Academy Awards organizers are going all out to inject more suspense into Hollywood's biggest party Sunday. If only the competition itself would cooperate.
While there are close races in key categories, this year's show again suffers from a predictability factor for the top prize. Best picture is expected to go to "Slumdog Millionaire," the movie that has won the same honor at every other awards ceremony that matters.
Predictability can translate into a ho-hum attitude among TV viewers, who are less likely to sit through a marathon Oscar broadcast just to hear a winner announced at the end of the evening that everyone expected beforehand.
The Oscars had their lowest TV ratings ever last year, when the best-picture prize was handed to "No Country for Old Men," which dominated earlier awards shows just as "Slumdog Millionaire" has.
A best-picture nomination for "The Dark Knight" might have helped, since more viewers tend to tune in when such behemoth films are in the running. Though "Dark Knight" supporting-actor nominee Heath Ledger looks like a lock to become only the second performer ever to win an Oscar posthumously, the Batman blockbuster was left out of other top categories.
"Slumdog Millionaire," an infectious story of a Mumbai street orphan who finds fame, love and wealth in the face of terrible hardship, faces off for best picture against the romantic fantasy "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," the Richard Nixon tale "Frost/Nixon," the Harvey Milk drama "Milk" and the Holocaust-themed saga "The Reader."
Oscar planners are trying to spice up the show with an air of mystery. Filmmakers Bill Condon and Laurence Mark are overseeing the ceremony, their first time working on the Oscars, which they hope to shake up with new approaches to what has become a staid procession of awards, many of which the average viewer doesn't care about.
They won't reveal just what they have in mind, other than to say they want to try different methods of presenting the trophies and otherwise reinvigorate the festivities.
"That's what we're hoping to do across the board, just freshen them up and surprise people again with the way these awards are given," Condon said.
Organizers dropped their usual onslaught of announcements about A-list celebrities appearing as awards presenters. Their identities are being kept secret, and their presence _ at least in some cases _ is being kept off the red carpet.
Audiences can count on a healthy dose of stars among the acting nominees, who include past Oscar winners Meryl Streep, Sean Penn, Angelina Jolie and Marisa Tomei.
Jolie's romantic partner, Brad Pitt, also is nominated, along with Kate Winslet, Anne Hathaway, Penelope Cruz and Robert Downey Jr.
Downey crept in with a rare comic performance, the sort that usually does not fare well among the heavy dramas favored by Oscar voters. He's nominated as supporting actor for "Tropic Thunder," in which he plays an awards-obsessed actor who buries himself in his roles _ his latest as a black soldier in a Vietnam flick, for which Downey's character underwent a radical procedure to darken his skin.
"There is no way I could have read the script and said, `It's Oscar time,'" Downey said. "I was just hoping I wasn't shot at the premiere."
While Downey is almost certain to be an also-ran in his category because of the heavy odds on Ledger, there is suspense for lead-acting honors.
Best actress shapes up as a two-woman race between Streep as an old-school nun in "Doubt" and Winslet as a former concentration camp guard in "The Reader." It would be the third Oscar for Streep, who has a record 15 acting nominations, while it would be Winslet's first win after five previous losses.
Going head-to-head for best actor are Penn in the title role of "Milk" and Mickey Rourke as a former ring star with a last shot at glory in "The Wrestler." Frank Langella also is a strong contender as Nixon in "Frost/Nixon."
Rourke joked about his own expectations for the evening.
"I'll probably be sitting out there clapping for Sean Penn," Rourke said.
Cruz is the favorite for supporting actress as a volatile artist in "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," though first-time nominee Viola Davis is considered a potential upset winner for "Doubt," in which she plays the mother of a boy who may have been victimized by a priest.
Davis said she grew up more a fan of the Tony Awards on television rather than the Oscars.
"I have to say, I never imagined winning an Oscar," Davis said. "A Tony Award, yes. Not an Oscar. That was almost too big for me. But I imagine it now."
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