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'Benjamin Button': Big Oscar loser in the making?

February 22, 2009

LOS ANGELES - The producers of "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" toiled for 18 years on their strange romantic epic, so simply bringing it to the screen - let alone grabbing a leading 13 Academy Awards nominations - was a victory.

Winning any of those Oscars come Sunday night is another challenge.

"Benjamin Button" is in a curious awards position, tied with eight past films for second-most nominations ever. Yet there's a slim chance it could go home empty-handed, setting a record for Oscar futility by a single film.

Of the 10 past films with 13 or more nominations, all won at least four Oscars. If "Benjamin Button" wound up being shut out, it would become the biggest loser ever, surpassing the zero-for-11 record by 1977's "The Turning Point" and 1985's "The Color Purple." In 2002, "Gangs of New York" went zero-for-10.

"Benjamin Button" has been an omnipresent nominee at earlier Hollywood honors, but it has not won major prizes other than three technical trophies at last week's British Academy Film Awards.

It was shut out at the Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild Awards, while the directors, producers and writers guilds all passed it over for "Slumdog Millionaire," which has 10 Oscar nominations and is expected to dominate the evening.

"Slumdog Millionaire" also defeated "Benjamin Button" for top honors from trade groups for cinematography and film editing, two of the seven total categories where both are competing at the Oscars. The historical pageant "The Duchess" beat "Benjamin Button" at the Costume Designers Guild Awards.

"Benjamin Button" is considered a longshot in its top four categories: best picture, director (David Fincher), actor (Brad Pitt) and supporting actress (Taraji P. Henson).

"Slumdog Millionaire" is the heavy favorite to win best picture and director for Danny Boyle. Oddsmakers place Sean Penn ("Milk"), Mickey Rourke ("The Wrestler") and Frank Langella ("Frost/Nixon") ahead of Pitt and Penelope Cruz ("Vicky Cristina Barcelona") and Viola Davis ("Doubt") ahead of Henson.

Even if it wins some of its other categories, losing out on best picture would put "Benjamin Button" producer Kathleen Kennedy in the Oscar record books. It would be Kennedy's sixth loss, tying her with Stanley Kramer for most best-picture nominations without a win.

Frank Marshall, Kennedy's producing partner on "Benjamin Button," would move into second place, going zero-for-five on best picture.

"Obviously, we've never won. It would be nice to win for this one," Marshall said. "Thirteen nominations is also a lucky number for us, because I was born on Friday the 13th."

Kennedy and Marshall, who first took on "Benjamin Button" in 1990, have shared past nominations for "The Color Purple," ''The Sixth Sense" and "Seabiscuit." She also had nominations on her own for "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" and "Munich," while Marshall also was nominated for "Raiders of the Lost Ark."

"Benjamin Button" is a strong visual-effects competitor for the digital magic that went into the story of a man born old and aging backward. It has tough opposition, though, in the year's blockbuster superhero tales, "The Dark Knight" and "Iron Man."

"The Dark Knight" also is up against "Benjamin Button" in five other technical categories.

"Benjamin Button" is not the only potential big loser Sunday. Kate Winslet is up for best actress in "The Reader," her sixth nomination.

She lost on her previous five, and another defeat would tie her with Deborah Kerr and Thelma Ritter as the only actresses to go zero-for-six.

"I have been here so many times and lost so many times, that quite honestly, I have a really good losing face," Winslet said. "I've sort of perfected that strange, Zen, blank calm that you have to have, of course, in that moment that they don't call out your name."

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