Where is Michael Clayton when we need him? Surely George Clooney's crisis-fixer character would know how to solve the strike-related impasse that's jeopardizing this year's Oscar ceremony. Or perhaps Javier Bardem's No Country for Old Men hitman could just sort of stare all parties into submission. Wait, scratch that: Cutie-pie Juno MacGuff would need mere minutes to charm them into a hasty settlement.
If only. Oscar-nomination day was filled with its usual excitement and hoopla, but the writers' strike cast a cloud of uncertainty over the proceedings this year, with many nominees wondering if they'll even get the opportunity to dress up and head to the Kodak Theatre on Feb. 24. ''Maybe the talks will be so far along, [the Writers Guild] will grant a waiver,'' speculated Michael Clayton's Tony Gilroy, who scored nods for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. ''Maybe the strike will be over. Maybe there'll be some other accommodation. But in the end, as much as you'd love to go make a speech, there are so many people that this strike is so crucial for. You try to keep it in perspective.''
Gilroy wasn't the only first-time nominee with mixed emotions. ''There's that moment where you think, 'Oh great, new dress!''' said Lars and the Real Girl screenwriter Nancy Oliver. ''And then that other moment where you go, 'Oh, well, maybe not.' But so many people are hurting, and I'm more concerned about that than a party, to tell you the truth. It would be a glamorous Hollywood moment, but I'd rather have a fair deal.''
All year the Oscar race has felt wide open, and, not surprisingly, the Academy ended up spreading its big nominations out among a lot of contenders, many of them the violent type. Leading the pack were the watch-through-your-fingers duo of No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, which received eight nods each. While vacationing with friends in Europe, Best Supporting Actor front-runner Bardem marveled over all the acclaim his performance has garnered. ''You go to a movie set, you cut your hair into that haircut, you do the job, and suddenly, people like it,'' he said. ''It's out of your hands or your control.''
Close behind these two were Clayton and Atonement, with seven nominations apiece. After watching his thriller go 0 for 4 at the Golden Globes and miss out on a Best Cast nomination from the Screen Actors Guild Awards, Gilroy talked about how unpredictable this year's awards season is turning out to be. ''If you think about it, it's the same thing that's going on in the presidential race,'' he said. ''Usually by now someone's locked something up.'' Indeed, this year will go down as the one where the pre-Oscar awards didn't add up. For the first time in the history of the usually prescient SAG Awards, only one of the Best Cast nominees (No Country) made it to the Best Picture race.
Atonement producer Paul Webster, meanwhile, found himself representing the only Best Picture nominee that failed to earn any recognition for its director. ''More than anybody else, this is his movie,'' Webster said of Joe Wright. ''His stamp is all over it. It kind of makes a nonsense of the process in a way. Personally, I would happily trade my own nomination for a Best Director nomination for him.''
The Best Picture candidates are a heavy-themed lot, but the one source of levity among them is Juno. The cheapest of the five films to make, it's also the highest grossing, having earned $87 million so far. The film collected nods for Best Director (Jason Reitman), Best Actress (Ellen Page), and Best Original Screenplay (Diablo Cody). ''I really woke up just to hear Ellen's and Diablo's names get read out loud,'' said Reitman, who watched the announcements from his hotel room at Sundance. ''As they were going to the directors' category I said, 'Oh, just blow by this, could we get to Best Picture already?' And then my name came up and my wife just burst into tears. Unless you just became a father you probably can't hold a candle to the way I'm feeling right now.'' Cody had a similar reaction: ''I screamed myself hoarse. I've grown up watching the Coen brothers' films. They're heroes to me. There Will Be Blood was my favorite film of the year. It's cool to be the Academy's comic relief!''
After being stiffed by the SAG Awards, the Globes, the Critics Choice Awards, and even the Spirit Awards, Best Actress nominee Laura Linney had to laugh as well. ''Oh, I completely gave up,'' reported the elated Savages star from Telluride, Colo., where she was on vacation with her fiancé Marc Schauer. ''I didn't think it was possible, I really didn't. My agent, Toni Howard, kept saying, 'It's gonna happen! It's gonna happen!' And I was like, 'Ucchhh, no, it's not!''' Surprise Best Actor nominee Tommy Lee Jones claims he didn't even know the nominations were being announced and we believe him. ''My wife woke me up this morning and told me about it,'' said Jones, who made the list for the $6.8 million-grossing In the Valley of Elah. ''It could be that more DVD screeners were sent out than tickets were sold at the box office!''
Professional obligations kept 82-year-old first-time nominee Hal Holbrook from sharing the moment with his wife, actress Dixie Carter. ''We were hoping to wake up early in the morning together and be told some good news,'' said the Into the Wild actor. But instead of putting on a pot of coffee with her in Los Angeles, he found himself in New York during the big reveat at a television studio, no less: Holbrook was scheduled to be on the Today show minutes after being nominated. ''There was this request to come here and promote the film, because it's being rereleased to give it another shot.''
The announcements also provided an instant trove of Oscar-history gems: Cate Blanchett's dual Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress nods (for Elizabeth: The Golden Age and I'm Not There, respectively) made her the third double acting nominee of the decade (after Julianne Moore and Jamie Foxx), while her nomination for Elizabeth means she's the first woman ever to snag two nods for playing the same character in two different films (Paul Newman, Al Pacino, Peter O'Toole, and Bing Crosby had all pulled off the feat before). Cinematographer Roger Deakins, who shot No Country and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, became the first director of photography since 1972 to score two nominations in the same year; he heard the news while shooting his next project, the Meryl Streep drama Doubt. ''Meryl came up and congratulated me,'' Deakins said. ''She said, 'You're the Cate Blanchett of our set!'''
Meanwhile, No Country's Joel and Ethan Coen joined Warren Beatty as the only artists ever to receive simultaneous nominations in four different categories. They were cited for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and under their alias, Roderick Jaynes Best Editing. In the screenplay categories, this year marks the first time four of the 10 Oscar-recognized scripts were written entirely by women: Cody, Oliver, The Savages' Tamara Jenkins, and Away From Her's Sarah Polley. And Enchanted's Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz became the first triple Best Song nominees since all the way back in...well, last year, when Dreamgirls' Henry Krieger scored the same hat trick.
For now, the most pressing bit of Oscar history-in-the-making involves whether or not the ceremony will go on as usual. ''We're moving forward with plans for our show for the 24th,'' said Academy spokesperson Leslie Unger. ''Our producer is thinking about alternatives given various scenarios. It is our sincere hope to do our show as we normally do.''
Still, some major players couldn't help dreaming up contingency plans. Brad Bird, a Best Animated Film nominee for Ratatouille, endorsed the idea of a private, nontelevised ceremony: ''That's how the Oscars began. It was just a bunch of people in the industry having dinner and drinking a little and trying to pat each other on the back for good work. At the heart of it, that's what it is and should be,'' he said. ''But you know, we're sitting here kibitzing as if we're in control of this. Like, 'I know what! We could actually go to an island somewhere that has no jurisdiction, and therefore we wouldn't actually be crossing any picket lines!'''
Michael Moore, who earned a Best Documentary nod for Sicko and is a member of the WGA, was a bit more optimistic. ''I think the studios and the producers are going to have to come back to the table and be reasonable and settle this,'' he said. ''What are we asking for? Like, four pennies? Something like that? These are not unreasonable requests, and I think cooler heads on the studios' part will now prevail because they certainly wouldn't want the Oscars to be canceled.''
Not that some nominees would necessarily mind. ''Part of me would be a little relieved because it means you don't have to make that incredibly long plane journey,'' said Michael Clayton Best Supporting Actor nominee (and London resident) Tom Wilkinson. If the ceremony is, in fact, called off, Oscar's class of 2008 is already thinking of alternate plans for how they'll spend the night. ''If they don't happen? I'll sit in a nice gown, even if I'm in my living room,'' said Gone Baby Gone Best Supporting Actress nominee Amy Ryan. ''All dressed up and nowhere to go!'' The Diving Bell and the Butterfly's Best Director nominee Julian Schnabel said he'd hit the waves: ''I'll go surfing. I don't know where. I could go down to Mexico. There ought to be a south swell around that time.'' (Additional reporting by Jennifer Armstrong, Clark Collis, Steve Daly, Josh Rottenberg, and Kate Ward)