(Recasts, updates with weather improving)
By Mary Milliken
LOS ANGELES, March 2 The world's top actors and
actresses gathered for the Academy Awards on Sunday to honor a
year of high-quality film and crown the best picture, a
cliffhanger race led by "12 Years a Slave" and "Gravity."
As if on cue, the sun came out after four days of heavy rain
just before the first movie stars began arriving on the red
carpet for Hollywood's biggest night.
Workers unwrapped the giant golden Oscar statues and
prepared a slightly soggy carpet for the glamorous parade of
A-listers in designer dresses and tuxedos.
The 86th annual Academy Awards will be hosted by comedian
and day-time talk show host Ellen DeGeneres, who producers are
banking on to deliver an entertaining yet tasteful three-hour
show after critics widely panned last year's ceremony and host
Seth MacFarlane's provocative humor.
As the crowds along Hollywood Boulevard cheered on arriving
talent, nominees celebrated the end of the long awards season
and the culmination of work on their films.
"This has been such a long time coming," said director Chris
Sanders of the nominated animated film "The Croods." "It's like
Christmas is finally here and it comes and goes so quickly, you
just try to remember as much as you can."
Apart from the best picture race, it may be a night of
predictable outcomes, from "Gravity" filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron's
likely win of the best director statuette to the virtual shoo-in
of "Frozen" for best animated film. The four acting races might
also be foregone conclusions.
This year's Oscars celebrate what is widely regarded as one
of the most high quality years in film and performances in
recent memory. The president of the Academy of
Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, called it
the best line-up "in the last decade or so."
That means that awards are likely to be scattered widely as
the 6,000-plus members of the Academy seek to reward as many
films as possible with the famed golden statuettes.
While British director Steve McQueen's brutal slavery drama
"12 Years a Slave" is the presumed frontrunner for best picture,
the groundbreaking space thriller "Gravity" lurks just behind.
CHANCE TO MAKE HISTORY
Among the other contenders is 1970s crime caper "American
Hustle" from director David O. Russell, which scored 10
nominations. For the second year in a row, Russell has achieved
the rare feat of having his actors nominated in all four acting
categories. Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street," a tale
of financial greed and excess, has also been a hit with
audiences and critics.
A total of nine films are competing for best picture,
including Somali piracy thriller "Captain Phillips," the
adoption drama "Philomena," the heartland comedy "Nebraska," the
computer-age romance "Her," and the AIDS activist biopic "Dallas
But the Academy could make history this year if it chooses
"12 Years a Slave" for best picture. It would be the first time
that the top film honor goes to a movie by a black director in
the 86 years of the Oscars.
On Saturday, the real-life story of free man turned
plantation slave Solomon Northup gained more momentum by
sweeping the Independent Spirit Awards, a show that recognizes
movies made on small budgets. It scored five wins out of seven
nominations, including best feature film.
The acting categories may yield few surprises on Sunday.
Cate Blanchett is heavily favored to win her first best actress
Oscar for her portrayal of the disgraced socialite in Woody
Allen's "Blue Jasmine."
Matthew McConaughey is also a solid bet for best actor for
his role as the unlikely AIDS activist in "Dallas Buyers Club,"
for which he lost some 50 pounds (23 kg) while co-star Jared
Leto is tipped for best supporting actor.
Of the four races, the best supporting actress race might be
the most compelling. Newcomer Lupita Nyong'o is favored for her
role as hardworking slave Patsey in "12 Years a Slave" but she
faces a serious challenge from Jennifer Lawrence as the loopy
housewife in "American Hustle."
The Oscars show will feature homages to movie heroes and
"The Wizard of Oz" on its 75th anniversary. U2 and Pharrell
Williams will be among the performers for best original song.
Among the presenters will be Hollywood power couple Angelina
Jolie and Brad Pitt as well as Sidney Poitier on the 50th
anniversary of his best actor win for "Lilies of the Field," the
first Oscar in that category for an African American.
The show will be broadcast live in the United States on ABC
television starting at 5:30 p.m. PST/8:30 p.m. EST (0130 GMT)
and to 225 countries around the world.
(Additional reporting by Piya Sinha-Roy and Lisa Richwine;
Editing by Jill Serjeant and Sandra Maler)