Almost Famous | EW.com

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Almost Famous

You know all about Denzel, Sissy, and Ridley. Here's a look at five of this year's lesser-known Oscar hopefuls.

SARAH KERNOCHAN Thoth

BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT SUBJECT

The last time Sarah Kernochan made a documentary, she won an Academy Award. The year was 1972 and the film was Marjoe, which followed Pentecostal evangelist Marjoe Gortner. Now Kernochan’s made her second doc, Thoth – and nabbed her second nomination (with coproducer Lynn Appelle). ”Pretty good record, eh?” says the writer-filmmaker, who also wrote the feature films Impromptu and Sommersby and the story for What Lies Beneath. ”I never thought of myself as a documentary filmmaker. But when a story presents itself, I obey whatever form is best for it.” Documentary is probably the only form that could contain Thoth, the story of New York street performer Stephen Kaufman. Could fiction plausibly render an androgynous, mixed-race musician who’s composed an opera set in his own fictional world, sung in his own fictional language, and performed solo, with violin and foot percussion? Probably not. But Oscar exposure means we may be seeing a lot more of Kaufman (who now goes by Thoth, after the Egyptian deity). ”We’re hoping that enough festivals accept [Thoth] so he can go all over the world,” says Kernochan. ”He’ll perform in the streets of whatever festival accepts the film. That was part of my plan – I wanted to get his performance to more people.” Which brings us to awards night. ”I just want Thoth to have his moment on the red carpet.” Someone alert Joan Rivers. – Scott Brown

BOB BALABAN Gosford Park

BEST PICTURE

Take one look at Bob Balaban’s resume and you have to wonder how more than 30 years have passed without the diminutive actor-director-producer earning even one Oscar nomination – until now. It’s even stranger considering showbiz is in his blood. His father’s family founded Chicago’s famed Balaban & Katz theater chain, and his uncle Barney was the longtime head of Paramount Pictures. So what’s the Academy been waiting for? ”I’m not exactly regular,” admits Balaban, 56. ”But you know what? I’ve been fairly lucky. I’ve always been attracted to material by director…. It didn’t get me lots of money or notoriety, but I learned a lot and had the pleasure of being in a lot of interesting projects.” Indeed, his pivotal roles in such films as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Absence of Malice, and another of this year’s Oscar nominees, Best Adapted Screenplay contender Ghost World, have brought Balaban attention and respect. Over the years, he has also built a solid, 25-year friendship with director Robert Altman, whom he approached with his idea for the ensemble murder mystery that would become Gosford Park. ”I knew it would be special,” says Balaban, who also plays a persnickety American producer in the film. ”It would never be accused of being boring or predictable.” That description might just as easily apply to Balaban himself. – Nicholas Fonseca

LISA BLOUNT RAY MCKINNON the accountant

BEST LIVE ACTION SHORT FILM

It may sound cornier than corn pone, but the making of the Oscar-nominated short film the accountant was pure destiny: Georgia-born writer-director-star Ray McKinnon, 41, (last seen in O Brother, Where Art Thou?) met his future executive producer (and wife) Lisa Blount on the set of 1993’s Needful Things. ”Her mother sent a care package that included greens; my mother sent a care package that included pepper sauce. The forces were conspiring for us to get together.” Turns out Blount, 41 (best known as Debra Winger’s floozy pal in An Officer and a Gentleman), was a fellow Southerner who shared McKinnon’s dream of bringing a Southern accent to film. After nearly a decade of false starts, McKinnon went on a two-week writing jag and completed the story of a desperate farmer who enlists a shady accountant to save his ancestral land. With help from friend and costar Walton Goggins and actor Eddie King, McKinnon and Blount loaded a $250,000 Panavision camera onto a 1975 Dodge pickup truck and headed into the breach. ”There are a lot of people out there making movies about the South who don’t quite know what they’re doing,” says Blount, who plans to act in their next proposed project, a feature entitled Chrystal. For right now, however, she’s happy to be a producer who’s serving up true grits in Dixie-starved Hollywood: ”I enjoy New York cop dramas as much as the next gal, but there’s only so much of that you want.”

RICHARD TAYLOR The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

BEST COSTUME DESIGN, BEST VISUAL EFFECTS, AND BEST MAKEUP

If the Academy had an award for Best Achievement in Elf-Sword Construction, The Lord of the Rings’ go-to guru Richard Taylor would be one of this year’s few sure things. But for now, he’ll have to make do with nabbing co-nominations in three painstaking categories. A cofounder of the New Zealand-based F/X firm Weta Ltd., Taylor, 37, first collaborated with Rings director Peter Jackson as a puppet maker on 1989’s Meet the Feebles. Now, on the Rings trilogy, he’s the token Tolkien expert, responsible for keeping the author’s vision consistent throughout. ”Jackson gave me the opportunity to look over as many departments as possible,” says Taylor, who schooled himself in the books before undertaking what’s been, so far, a five-year project. ”And it allowed us to put a singular Tolkien brushstroke on the film and create a cohesive world.” In addition to the duties that made him one of two triple nominees this year (Jackson is the other), Taylor oversaw design of the film’s armor, weapons, and miniatures. And though he’s not a betting man, the first-time nominee is particularly fond of his makeup nod: ”You’re dealing with and interacting with the actors at the highest level,” he says. ”And to complement their performance is a real trip.” Not that the wizard hat trick has gone to Taylor’s head. ”We’re relaxed people down in New Zealand,” he says. ”We’ve got work to get on with.”