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"Button," "Slumdog" Lead Oscar Nods

The romantic fantasy "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" led Academy Awards contenders Thursday with 13 nominations, among them best picture and acting honors for Brad Pitt and Taraji P. Henson, and a directing slot for David Fincher.

Other best-picture nominees are "Frost/Nixon," "Milk," "The Reader" and "Slumdog Millionaire."

"Slumdog" lived up to its rags-to-riches theme, coming in second with 10 nominations, including a directing spot for Danny Boyle and two of the three song slots.

As expected, Heath Ledger had a supporting-actor nomination for "The Dark Knight" on the one-year anniversary of his death from an accidental overdose of prescription drugs. But the Batman blockbuster was shut out from other top categories such as best picture and director.

Real-life couple Pitt and Angelina Jolie both will be going to the Oscars as nominees. Jolie had a best-actress nomination for the missing-child drama "Changeling."

The acting categories were loaded with surprises. Kate Winslet won two Golden Globes, best dramatic actress for "Revolutionary Road" and supporting actress for "The Reader." But she was nominated for lead actress at the Oscars for "The Reader" and shut out for "Revolutionary Road."

Actors considered long-shots also snuck in, among them lead-actor nominee Richard Jenkins for "The Visitor," best-actress contender Melissa Leo for "Frozen River" and supporting-actor pick Michael Shannon for "Revolutionary Road."

Winslet reunited with "Titanic" co-star Leonardo DiCaprio for "Revolutionary Road," but he also was shut out for a nomination on that film.

Other best-actress nominees were Anne Hathaway for "Rachel Getting Married" and Meryl Streep for "Doubt." It was a record 15th nomination for Streep, who already had more Oscar nominations than any other actor.

Joining Pitt and Jenkins in the best-actor category were Frank Langella, "Frost/Nixon"; Sean Penn, "Milk"; and Mickey Rourke, "The Wrestler."

Other acting snubs included Clint Eastwood for "Gran Torino," Sally Hawkins for "Happy-Go-Lucky" and Kristin Scott Thomas for "I've Loved You So Long."

Directors of all five best-picture nominees all were nominated. Along with Boyle and Fincher, the directing category includes Ron Howard for "Frost/Nixon," Gus Van Sant for "Milk" and Stephen Daldry for "The Reader."

"Frost/Nixon" wound up landing nods for best picture, director and actor.

On The Early Show Thursday, Howard told co-anchors Harry Smith and Maggie Rodriguez making "Frost/Nixon" was "a complete labor of love. And hats off to Universal, who's been so supportive of the movie. They asked us all to work to make the movie as responsibly as we could. But there was never any question that they wanted to make it, even though it's not an easy movie to market.

"It's personally thrilling, but it also means a lot to the movie, a movie that I'm very proud of."

Dalton Ross, assistant managing editor of Entertainment Weekly magazine, told Smith and Rodriguez he was taken aback by numerous nods for "The Reader." Ross said he "didn't see that one getting in there, really, especially once Kate Winslet was not nominated for 'The Reader,' (and the Academy) obviously went for her in 'Revolutionary Road.' But when she wasn't nominated for 'The Reader,' I thought that one was out. That snuck in.

"You see one other film that was completely snubbed was 'Gran Torino." '

Ross had predicted Michael Shannon might be nominated and, once he was, Ross remarked, "He was hardly in the movie. He was nominated for 'Revolutionary Road.' He was amazing in those few scenes he was in. He stole the show. That's hard to do when you're sharing a scene with Leonardo di Caprio and Kate Winslet."

Smith pointed out that a lot of people thought Josh Brolin should have been nominated last year for "No Country for Old Men." He played Dan White in "Milk."

"A stunning performances all the way around in 'Milk," ' said Ross. "I thought 'Mmilk' would do a lot better today. It certainly did have nominations all over the place. I think that's a serious contender in a lot of those categories. You look some movies like 'Benjamin Button.' I don't know how many victories that's gonna take home, but i think 'Milk' could do some damage in these categories."

"Milk" tells of California's first openly gay elected official, Harvey Milk, a San Francisco supervisor who was assassinated along with Mayor George Moscone by fellow S.F. Supervisor Dan White.

Brolin, who was in Park City, Utah for the Sundance Film Festival, told Smith and Rodriguez, "Because I'm in Sundance right now and it's an hour later, I woke up here at 5:55. And I looked at the clock, and I go, 'Oh, well, I guess it didn't happen. That's OK.' And then I realized that the time had been -- you know what I mean? So I've been up and down, you know, the Himalayas today, for sure!"

He added that, "When I read it (the script for "Milk"), I thought it was a really important film. And I told Gus (director Gus Van Sant, who got a best director nomination), 'Look, I'll do it, you know, whatever you want me to do. If you want me to play Harvey Milk, if you want me to play Dan White, whatever you want me to do. And then the timliness of it, because of Prop 8 (ballot measure banning gay marriage in California and approved by voters, and under legal challenge), I think it's an incredible movie and I'm glad there's so much notice for it."

Perhaps the biggest surprise overall was the so-so results for "The Dark Knight," which had been picking up momentum as one Hollywood trade guild after another picked it as one of the year's best films.

The largest blockbuster in years, "The Dark Knight" had eight nominations, but other than Ledger's honor, it scored only in technical categories such as cinematography, visual effects and editing.

Before his death, Ledger's reinvention of the Joker as a mad-dog anarchist already was bringing him Oscar buzz. After Ledger died on Oscar nominations day a year ago, an almost mythical aura grew around the actor, helping to fuel a record $158.4 million opening weekend for "The Dark Knight" last summer.

Long viewed as the favorite, Ledger won the supporting-actor prize at the Golden Globes. If the same happens on Oscar night, Ledger would be only the second performer to receive an Oscar posthumously, following Peter Finch, the best-actor winner for 1976's "Network."

Ledger is the seventh actor to earn a posthumous nomination. Along with Finch, others include James Dean, nominated for best actor twice after his death, with 1955's "East of Eden" and 1956's "Giant."

The other actors nominated after their deaths were Spencer Tracy (1967's "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner"); Ralph Richardson (1984's "Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes"); Massimo Troisi (1995's "The Postman"); and Jeanne Eagels (1929's "The Letter").

Featuring a cast of unknowns, "Slumdog Millionaire" mixes the humorous and the horrific in a love story about an orphan from the streets of Mumbai who becomes a champion on India's version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire."

The film's newcomer cast was shut out in acting categories, but its 10 nominations included slots for screenplay, cinematography and musical score.

"Slumdog Millionaire" nearly became a casualty of 2008's collapse of studio arthouse divisions. Warner Independent had been set to release the film, which went into limbo after Warner Bros. shut down the specialty banner. The film faced the prospect of going straight to DVD until 20th Century Fox division Fox Searchlight stepped in to release it theatrically.

So far playing in relatively narrow release, "Slumdog Millionaire" has climbed to nearly $45 million at the domestic box office, with plenty of shelf life left to make good on its modest $14 million production budget.

The film dominated the Golden Globes, sweeping all four of its categories, including best drama and director.

Like "Slumdog Millionaire," "The Wrestler" presents an on-screen drama whose theme parallels the comeback story of Rourke. Playing a former wrestling star with one last shot at glory, Rourke returns to the promise of his early career, before his bad-boy behavior made him virtually unemployable in Hollywood.

"The Wrestler" earned Rourke the Golden Globe for dramatic actor. The film also won a Globe for the title song by Oscar winner Bruce Springsteen. But Springsteen missed out on a song nomination for "The Wrestler."

Along with the two tunes from "Slumdog Millionaire," the third song nominated was one co-written by Peter Gabriel for the animated blockbuster "WALL-E."

The robot romance "WALL-E" is the latest Pixar Animation blockbuster coming in as the favorite for the animated-feature Oscar. "WALL-E" is up against the martial-arts comedy "Kung Fu Panda" and the dog tale "Bolt."

A win for the critically adored "WALL-E" would be the fourth feature-length animation Oscar for Pixar, giving the outfit behind "Ratatouille," "Finding Nemo" and "The Incredibles" half of the eight trophies since the category was added in 2001.

Oscar nominees are chosen in most categories by specific branches of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, such as actors, directors and writers. The academy's full membership of about 6,000 was eligible to vote for best-picture nominations and can cast ballots for the winners in all categories at the Oscar ceremony itself.

The 81st Oscars will be presented Feb. 22 in a ceremony airing on ABC from Hollywood's Kodak Theatre.

This year's Oscars already present a departure from previous shows. Rather than a comedian, such as past hosts Billy Crystal, Chris Rock or Jon Stewart, the emcee this time is Hugh Jackman, star of the "X-Men" flicks and a Tony Award winner for best actor in a musical.

Rock, the Oscar host four years ago, has some advice for Jackman about handling the crowd of nominees, most of whom go home empty-handed.

"I'll tell him what Billy told me. An hour and a half into the show, most of the audience has lost, so you have to take that into account as you go on with the show," Rock said this week at the Sundance Film Festival. "But I'm sure he'll be great, singing and dancing and doing his thing."

The nominees were announced at the Samuel Goldywn Theater in Beverly Hills by Sid Ganis, President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and Oscar-winning actor Forest Whitaker.