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Oscars return to red-carpet high style

Hollywood's biggest celebration returns in style on Sunday with favorite host Billy Crystal back in his tuxedo and a plush red carpet.

india Updated: Feb 28, 2004 11:13 IST
Reuters
Reuters
PTI

A year after Iraq war angst muted the mood of the Oscars, Hollywood's biggest celebration returns in style on Sunday with favorite host Billy Crystal back in his tuxedo and a plush red carpet back under the feet of the stars.

Not everything will be the same: In a break with tradition, the Oscars' live coast-to-coast telecast will for the first time be presented on a five-second delay, an anti-smut safeguard imposed by ABC after Janet Jackson's breast-baring Super Bowl performance.

But producers have promised the delay will not be used to censor political statements by Oscar winners or presenters. Handing out awards this year will be some of Hollywood's most outspoken political partisans, including supporting-actor nominees Alec Baldwin and Tim Robbins, and Robbins' wife Susan Sarandon, while Iraq war opponent Sean Penn may make take the stage if he wins best actor in "Mystic River."

Indeed, for an Oscar season that seems decidedly lacking in suspense, the night's biggest surprises may come from unscripted moments on stage if socially conscious stars succumb to the temptation of venting their election-year views to one of the world's biggest TV audiences.

Although last year's ceremony - overshadowed by the U.S. war in Iraq - drew historically low ratings, an estimated 62 million Americans still tuned in for some portion of the telecast. Hundreds of millions more watched around the globe.

Academy Award organizers and ABC, which airs the event, are counting on the prominence of box-office blockbuster "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," which garnered 11 nominations, to help the Oscars stage a ratings rebound.

The conclusion to Peter Jackson's epic trilogy is heavily favored to win the prize for best picture, and Jackson is widely tipped to win as best director. The highest-rated Oscar telecast dates back to 1998, when "Titanic," the only other film in history to gross more than $1 billion worldwide, cruised away with the 11 awards including best picture.

CAUSE CELEBRE

This year's main Oscar cause celebre is shaping up to be environmentally friendly automobiles, with several stars eschewing limousines and SUVs in favor of electric cars or gasoline-electric hybrids. Among them are nominees Diane Keaton, Marcia Gay Harden, and Keisha Castle-Hughes, 13, star of "The Whale Rider" and the youngest contender ever for best actress.

But the Oscars will be anything but austere. A year after organizers literally rolled up the red carpet and kept fans away from arrivals in keeping with somber wartime sentiments, the glitz is back in full force.

Spectator bleachers have been reinstalled, along with 500 feet of red carpet along Hollywood Boulevard, and comedian Joan Rivers will return with her equally tart-tongued daughter, Melissa, to dish out fashion commentary for pre-show viewers.

Missing from this year's shortened Oscar season - the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is presenting the ceremony a month earlier than usual - has been much of the mudslinging and hard-ball pre-Oscar campaigning that added to the hype of years past.

At the Kodak Theatre, where the Academy Awards are being held for their third year, rehearsals began Thursday, but details of the show have been shrouded in secrecy. Crystal, who had bowed out of the Oscar spotlight for the past three years, will be back at the 76th annual awards for his eighth stint as master of ceremonies.

In an ABC interview airing Oscar night, the 56-year-old comedian tells Barbara Walters he treats the Oscars as "an endurance race" and prepares himself physically. "We have two run-throughs that day, and in between I'll do a couple of hundred sit-ups, 50, 60, 70, however many push-ups I can do, so my whole body feels good when I go out there," he said. "It's having an athlete's mentality for me."

It was unknown whether Crystal, a favorite of audiences and critics alike for his deadpan humor and Hollywood sendups, would present another of his famed film-parody montages. He may also aim a few jokes at the controversy over Mel Gibson's newly opened film, "The Passion of the Christ."

Film executive Joe Roth, making his TV debut as Oscar telecast producer, has kept mum about his plans for the show, or how he'll keep the proceedings moving to wrap up in the 3 1/2 hours allotted to the show.

First Published: Feb 28, 2004 10:17 IST