Oscars getting down to magic moment

The cameras are in place, the stars are starting to stroll the red carpet, and the countdown to the 81st Academy Awards has begun, CNN reported.
Dev Patel and Freida Pinto star in "Slumdog Millionaire," the favorite to win best picture Oscar night.

Hollywood's biggest night is scheduled to start at 8 p.m. ET from the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles, California. The show airs on ABC.

Oscar watchers are fixated on several questions -- will it be Mickey Rourke in "The Wrestler" or Sean Penn in "Milk" for best actor? Will Kate Winslet once again lose out? And who's going to win best supporting actress?

But two things are certain: "Slumdog Millionaire" is still the odds-on favorite for best picture, and host Hugh Jackman plans to have a great time.

"The way I see it is if I'm not going to have a good time, then how can anyone else have a good time," Jackman told CNN, while impishly threatening to go "drunk and nude" for the show. Video Watch Jackman describe his "butterflies" over hosting "

The makers of "Slumdog" have been having a great time since January, when their film took home the Golden Globe for best drama. The crowd-pleasing rags-to-riches story has been the winter's surprise winner, also racking up victories from the Producers Guild, the Writers Guild, the Directors Guild and the BAFTAs. Video Watch which films, stars are up for top honors "

"I think that 'Slumdog Millionaire' is one of those very rare cases, where the movie comes out and you think, OK, that's a good little movie ... it will be happy to be nominated, and it will get some great recognition," said Oscar historian Steve Pond, author of "The Big Show." "And somehow it has hung on, and the bigger movies that came out afterwards did not click with people as much, and suddenly this little movie was the best story of the year."

That gives "Slumdog's" best picture competition -- "Milk," "Frost/Nixon," "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" and "The Reader" -- a major challenge in stopping the little film's momentum. See the complete list of nominees

"Slumdog's" "Rocky"-like success story may also provide the Oscars with something it could use for ratings domination: a rooting interest.

Oscar ratings generally have been in decline throughout this decade, and without the blockbuster "The Dark Knight" among the best picture nominees, this year may be another down year. Indeed, as Variety editor Peter Bart writes in the March issue of Vanity Fair, not even the studios -- almost all owned by major media conglomerates -- appear very engaged.

"With very few exceptions ... companies were not out there pitching their projects to Oscar and Golden Globe voters with the sort of passionate advocacy of a [Oscar-winning producer] Harvey Weinstein," wrote Bart. "To many of the top stars and agents, the Oscar, too, has become a prisoner of the bean counters."

Not even the bean counters are happy. The traditional Oscar nomination box-office bump has skipped all but "Slumdog," with grosses for "Milk" and "Frost/Nixon" down as much as 33 percent week to week. Only "Benjamin Button" has topped $100 million at the domestic box office, and its budget was estimated at $150 million. "Slumdog" should hit the $100 million mark by early March.

The Academy Awards ceremony is trying to strike back with a new host, the multitalented Jackman, who has earned raves for his handling of the Tonys, and what producers Bill Condon and Laurence Mark hope will be a few surprises.

"It's in the nature of television to restrain the spontaneity of a live event," Condon added. "Things become more and more prepackaged."

Both men have been coy as to what's planned -- or unplanned -- with Condon telling The Associated Press that "we wanted to restore a kind of mystery to it." But the kernel of their thinking could be inferred from a comment Mark made to the Times: "Once upon a time, if I'm not mistaken, it was a party. We'd like to bring back a little bit of party flavor."

For many of the nominees, it's also a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Nine of the 20 acting nominees are first-timers, and several say they're trying to enjoy the moment because it may never come again.

"It's something I never thought would happen," said Richard Jenkins, nominated for best actor for his performance in "The Visitor." "I'm terribly appreciative of this honor." Video Watch Jenkins on the Oscar attention "

With "Slumdog" the odds-on favorite to win best picture, Oscar observers are focusing on the acting races for dramatic kicks. Even Nate Silver, the mastermind of the political Web site FiveThirtyEight.com, which accurately predicted Barack Obama's presidential victory in November, is getting into the act. Running this year's nominees through a sieve of Oscar history, Silver told New York magazine the favorites are Mickey Rourke ("The Wrestler"), Kate Winslet ("The Reader"), Heath Ledger ("The Dark Knight") and Taraji P. Henson ("Benjamin Button").

Ledger, who died in early 2008, could become the second performer to win an Oscar posthumously. Peter Finch won best actor for 1976's "Network" two months after he died in 1977.

Before the show, an alleged list of winners was making the rounds on the Internet. Though the Academy has dismissed it as a hoax -- "The document is a complete fraud," said Oscar spokeswoman Leslie Unger -- apparently the list has sparked a "betting frenzy," according to The London Telegraph.

There's also chatter about whether "Button,' which leads all films with 13 nominations, could go home empty-handed, a distinct possibility given the way the film has been shut out so far this awards season. The record for most nominations without a win is held by 1977's "The Turning Point" and 1985's "The Color Purple," both of which went 0 for 11.

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