UPDATE 1-Oscars aim for surprises to spice up show
* Show could slip to No. 3 on TV's most-watched list
* Billy Crystal brings laughter, but good speeches needed
* Some races too close to call; history may be made (Recasts, updates throughout)
By Bob Tourtellotte
LOS ANGELES, Feb 26 (Reuters) - After the curtain rises on Sunday's Oscars, producers hope a few surprise winners and heartfelt acceptance speeches will spice up the program in which silent movie "The Artist" is widely seen as the choice for best movie.
The world's top film honors are in jeopardy of losing their status as the second most-watched TV event in the United States behind professional football's Super Bowl if the show can't lure more than 40 million viewers, which could be difficult.
Producers have brought back popular host Billy Crystal to provide laughter, but the best solution for a lively TV awards program, sponsors at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences say, is a group of surprise winners or ones who give genuinely emotional or rousing acceptance speeches.
"Be memorable, and you will be remembered," co-producer Don Mischer told nominees at a recent luncheon.
It's hard to forget 73-year-old Jack Palance doing one-arm pushups on the Oscar stage after winning best supporting actor for 1991's "City Slickers," or more recently the heartfelt speech by writers Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova of best song winner "Falling Slowly" from 2007 film, "Once."
The Oscars need a few surprises because silent movie romance "The Artist," while critically lauded, has generated only around $30 million at U.S. and Canadian box offices, and the Oscars generally enjoy larger TV audiences when popular hits like "Avatar" are in the hunt for best movie.
The show annually is the second most-watched program on U.S. TV behind professional football's Super Bowl, but this year's Grammy Awards, music's top honors, lured 40 million viewers the night after Whitney Houston's death and could easily surpass the Oscars, which only twice since 2002 has had a larger audience.
Oscar producers also hope a return of popular comedian Crystal as host of the program for the ninth time will lure viewers. He hasn't been emcee of the show since 2004 when it drew roughly 44 million viewers and box office smash "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" was the big winner.
PAINTING OSCAR PICTURE
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.
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)
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