Oscars set to shake up their act

After three months of movie critics awards, audience awards and industry awards, Hollywood on Sunday finally gets down to the business of giving out its Academy Awards, the world's top film honours.

But with rags-to-riches romance "Slumdog Millionaire" widely expected to collect the Oscar for best movie, suspense surrounding the glamorous affair has shifted to whether host Hugh Jackman's can dazzle audiences and stop the slide in television viewership.



Oscar producers Bill Condon and Laurence Mark "are proven showmen who know how to package entertainment and Hugh Jackman knows how to sell it," said Tom O'Neil, columnist for awards Web site TheEnvelope.com.



That would be no small feat as the Oscars, which are given out by the Beverly Hills-based Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, raise the curtain on their 81st ceremony.



Expected inside Hollywood's Kodak Theatre and outside on the fashionable red carpet are the likes of Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Sean Penn, Meryl Streep and scores of other stars.



In recent years, comedians such as Jon Stewart and Chris Rock have hosted, warming up the crowd before awards are handed out in more than 20 categories ranging from best movies and performances to make-up design and even short films.



But viewership hit a record low of 32 million in 2008, down from 40 million in 2007. So, the academy hired movie musical producers Condon and Mark ("Dreamgirls") to shake up the show, and they hired actor and song-and-dance man Jackman, who thrilled audiences as the host of Broadway's Tony Awards.



Condon, Mark and Jackman have been mostly quiet about their plans and have given very few interviews. The Los Angeles Times said on Saturday the pair brought in Australian director Baz Luhrmann ("Moulin Rouge") to stage one number and comic writer/director Judd Apatow ("Knocked Up") for comedy.



Still, the biggest draw for Oscars has always been having major blockbuster movies at the centre of the show and suspense over which films, actors and actresses will win awards.



The most-watched telecast ever was the 1998 telecast when No. 1 smash hit "Titanic" sailed away with 11 Academy Awards, including best film, and 55 million viewers tuned in.



This year, "Slumdog," which tells of a poor, young Indian man competing for love and money on a TV game show, has earned hit status with roughly $150 million (104 million pounds) in global ticket sales.



After winning awards from many industry groups including movie actors, directors, producers and writers, "Slumdog" is widely picked to win best film over "Milk," starring Penn as gay activist Harvey Milk and "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," with Pitt as a man who ages backward.



The other two nominees are "Frost/Nixon," which recounts the historic interviews of disgraced former U.S. President Richard Nixon by British TV host David Frost, as well as drama "The Reader," starring Kate Winslet.



The best-actor race appears to be a two-way battle between Penn in "Milk" and Mickey Rourke as a faded athlete in "The Wrestler." Rourke picked up the independent film world's Spirit Award for best actor on Saturday.



Winslet is tipped for best actress playing a German Nazi-era prison guard in "The Reader" over Meryl Streep as a nun who suspects sex abuse in a Catholic school in "Doubt".



Heath Ledger, who died in 2008 of an accidental prescription drug overdose, is favoured for best supporting actor as the villain Joker in Batman movie "The Dark Knight."



Pundits say supporting actress is wide open with Penelope Cruz in "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" up for the Oscar against Marisa Tomei in "The Wrestler," Taraji P. Henson for "Benjamin Button" and Viola Davis and Amy Adams, both in "Doubt."



Finally, fashionistas will be watching the gowns on the red carpet, and while experts say the recession has stars dressing down, they are quick to add the designs won't all be dull.

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