "Pan's Labyrinth" had six nominations, including best foreign-language film.
Other best-picture nominees were the bloody crime saga "The Departed," the World War II spectacle "Letters From Iwo Jima," the road-trip comedy "Little Miss Sunshine" and the monarchy-in-crisis chronicle "The Queen."
Going into nominations day, the best-picture competition looked unusually wide open, with no consensus on a favorite. With Golden Globe musical winner "Dreamgirls" out of the running, the race could come down to Golden Globe drama winner "Babel" and "The Departed," though the British film "The Queen," with six nominations, could be a dark-horse contender as well.
But front-runners in all four acting categories nabbed nominations and seem poised to come home with Oscars on Feb. 25: Britain's Helen Mirren for best actress as British monarch Elizabeth II in "The Queen"; Forest Whitaker for best actor as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in "The Last King of Scotland"; and Eddie Murphy and former "American Idol" finalist Jennifer Hudson as soulful singers in "Dreamgirls."
All four preceded the Oscar nominations with wins at the Golden Globes.
Mirren said she had no idea "The Queen" would have such an impact.
"It is one of the hardest roles to play not just a living person but one who is part of our everyday lives in Britain," she said. "Whilst her presence is with us from her image on the letters that come through our door and on the money we spend, we know so little of the woman behind the image. I hope that my performance has conveyed a sense of Elizabeth the woman as well as the Queen."
In a nod to Mirren, Dench said, "I'm in frighteningly good company. It is very nice of the queen to allow me in for a minute."
Oscar attention is a new experience for Murphy, whose fast-talking persona has brought him devoted audiences but little awards acclaim in his 25-year career. For Hudson, the nomination caps a speedy rise to stardom with her first film role, just two years after making her name as a top contender on the TV singing competition "American Idol."
The best-actress category featured a 14th nomination for two-time Oscar winner Meryl Streep, padding her record as the most-nominated actor ever, this time as a demonically demanding boss in "The Devil Wears Prada."
Joining Mirren and Streep as best-actress nominees were Spain's Penelope Cruz as a woman dealing with bizarre domestic crises in "Volver," and two other British actresses,Judi Dench as a scheming teacher in "Notes on a Scandal" and Kate Winslet as a woman in an affair with a neighbor in "Little Children."
Other best-actor nominees were Leonardo DiCaprio as a mercenary hunting a rare gem in "Blood Diamond"; Ryan Gosling as a teacher with a drug addiction in "Half Nelson"; Peter O'Toole as a lecherous old actor in "Venus"; and Will Smith as a homeless dad in "The Pursuit of Happyness."
Whitaker is expected to come away with best actor, though sentiment is high for the Irish-born O'Toole, who has been nominated seven times, losing each. An eighth loss for O'Toole, who nearly turned down an honorary Oscar three years ago because he hoped to earn one outright, would put him in the record books as the actor with the most nominations without winning.
This finally may be the year for another perennial loser, Martin Scorsese, who's tied with four other directors for the Oscar-futility record of five nominations and five losses.
"The Departed" marks Scorsese's return to the cops-and-mobsters genre he mastered in decades past and is considered his best shot to finally win an Oscar, though a sixth defeat would put him alone in the record book as the losingest director ever.
Prim Oscar voters maintained their track record of ignoring over-the-top comic performances, snubbing British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen for his Golden Globe-winning acting role in the raucous "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan." However, Cohen did get a nomination for best adapted screenplay for "Borat."
The comedy front did bring supporting nominations for Alan Arkin as foul-mouthed grandfather and Abigail Breslin as a girl obsessed with beauty pageants in "Little Miss Sunshine," though the film's three key performers, Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette and Steve Carell, were overlooked.
Ten-year-old Abigail Breslin became the fourth-youngest actress ever nominated.
The supporting actor category also includes former boy band singer Mark Wahlberg as a caustic cop in "The Departed," his scene-stealing performance outshining his higher-billed co-stars including DiCaprio, Jack Nicholson and Matt Damon.
The supporting actress nominees also included Australia's Cate Blanchett for "Notes on a Scandal" along with Breslin, Barraza, Hudson and Kikuchi.
With five blacks, two Hispanics and an Asian, it was the most ethnically diverse lineup ever among the 20 acting nominees. After decades in which the Oscars were a virtual whites-only club, with minority actors only occasionally breaking into the field, the awards have featured a much broader mix of nominees in the last few years.
Black actors in particular have come into their own, with Oscar wins by Halle Berry, Denzel Washington, Jamie Foxx and Morgan Freeman, and three of the four acting front-runners this year.
Asians and Hispanics still lag behind, though nominations for Cruz, Barraza and Kikuchi are signs that Hollywood is making strides toward greater diversity.
While Cruz's "Volver," from Spanish director and past Oscar darling Pedro Almodovar, was shut out for foreign-language picture, another Hispanic film scored well. Mexican director Guillermo del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth" was nominated for foreign-language film, original screenplay, cinematography, score, art direction and makeup.
"If each one of them got nominated on their own, that would be great, but the fact that they all did ... that's just too much for one little girl this early in the morning," said Mexican actress Salma Hayek, an Oscar nominee for 2002's "Frida," who helped announced the nominees Tuesday morning.
The other nominees for best foreign-language film were Denmark's "After the Wedding," Algeria's "Days of Glory (Indigenes)," Germany's "The Lives of Others," and Canada's "Water."
Mexican filmmaker Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu earned a best-director nomination for "Babel."
Inarritu and Scorsese were joined in the best-director category by Clint Eastwood for "Letters from Iwo Jima," and two Britons, Stephen Frears for "The Queen," and Paul Greengrass for the Sept. 11 docudrama "United 93."
"If you get put in a list with those guys you've done pretty well." Frears told BBC television in talking about fellow nominees Eastwood and Scorsese, reports AP.
"Dreamgirls" looked as though it might follow 2002's "Chicago" as a rare musical to win best-picture, but like last year's music-themed Johnny Cash biopic "Walk the Line" it was a startling omission from the Oscar's top category.
While Murphy and Hudson made it into the supporting categories, lead players Jamie Foxx and Beyonce Knowles and director Bill Condon were left out.
Three of "Dreamgirls" eight nominations came in a single category for original song.
Two-time best-picture and director winner Eastwood's "Letters from Iwo Jima" had been considered a longshot and may have been the film that denied "Dreamgirls" its chance at the top trophy.
Eastwood continued his late-career surge and Oscar magic with the four nominations for the Japanese-language "Letters," including original screenplay. His World War II companion film "Flags of Our Fathers" also had two technical nominations, including sound editing in which it will compete against "Letters."
Also in the sound editing category is Mel Gibson's violent tale of the ancient Mayan civilization "Apocalypto," which had three nominations.
The year's top-grossing movie, "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest," grabbed four nominations in technical categories, including visual effects.
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