BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. – The dream of the top Academy Award is gone for the musical "Dreamgirls."
It got eight Oscar nominations Tuesday, but not best picture -- leaving the main prize up for grabs.
Will it be the sprawling global drama "Babel," which placed second with seven nominations, or the mob epic "The Departed"? Could the palace tale "The Queen" be crowned best picture, or even "Little Miss Sunshine," a road-trip romp that became last year's independent-cinema darling?
"Nobody knows anything about these award ceremonies," said Leonardo DiCaprio, a best-actor nominee for the African adventure "Blood Diamond." "And that's the fun everybody has watching the Academy Awards. That's what's exciting."
DiCaprio was responding to his own prospects of winning, but his sentiments are especially true this year for the biggest trophy.
On a nominations day filled with surprises, the most unexpected was the downfall of "Dreamgirls," considered a front-runner but which missed out on the fifth best-picture slot to the World War II saga "Letters From Iwo Jima."
It was the first time ever that the film with the most nominations failed to earn a best-picture slot.
"Dreamgirls" did grab nominations for Eddie Murphy and Jennifer Hudson, the favorites to win the supporting-acting prizes. Lead-performer front-runners Helen Mirren of "The Queen" and Forest Whitaker of "The Last King of Scotland" also were nominated, potentially leaving little drama in the outcome of the four acting categories.
Best-picture is anyone's guess, though. Previous Hollywood honors usually narrow the field to a front-runner or two, but this season, top prize winners have been all over the place.
"Babel" won best drama and "Dreamgirls" took best musical or comedy at the Golden Globes, yet even then, awards watchers felt "The Departed" or "The Queen" could walk off with best picture come Oscar night Feb. 25.
Last weekend's Producers Guild of America Awards muddied things up more as the low-budgeted "Little Miss Sunshine" was named best film over its big-studio rivals.
"Little Miss Sunshine" producer David Friendly said he never expected his film to win over such guild nominees as "The Departed" and "Dreamgirls," especially when he saw who was presenting the award.
"When Tom Cruise came walking out to give the picture-of-the-year award, I thought, `Well that's it, we didn't win,"' Friendly said. "In my life, Tom Cruise doesn't give me awards."
Friendly had another surprise Tuesday when "Dreamgirls" failed to score a best-picture Oscar nomination.
"I was floored. That one I thought was a given. I actually feel badly because I thought it was a very nice film," Friendly said. "This is the bitter side of this whole thing."
Though Murphy and Hudson nabbed acting nominations for "Dreamgirls," its director Bill Condon and lead players Jamie Foxx and Beyonce Knowles were snubbed.
Hudson, who shot to fame two years ago as an "American Idol" finalist, and Murphy stole the show in "Dreamgirls" as soulful singers in Detroit's 1960s and '70s Motown scene.
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.
"I am deeply honored and humbled that the academy has chosen to recognize my performance in `Dreamgirls,"' Murphy said in a statement. "Without a doubt receiving this nomination will stand out as one of the highlights of my career."
Along with Mirren, who plays British monarch Elizabeth II in "The Queen," best-actress nominees were Penelope Cruz as a woman dealing with bizarre domestic crises in "Volver"; Judi Dench as a scheming teacher in "Notes on a Scandal"; Meryl Streep as a tyrannical boss in "The Devil Wears Prada"; and Kate Winslet as a housewife in an affair with a neighbor in "Little Children."
Whitaker was nominated for best actor as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in "The Last King of Scotland," while DiCaprio was chosen for playing a mercenary on a quest for a rare gem in "Blood Diamond." Also nominated were 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."
It was the eighth nomination for O'Toole, and another loss would put him in the record books as the actor with the most nominations without a win.
"If you fail the first time, try, try, try, try, try, try, try again," O'Toole said in a statement.
This finally may be the year for "The Departed" filmmaker Martin Scorsese, 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.
"He's been overlooked too long," said DiCaprio, the star of Scorsese's last three movies. "He's deserved it many times before. I couldn't be more happy for this film and for Marty. I've been blessed to have worked with him. But I'm done trying to predict what I think he deserves. Ultimately, it's beyond anybody's control, I guess."
Clint Eastwood, who won the best-director prize two years ago for "Million Dollar Baby" over Scorsese for "The Aviator," scored another directing nomination for "Letters From Iwo Jima," something of a surprise considering the Directors Guild of America overlooked him.
The Japanese-language "Letters" wound up overshadowing his higher-profile companion film "Flags of Our Fathers" in awards season.
"It was kind of strange, the whole thing. It was sort of the second-cousin film," Eastwood said. "`Letters' was the smaller brother, but by the same token, it was a really good script."
Among other surprises and intriguing turns: Ten-year-old Abigail Breslin became the fourth-youngest actress ever nominated, earning a supporting slot for "Little Miss Sunshine"; Mark Wahlberg scored a supporting-actor nomination over top-billed co-stars DiCaprio, Matt Damon and Jack Nicholson for "The Departed"; past winner and Oscar darling Pedro Almodovar's "Volver," which had been considered a possible front-runner for the foreign-language prize, was not nominated; and two new faces to U.S. audiences, "Babel" co-stars Adriana Barraza and Rinko Kikuchi both were nominated for supporting actress.
When Barraza learned of her nomination, "I screamed and I jumped and I cried and kissed my husband many times," she said.
A longshot came in with the best-actor nomination for Gosling in "Half Nelson," a little-seen independent drama. Gosling was on the phone with his manager when he learned of his nomination, then he immediately heard tires squeal and a car crash outside his window, where a motorcycle policeman had been hit by a van.
"I was fielding all these congratulatory phone calls and watching this guy put into an ambulance, so it was a real conflict of emotion," Gosling said. "Then I saw on the news that he had just broken his arm. I felt like it turned out to be a pretty good day for both of us."
Raw Data: List of 79th Annual Academy Award Nominations