And the winner of the $110,000 goody bag is...

As the glitz returns to the show, the pre-ceremony deliberations reach a new low of bickering and back-stabbing

And now, almost live from the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, it's the 2004 Academy Awards. And in tonight's show we have Sean Penn facing a right-wing backlash, a slap in the face for Disney, a potential shock for Renée Zellweger, and no, repeat no, fleeting glimpses of celebrity breasts.

Such is the fear here of a repetition of the Janet Jackson episode that, for the first time in Oscars history, ABC Television has instituted a five-second delay in transmission. This allows some corporate Mrs Grundy to intervene before an obscenity or stray mammary gland reaches the world's living rooms.

The block will not apply to political speeches made by winners. Herein, in a year when The Lord of the Rings seems a shoo-in and Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ is hogging the movie limelight, lies the excitement of what otherwise seems one of the flattest Oscars for ages. What we do have this year - after last year's hairshirt approach due to the Iraq war - is the return of glitz, or some good old-fashioned conspicuous consumption.

It is evident in the $2m (£1.1m) Cinderella slippers that singer Alison Krauss will wear when she sings at the ceremony, but most of all it is apparent in the goody bag that goes to the star presenters and nominees in the headline categories. It is worth $110,000, treble what it was 12 months ago, and comes in three designer baskets delivered to the doorstep. The 50-plus goodies include a $6,000 widescreen TV, $500 espresso machine, vouchers for a $1,500 steak dinner, a Las Vegas vacation, a first-class trip to New Zealand, a cruise, beauty treatment, $12,000 worth of underwear and jewellery, and much more.

But the handouts they really want are the gongs themselves, worthless in sell-on value (that's not allowed), but priceless to career and ego. And the calculations behind who gets these are as complex as ever this year. For instance, there may well be good reasons for Sean Penn not to win the Oscar for best actor - just ask the many admirers of Bill Murray's performance in Lost in Translation - but if it should transpire that his name is not read out from the stage, it will almost certainly be for bad reasons. Those reasons will be entirely unconnected with his performance as a bereaved father in the moody Clint Eastwood thriller Mystic River, and everything to do with his standing among the 5,803 voters of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Mr Penn doesn't like showing up to awards ceremonies, which loses him brownie points right away. He also generated controversial headlines with his pre-war visit to Iraq 15 months ago and his vocal criticisms of the Bush administration's rationale for invasion. To older, more conservative voters, he looks awfully like this generation's Hanoi Jane, as Jane Fonda was dubbed, never mind The New York Times raves that his performance was one of the great pieces of screen acting of the past half-century.

The Academy Awards are never exactly a paragon of judicious selection. The voting procedure - which does not even require Academy members to have seen the films they pronounce upon - is about as free and fair as elections in Belarus, but this year the pettiness of the pre-Oscar deliberations has, arguably, reached a new low.

With the big prize effectively bagged in advance (listen out for the sound of a thousand hats being eaten if The Lord of the Rings fails to win best picture), the rest of the field has fallen prey to special-interest bickering and partisan agenda-pushing. Conventional Hollywood wisdom had it last month that Cold Mountain was excluded from the best picture nominations because the industry had it in for Harvey Weinstein, the Miramax co-chairman who gambled more than $100m on Anthony Minghella's Civil War epic. Now, the gossip is that if Renée Zellweger fails to win best supporting actress, it will be because of an anti-Cold Mountain campaign being waged by Hollywood's technical unions. They are furious that the production was shot in Romania, not the US, using cheap, non-union labour - a glaring instance of so-called "runaway production" that is transforming the economic landscape of film-making.

On the other hand, Ms Zellweger's cause has been unexpectedly boosted by a controversial advert run on behalf of her rival, the Iranian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo, who appears in House of Sand and Fog. The advert, which states baldly that Ms Zellweger will win but that Ms Aghdashloo should win, was hurriedly withdrawn by DreamWorks after the Academy pointed out that it was effectively a negative campaign against another actress - a big no-no.

Studio politics could determine the winner of the animated short category. A win for Destino, an unlikely collaboration from the 1940s between Walt Disney and Salvador Dali, recently resuscitated by Walt's nephew Roy, would be an unmistakable poke in the eye for Michael Eisner, Disney's much-reviled chairman who is fighting to save his job. Roy Disney is spearheading a campaign to topple Eisner at a shareholders' meeting this week, and has promised to speak out on the subject should he be invited to the podium. The Eisner battle could also extend to the full-length animation category, where Finding Nemo - the favourite - could be boosted by the falling out between Pixar, which made the film, and Mr Eisner, who tried and failed to keep Pixar within the Disney fold.

And so it goes across the spectrum. The chances of Fernando Meirelles winning best director for City of God - never huge, given the odds in favour of Peter Jackson of Lord of the Rings - have been savaged by a mini-scandal over the fact that he has refused to share credit with his co-director, Katia Lund.

* UK films made up three of the 10 biggest box-office hits of 2003, new figures from the UK Film Council will reveal this week. Love Actually did best, followed by Calendar Girls and Johnny English. In 2002, only two UK films made it into the list.

The names in the frame for the big awards

Best picture

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Lost in Translation

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Mystic River

Seabiscuit

Best director

Peter Jackson - The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Sofia Coppola - Lost in Translation

Fernando Meirelles - City of God

Peter Weir - Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Clint Eastwood - Mystic River

Best actor

Johnny Depp - Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

Ben Kingsley - House of Sand and Fog

Jude Law - Cold Mountain

Bill Murray - Lost in Translation

Sean Penn - Mystic River

Best actress

Keisha Castle-Hughes - Whale Rider

Diane Keaton - Something's Gotta Give

Samantha Morton - In America

Charlize Theron - Monster

Naomi Watts - 21 Grams

Best supporting actor

Alec Baldwin - The Cooler

Benicio Del Toro - 21 Grams

Djimon Hounsou - In America

Tim Robbins - Mystic River

Ken Watanabe - The Last Samurai

Best supporting actress

Shohreh Aghdashloo - House of Sand and Fog

Patricia Clarkson - Pieces of April

Marcia Gay Harden - Mystic River

Holly Hunter - Thirteen

Renée Zellweger - Cold Mountain

Best foreign language film

The Barbarian Invasions

Evil

The Twilight Samurai

Twin Sisters

Zelary

Best animated feature film

Brother Bear

Finding Nemo

The Triplets of Belleville

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