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Jon Stewart has his marching orders: two gay cowboys, a network of crusading journalists, a metropolis of angry people, one ethically challenged writer and a Steven Spielberg miracle.

Brokeback Mountain, Good Night, and Good Luck, Crash, Capote and, in a surprise, Spielberg's Munich will comprise the Best Picture field, and presumably a good chunk of Stewart's host banter, at the 78th Annual Academy Awards.

Nominations were announced dark and early in Beverly Hills Tuesday. Planning for the telecast presentation of the Oscar-nominated song "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp," from Hustle & Flow, presumably commenced around daybreak.

Brokeback Mountain, the epic rendering of forbidden love on the range, and prohibitive favorite of the awards-show crowd, led the way for films with eight nominations. Though shut out of Best Song, where the Golden Globe-winning "A Love That Will Never Grow Old" failed to make the cut, it rounded up a wide variety of arts and crafts nominations. Oddsmakers quickly declared it the film to beat.

George Clooney led the way for glamorous movie stars with three individual nominations, one for letting his looks go to seed in Syriana (officially, a Best Supporting Actor nod), one for cowriting and one for directing Good Night, and Good Luck.

Clooney told E! News that--"swear to God"--he learned of his hat trick while watching the network. The first congratulatory call, he recounted, came from his father, newscaster Nick Clooney.

"He called me literally in the middle of the show while they were still announcing," Clooney said. "They hadn't announced Best Picture yet, and he's like, 'Woo-hoo,' and I was like, 'Easy, let's see how we do.' "

How Clooney did was historic, the first Oscar nominee to score as an actor and a director for two different movies.

Overall, Good Night, and Good Luck, about CBS Newsman Edward R. Murrow's battles during the Senator Joe McCarthy hearings of the 1950s, notched six nominations.

Other top nominees were: Crash, the look at racially polarized Los Angeles, with six, including a Best Supporting Actor nod for Matt Dillon, his first; and the lush Memoirs of a Geisha, earning recognition for sets, costumes and cinematography, etc., for a total of six.

* Get the complete list of contenders

Three movies notched five nominations apiece: Capote, about the writing of author Truman Capote's landmark In Cold Blood; Walk the Line, the Johnny Cash-June Carter love story that made Oscar contenders of stars Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, up for Best Actor and Best Actress, respectively, but failed to land a berth in the Best Picture race; and Munich, the thriller about the aftermath of the 1972 Summer Olympics terror attack that came back from the awards-show dead to come up big at Oscar time.

Spielberg, Munich's only lock, earned his expected Best Director nomination. His competition should look familiar--he sat amongst them all at Saturday's Directors Guild of America Awards: Clooney (Good Night); Paul Haggis (Crash); Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain); and Bennett Miller (Capote). Lee, as Oscar-pool players should note, won the DGA.

Overall, the number of notable snubs was down considerably from past years, in part because nobody expected anything from King Kong (which, despite its perceived woes, got four nominations in the technical categories), in part because nobody much liked Chicken Little (not penciled into the Animated Feature race), and in part because the acting fields shaped up as the acting fields were expected to shape up.

In the Best Actor race, Phoenix likely will happily avoid a backstage Oscar press conference by losing to Capote's Philip Seymour Hoffman, who has won just about every trophy, including Sunday's SAG Award, manufactured and presented in Hollywood since late last fall. Filling out the field are Heath Ledger (Brokeback Mountain), veteran David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck) and, in one of the morning's twists, Terrence Howard (Hustle & Flow), whose journeyman career turned a corner with his performance as a pimp, but whose awards-show buzz had been faint of late. Save for Phoenix, all are first-time nominees. A win for the 26-year-old Ledger would make him Oscar's youngest ever Best Actor honoree.

Motion Picture
Brokeback Mountain
Good Night, and Good Luck
Memoirs of a Geisha
Walk the Line

The Best Actress category shapes up so: Front-runner and SAG winner Witherspoon against a dame (Judi Dench, up for Mrs. Henderson Presents), a Desperate Housewife (Felicity Huffman, up for Transamerica), a 20-year-old phenom (Keira Knightley, up for Pride & Prejudice) and a former winner (Charlize Theron, up for North Country). (Dench is also a former winner, but her Shakespeare in Love Oscar is of the Best Supporting Actress variety.)

In the Best Supporting Actor race, Clooney and Dillon are pitted against SAG winner Paul Giamatti, notably overlooked last year for Sideways, but nominated this year for Cinderella Man, Jake Gyllenhaal, recognized for Brokeback Mountain, and, coming in from left field, William Hurt, a surprise pick for A History of Violence.

So went the SAG field, so went the Oscar field for Best Supporting Actress: Amy Adams (Junebug); Catherine Keener (Capote); Frances McDormand (North Country); Rachel Weisz (The Constant Gardener); and Michelle Williams (Brokeback Mountain). Weisz would seem to be the woman to beat; she's already won the Golden Globe and the SAG. (Added bonus: She's very pregnant and could burst mid-acceptance speech.)

Names that weren't named to Oscars' honor roll included: Cinderella Man's Russell Crowe; Memoirs of a Geisha's Zhang Ziyi; and Crash's Don Cheadle. Past winner Crowe seemed crossed up by a movie that performed below expectations, not to mention a telephone incident that exceeded hotel etiquette boundaries, while past nominee Cheadle got lost in a movie that might have won its ultimate award--best ensemble--at the SAGs. Aside from Dillon, no Crash actor figured into the nominations.

Chicken Little, meanwhile, will have company on the sidelines from Madagascar and Robots. The past year's top money-making 'toons, CGI productions all, were aced out of the Best Animated Feature field by Tim Burton's Corpse Bride, Wallace & Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit and Howl's Moving Castle, non-CGI productions all that when combined ($116.2 million, per BoxOfficeMojo.com) didn't make as much as Madagascar ($193.6 million). Or Chicken Little ($133.5 million). Or Robots ($128.2 million).

Likewise, big bucks didn't translate into big Oscar nominations for Star Wars: Episode III--Revenge of the Sith ($380.3 million), 2005's box-office champ, which came away with just one nod, for Anakin Skywalker's burned up ball of face (officially, Best Makeup). Revenge of the Sith is now tied Star Wars: Episode II--Attack of the Clones for least number of Oscar nominations among the Jedi movies.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire ($286.3 million) did as well, or poorly, as Sith, conjuring up a lone nomination for Best Art Direction. The Chronicles of Narnia ($277.9 million) represented the blockbuster class with three nods, including one for outstanding flying jungle cat (officially, Best Visual Effects).

Composer John Williams enjoyed a morning nearly as good as Clooney's, earning two nominations (for the scores of Geisha and Munich) to the star's three. Now, all Clooney needs to do is earn 42 more and he'll have as many career nods as Williams does as of Tuesday.

If Williams' 45 nominations seem out of reach, perhaps Clooney could aspire to Spielberg's 11 (including two for directing and producing Munich) or, ambition pending, Woody Allen's 21 (including the all-new Best Original Screenplay nomination for Match Point).

Spielberg hasn't won since 1999; Williams, since 1994; Allen, since 1987.

To end his nearly 20-year dry spell, Allen will have to outpoll Clooney's Good Night, and Good Luck, as well as the writers of Crash, The Squid and the Whale and Syriana, recently recategorized as an original, not an adapted, screenplay.

Syriana's defection from the adapted category seemingly made room for Munich. The Tony Kushner and Eric Roth collaboration is pitted against the scripts for Brokeback Mountain, Capote, A History of Violence and The Constant Gardener.

Country legend Dolly Parton said she was "thrilled and honored beyond belief" for her first Oscar nomination in 25 years, a Best Original Song nod for "Travelin' Thru" from Transamerica. Last time around, Parton's catchy title song for 9 to 5 lost to the equally memorable title track from Fame. This time, her competition is Hustle & Flow's "Pimp" and "In the Deep," the non-love theme from Crash.

In the Best Documentary Feature race, box-office hit March of the Penguins will try to waddle past the timely exposé Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.

The 78th Annual Academy Awards are scheduled to be presented Mar. 5 in Hollywood. Stewart is to emcee the live ABC telecast.

Get the complete list of Oscar nominees.