Oscar statuettes go missing nine days before ceremony

The annual fever of excitement surrounding the Oscars took a mysterious twist yesterday with the news that the fabled golden statuettes have disappeared.

Nine days before Hollywood's biggest awards ceremony, it appears the Oscarshave been stolen off a loading dock in an industrial suburb of Los Angeles.

John Pavlik, a spokesman for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, said that the statuettes were being handled by a trucking company, Roadway Express, when they went missing on Thursday night. It is believed that 54 of them are missing.

The Oscars are being plagued by bad luck this year, or perhaps something more sinister, as the loss of the statuettes follows hard on the heels of the disappearance of thousands of voting ballots that were to be sent out to members of the academy.

Curiously, one batch of the missing ballots was tracked down to the city of Bell - thesame place where the statuettes vanished without trace.

Is this a case of not asking for whom the Bell tolls? Mr Pavlik refused further comment yesterday, but the curse over this year's ceremony has whipped all of Hollywood into a flurry of speculation.

When the postal ballots went missing, the academy sent out new ones and extended the voting deadline to next Thursday - just three days before the Oscar ceremony takes place at the Shrine Auditorium. The studios reacted to that announcement as only Hollywood knows how - by ordering several days' more blanket advertising in the trade papers to sing the praises of their nominees.

The greatest threat to the Oscars ceremony may be yet to come, however.

The academy cried foul last week when it discovered that a dozen Wall Street Journal reporters were conducting a telephone poll of its membership, apparently with the intention of giving a scientific prediction of the winners. Mr Pavlik said members had been begged not to reveal their choices so the Oscars can maintain their confidentiality.

It is not clear when the Wall Street Journal intends to publish, or whether it has been deterred from doing so.

However, since the winner of the Best Picture Oscar has long since been assumed to be American Beauty, Sam Mendes' suburban drama which has been showered with other awards, the Wall Street Journal may not have anything too surprising to reveal.

The theft of the statuettes will not, it seems, mar the ceremony: there will be enough replacements to go around on the night. The factory in Chicago which makes the statuettes has been commissioned to despatch an emergency batch.