Hollywood on edge as Oscars countdown begins

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The Independent Culture

Hollywood was counting down the hours to the 82nd Academy Awards here Sunday with Iraq war drama "The Hurt Locker" battling science-fiction epic "Avatar" in a duel for Oscars supremacy.

The movie industry's most exclusive annual awards show will see a galaxy of A-list stars descend on the red carpet rolled out at the Kodak Theater for the ceremony, which gets under way at 5:00 pm (0100 GMT Monday).

Transparent plastic tents have been erected to shield Oscars guests from wet weather after days of rain in Los Angeles, but the gloomy forecast is unlikely to dampen the mood as awards season reaches its climax.

All eyes are on the David v Goliath battle between the low-budget "The Hurt Locker" - made for around 11 million dollars - and "Avatar," which cost around 500 million dollars and is the highest-grossing movie in history with earnings of more than 2.5 billion dollars to date.

Both films have nine nominations each, including best picture and best director, an intriguing contest with sees "The Hurt Locker's" Kathryn Bigelow up against ex-husband James Cameron, the creative genius behind "Avatar."

Bigelow's film about a US Army bomb disposal squad has emerged as favorite after winning a series of awards seen as indicators of likely Oscars success.

The movie's momentum has been shaken by a string of embarrassing controversies, including a scandal over negative campaigning which led to one of its producers being banned from Sunday's ceremony.

Most analysts believe however the controversies unfolded too late in the voting process to affect the outcome of the best picture race.

Bigelow, 58, is also favorite to pip her former spouse for the best director Oscar, which would make her the first woman in history to win the award.

"No matter what happens in the best picture race I don't think Kathryn Bigelow is going to be denied," said Maxim Film critic Pete Hammond. "It's too irresistible a story."

Other nominees for best director include Quentin Tarantino for "Inglourious Basterds," Lee Daniels for harrowing drama "Precious" and Jason Reitman for the recession-era dramedy "Up In the Air."

Front-runners have emerged in most of the acting categories, but Sandra Bullock could face a stronger-than-expected challenge in the best actress race.

Bullock, who won a Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award for her part in the drama "The Blind Side," faces competition from Meryl Streep ("Julie & Julia"), Carey Mulligan ("An Education") and Gabby Sidibe ("Precious.")

Bullock delighted attendees at the Golden Raspberry Awards or "Razzies" late Saturday by breaking with tradition and showing up in person to collect her award at the annual eve-of-Oscars parody.

Meanwhile in the Academy Awards best actor category, popular veteran Jeff Bridges is expected to claim his first Oscar at the fifth attempt.

The 60-year-old has already won at the Golden Globes and SAG awards for his heart-wrenching portrayal of a washed up country singer in "Crazy Heart."

Other nominees include George Clooney for "Up In the Air," Morgan Freeman for "Invictus," Jeremy Renner for "The Hurt Locker" and Britain's Colin Firth for "A Single Man."

The junior acting awards are considered a formality, with Austria's Christoph Waltz set to win best supporting actor for his turn as a sadistic Nazi in Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds," and Mo'Nique regarded as a shoo-in for best supporting actress for her role as an abusive parent in "Precious."

Sunday's telecast will be beamed live to more than 100 countries, with hosts Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin running the show.

Telecast producers Adam Shankman and Bill Mechanic are promising a new-look show which will feature an array of guest presenters including previous winners Kathy Bates, Barba Streisand and Charlize Theron.

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