Hollywood's biggest fashion parade, the red carpet outside the Oscars, began heating up on Sunday afternoon ahead of the world's top film awards where silent movie The Artist is widely seen as the choice for best movie.
Early arrivals included Artist actor Berenice Bejo, who is nominated in a supporting role, in a mint green dress, The Help star Jessica Chastain in a stunning black gown embroidered in gold and Descendants actor Shailene Woodley in white.
Fans who had waited all day lined the red carpet in stadium seats to cheer their favorite stars including George Clooney and his girlfriend, Stacy Keibler. Photographers snapped thousands of pictures and television cameras rolled.
Tim Gunn, co-host of popular fashion TV show Project Runway, called the Oscars' red carpet, "the runway to end all runways."
But it is later in the evening that the action really begins when comedian Billy Crystal, who returns as Oscar host for the ninth time, takes the stage and the awards begin to flow.
This year, The Artist, a tale of old Hollywood that sees a fading star find redemption through the love of a woman just as silent movies are being taken over by talkies, is widely picked to take home best film by most industry pundits.
It comes into the night with 10 nominations, second only to Martin Scorsese's Hugo with 11. But most of the nods for Hugo are in technical categories like cinematography, whereas The Artist nominations are spread across several categories.
"It's unbeatable," said Dave Karger, movie writer for Entertainment Weekly magazine.
While it faces keen competition from civil rights drama The Help, The Artist has come out on top in most award shows this year. Still, pundits point out that The Help did win best ensemble cast from the Screen Actors Guild, and actors make up the biggest group of Oscar voters.
The third movie that has had Hollywood buzzing this season is family drama The Descendants, starring George Clooney as a man trying to keep his family together after his cheating wife is hospitalized in a coma. But Descendants has failed to spark Oscar voters, and its key win is seen as adapted screenplay.
Actors and Actresses
The category of best actress features a too-close-to-call race between Viola Davis playing a maid in The Help and Meryl Streep as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady. Tom O'Neil of awards website Goldderby.com calls that race "neck and neck."
The best actor category sees American Clooney Descendants face Frenchman Jean Dujardin, star of The Artist. For a long time, Clooney seemed to have the upper hand, but Dujardin has won most every time the two have been pitted against each other.
Supporting actor and actress appear locked for Christopher Plummer, playing an elderly gay man in Beginners, and Octavia Spencer as one of the black maids in The Help.
At age 82, Plummer would be the oldest Oscar winner ever, and if both Spencer and Davis are victorious, then it would be the first time two African American women have won those categories in the same year for the same movie.
The race for director is widely tipped to go to The Artist maker Michel Hazanavicius, but could see a surprise by Hugo and Scorsese, Woody Allen with Midnight in Paris or Alexander Payne and The Descendants.
Finally, Iranian film A Separation goes up against Israel's Footnote in the category for foreign language film, bringing world politics into the movie industry awards.
(Reporting By Bob Tourtellotte; Editing by Sandra Maler and Cynthia Osterman)