Merrick Morton/Paramount; Ishika Mohan/Fox Searchlight
Stephen M. Silverman
January 22, 2009 09:00 AM

Hollywood’s biggest battle will pit a time-challenged hero, a political war of wits, a gay activist icon, a woman with a Nazi past and a rags-to-riches survivor.

With The Curious Case of Benjamin Button vying for Best Picture along with Frost/Nixon, Milk, The Reader and Slumdog Millionaire, the 81st annual Academy Award nominations were announced Thursday morning – two days later than usual, on account of a little historical pageant that occurred in Washington, D.C., Tuesday.

Benjamin Button led the field, with a total of 13 nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actor, Supporting Actress, Director and Screenplay.

It was followed by Slumdog Millionaire, with 10.

Brad Pitt received his second-ever nomination, Best Actor for Benjamin Button. He was previously cited for his supporting role in 1995’s Twelve Monkeys, but the Oscar went to Kevin Spacey in The Usual Suspects.

The other leading men singled out this year were previous Oscar winner Sean Penn for Milk, and Golden Globe winner Mickey Rourke (The Wrestler). The Visitor‘s Richard Jenkins and Frost/Nixon‘s Frank Langella round out the list.

Meryl, Again

Perennial nominee Meryl Streep, a two-time Oscar winner who already holds the record for most nominations of any actor or actress – this is her 15th time up at bat – was nominated as Best Actress in Doubt.

Her sister contenders are Anne Hathaway in Rachel Getting Married; Angelina Jolie in Changeling; Melissa Leo in Frozen River; and Golden Globe double winner Kate Winslet in The Reader.

The Ledger Factor

One high-profile nominee, in the Best Supporting Actor category, is the late Heath Ledger, who played the psychotic Joker in Dark Knight, a role that has already won him a Golden Globe.

The native Australian, whose death from an accidental prescription drug overdose took place exactly a year ago, is also nominated for a Screen Actors Guild Award, whose ceremony Sunday could portend the ultimate Oscar winners.

Ledger’s fellow nominees in that category are Josh Brolin in Milk; Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder; Philip Seymour Hoffman in Doubt; and Michael Shannon in Revolutionary Road.

Supporting Actress and Those Ignored

Supporting Actress nominees are Amy Adams in Doubt; Penelope Cruz in Vicky Christina Barcelona; Viola Davis in Doubt; Taraji P. Henson in Benjamin Button; and Marisa Tomei in The Wrestler.

In the category of those overlooked, Oscar snubbed the seemingly likely nominees Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino; Leonardo DiCaprio in Revolutionary Road; Cate Blanchett in Benjamin Button; and Dev Patel and Anil Kapoor, as the hero and noxious TV host in Slumdog Millionaire, respectively.

The Dark Knight suprisingly also did not pick up nods for Best Picture or for its director, Christopher Nolan.

To be emceed by PEOPLE’s reigning Sexiest Man Alive, Hugh Jackman, the 81st Academy Awards will be broadcast live on Sunday, Feb. 22, from Hollywood’s Kodak Theatre at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.

For a complete list of nominations, go here.

From red carpet fashion to the big winners, read all about the Oscars!

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