LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," a costly drama that took decades to make, led the field of Oscar contenders on Thursday, while Heath Ledger became only the sixth actor to get a posthumous nomination.
"Benjamin Button," for which Brad Pitt earned a nod as best actor for playing a man who ages backward, earned 13 nominations in all -- one short of the record shared by "All About Eve" (1959) and "Titanic" (1997).
"Slumdog Millionaire," the tale of an impoverished orphan's improbable victory on India's version of the game show "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," followed with 10 nominations. The colorful drama cost just $15 million to make -- about one-tenth of the cost of "Benjamin Button."
As expected, Ledger was nominated for his supporting role as the villainous Joker in the hit Batman movie "The Dark Knight," which collected eight nominations to tie with the gay-rights biopic "Milk."
Ledger is easily the favorite to take the prize at the 81st annual Academy Awards on February 22. The Australian actor died of an accidental overdose of prescription pills exactly a year ago, at the age of 28.
To date, the only performer to win posthumously has been Peter Finch, who was honored for 1976's "Network" about two months after his fatal heart attack.
Pitt, however, faces a tough race with Sean Penn and Mickey Rourke seen as the favorites for their respective roles as a gay-rights activist in "Milk" and an aging professional fighter in "The Wrestler."
"Benjamin Button," "Slumdog Millionaire" and "Milk" will vie for best picture alongside a pair of movies that claimed five nominations each -- the post-Holocaust love story "The Reader" and the political-media drama "Frost/Nixon." In a rare match-up, all five also got best director nominations.
Other major Oscar contenders include the popular robot love story "WALL-E" with six nominations, including best animated feature, and the Catholic Church conspiracy drama "Doubt" with five nominations, including four for acting.
Clint Eastwood's recent box office champ "Gran Torino" was notably snubbed, with no nominations.
"Benjamin Button," loosely based on a 1920s short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, has been floating around Hollywood for decades. The film's producers, Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall, took over the project about 18 years ago, but struggled with the central issue -- how to depict its star being born as an old man and eventually dying as a baby.
Technical wizardry allowed the producers and director David Fincher to use Pitt throughout rather than multiple actors, although some critics have said the film is more of a digital than a cinematic triumph.
Still, "Benjamin Button" has just crossed the $100 million mark at the North American box office, and Pitt's star power will likely boost Oscar viewership after several down years when the awards were dominated by arthouse movies with limited mainstream appeal. It doesn't hurt that his girlfriend, Angelina Jolie, was also nominated, for "Changeling."
"Benjamin Button" is a co-production between Paramount Pictures, a unit of Viacom Inc, and Warner Bros Pictures, a unit of Time Warner Inc. Its haul included best supporting actress for Taraji P. Henson and best adapted screenplay for Eric Roth and Robin Swicord.
But "Benjamin Button" has had a rough ride so far this awards season, having been ignored by both the Critics Choice Awards and the Golden Globes, two Oscar bellwethers.
Kennedy said her film was "pretty neck-and-neck" with "Slumdog Millionaire" in the Oscar derby. Some critics say she might be a little optimistic.
"'Slumdog Millionaire' has hit a chord with people," said Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers. "I haven't run into anybody who tells me they didn't like that movie. There's just a tremendous response to it."
The acclaim comes eight months after director Danny Boyle's then-unreleased film was facing a possible route straight to DVD. Warner Bros shut down the arthouse arm that had made the movie and was uncertain about its theatrical prospects. But Fox Searchlight Pictures, the specialty label of News Corp's 20th Century Fox, agreed to distribute it.
The only possible obstacle to a big Oscar night for the film is that none of its cast were nominated, observers said.
Editing by Sandra Maler