"The statuette is the perfect symbol of the picture business," said Frances Marion the year after the Academy Awards were launched in 1927, "a powerful athletic body clutching a gleaming sword, with half of his head - the part that holds the brains - completely sliced off."

Even if you share a similarly venomous feeling for the film industry, it's hard not to get just a little bit excited when the Oscars come round again. The big gowns, the crocodile tears, the betting-slip dissolving in your sweaty little paw. That's right, betting-slip. If you can have a flutter on the dogs and the horses, why not take a gamble on which of Hollywood's exotic animals will be first past the post? William Hill have been taking bets on the Oscars for the last 10 years, and although it will never offer serious competition to the World Cup, it's still a nice little earner, netting them more than pounds 100,000 a year. "Punters like it because there's a greater proportion of favourites who win," reveals bookie Graham Sharpe. So who are the odds-on favourites and who are the rank outsiders for 1998?

In the Best Actress category, Helen Hunt has moved from 14-1 to even money for her performance in As Good As It Gets. The only American actress in a pack of Brits (Judi Dench, Kate Winslet, Julie Christie and Helena Bonham Carter) she's in a strong patriotic position with the Academy voters and, after picking up an award at last week's Screen Actors Guild, looks a dead cert. "Let's hope not for the sake of our girls," says Sharpe, who's watched one-time favourite Helena Bonham Carter drop to 5-2 for her towering performance in The Wings of the Dove, as Judi Dench slips into second favourite at 2-1 for her redoubtable Queen Victoria in Mrs Brown. Julie Christie is at 12-1 for her role in Afterglow, while Kate Winslet hits an Oscar iceberg at 16-1.

When it comes to Best Actor, two-time winner Dustin Hoffman is a surprise outsider at 33-1 for his role as the odious producer in political satire Wag the Dog, young blade Matt Damon registering above him at 20-1 for his coruscating performance as a Boston boy genius in Good Will Hunting. At the top of the heap, meanwhile, sit icons Jack Nicholson, favourite at 1-2 for his role in As Good as It Gets (above right), and Peter Fonda at 5-2 for his understated performance in Ulee's Gold, with Robert Duvall at 4-1 for The Apostle.

In this category there's clearly a choice to be made between the old-timer gong for Nicholson (for a self-parodic turn reminiscent of his last Oscar-winning outing in Terms of Endearment) or to Fonda, seemingly ripe for the Hollywood hug of reclamation after his years in the box-office wilderness.

Alternatively, chance your arm with boy wonder Damon (although as co- writer on Good Will Hunting, he's probably a better bet for Best Original Screenplay). In brief, Best Film favourite is Titanic (bottom) at 1-8, followed by the immensely superior LA Confidential at 5-1. As Good As it Gets rests at 8-1, with Good Will Hunting at 20-1.

But why not stash your wad on the immensely popular The Full Monty, instead? If it comes in at 33-1, you'll be singing "I Believe in Miracles" all the way to the bank.

The Academy Awards ceremony takes place on 23 March