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Tension mounts as Oscar clock ticks

H'wood crossed its fingers as Oscar voters finalised their picks for film's top award, with Lord of the Rings looking set to reign.

india Updated: Feb 25, 2004 16:00 IST

Hollywood crossed its fingers Tuesday as Oscar voters finalised their picks for cinema's top honours, with "Lord of the Rings" looking set to reign over Sunday's glittering ceremony.

The deadline for the more than 5,800 voting members of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences to hand in their ballot papers for the 76th annual Oscars expired at 5:00 pm (0100 GMT Wednesday), sealing the fate of this year's 50 golden statuettes.

"This is it," said Academy communications director John Pavlik. "If people haven't got them in, they won't count now," he said as the outcome of the 2004 awards passed into the hands of two PriceWaterHouse Coopers auditors.

Tallying the precious ballots will begin Wednesday in a secret location where two specially-charged accountants will slip the names of the winners into the famous envelopes that will be opened at the Oscars ceremony.

But with five days still to go before the Oscars, pundits said the result in the awards' top category appeared predestined, with one film poised to lord it over Hollywood: "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King."

"The hobbits and the elves of 'The Lord of the Rings' have nothing to fear from any other films this year," Oscars expert and awards predictor Tom O'Neil told AFP, adding that Oscar voters were moving to honour the entire trilogy.

The final episode of Peter Jackson's groundbreaking fantasy trilogy goes into the awards armed with 11 nominations, more than any other picture, including best director for Jackson who appears to be a shoo-in for the honour.

But after weeks of predictions that the winners in key categories of best actor and best supporting actress were all but sewn-up by Sean Penn and Renee Zellweger, a groundswell of industry support for their rivals has thrown those races in disarray.

Former Hollywood bad-boy Penn's turn in Clint Eastwood's dark drama "Mystic River" is suddenly faced with a major threat from heart-throb Johnny Depp for his role in "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl," as well as from comic actor Bill Murray.

Depp was honoured Sunday by members of the Screen Actors' Guild (SAG) with their best actor award, while Murray's moving interpretation of a washed up US actor in Japan in the gentle comedy "Lost in Translation" is being hailed in the industry. The SAG awards are seen as a key Oscar bellwether.

And three-time Oscar nominee Zellweger, up for best supporting actress in the Civil War drama "Cold Mountain," now faces a last-minute run for her money from a surprising new rival: the virtually unknown Iranian-born actress Shohreh Aghdashloo for the drama "House of Sand and Fog."

"Penn and Zellweger are slipping fast as dark horses are zooming up on them," O'Neil said, adding that despite an accalimed perfromance, the abrasive Penn was not a sentimental favourite among Oscar voters who "don't really want to hug a smug thug."

"Murray and Depp are gaining speed on Penn very fast, while Aghdashloo is winning huge buzz and momentum in the closing stages of the race. It's almost deafening across the industry."

South African beauty Charlize Theron has retained her clear frontrunner status in the best actress category for her startling transformation for her role as a prostitute and serial killer in the biopic "Monster."

She does however face potential competition from two other foreigners -- the 13-year-old New Zealand actress Keisha Castle Hughes, nominated for "Whale Rider," and Australia's Naomi Watts, recognised for her riveting role in "21 Grams." Castle-Hughes is the youngest best actress nominee in Oscars history.

In the best supporting Oscar slot, "Mystic River's" Tim Robbins remained the favourite, eclipsing competitors such as Alec Balwin in "The Cooler," Benicio Del Torp in "21 Grams," and Japan's Ken Watanabe for "Last Samurai."

All 5,800-odd Academy members vote for best picture, while winners in the other categories are selected by voter colleges from the same branch of the industry -- actors are picked by actors and directors by fellow directors.

The golden statuettes that make and break movie careers will be handed out at Hollywood's Kodak Theatre in a ceremony attended by a galaxy of stars and industry moguls that will be watched by up to a billion television viewers across the globe.

The show marks the climax of this year's especially frenzied awards season, shortened by a month after Oscar organisers moved up the Academy Awards in bid to burnish Oscar's prestige after a whelter of rival awards shows started to muscle in on its flagging viewership.

First Published: Feb 25, 2004 16:00 IST