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'Aviator,' 'Baby' duking it out at Oscars
Updated: 2005-02-28 08:47

Uncertainty was in the air for Hollywood's big night Sunday, with an Academy Awards show potentially packed with drama yet lacking the box-office muscle to ensure a decent TV viewing audience.

Hilary Swank arrives for the 77th Academy Awards Sunday, Feb. 27, 2005, in Los Angeles. [AFP]

Unlike last year, when "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" dominated the awards as expected and flat-out front-runners took all four acting prizes, the 77th Oscars shaped up as a mixed bag, with only "Ray" star Jamie Foxx a virtual lock to win.

With no huge hits among top nominees, Oscar organizers worried that TV ratings could dwindle for the live ABC broadcast. The Oscars tend to draw their biggest audiences when blockbusters such as "Titanic" or "Return of the King" are in the mix, stoking viewer interest.

Producers of the show hoped the presence of mouthy first-time host Chris Rock might boost ratings, particularly among younger viewers who may view the Oscars as too staid an affair.

Organizers also were trying to spice up the show with new presentation tactics, including herding all nominees on stage at the same time, beauty-pageant style, for some awards.

There was no uncertainty about the enthusiasm on Hollywood Boulevard outside the Kodak Theatre, where excited fans packed into bleachers along the red carpet after waiting for hours to get in.

"It's American royalty," said Barbara Doyle, 57. "We don't have the queen. We have actors and actresses."

"I've always wanted to do this," said 48-year-old Pam Ford, who won front-row seats from a TV station and brought three friends. "To win and sit in the front row, it's beyond comprehension, anything I ever dreamed of. I could die tomorrow."

Clint Eastwood's emotionally piercing prizefight drama "Million Dollar Baby" and Martin Scorsese's gloriously rendered Howard Hughes saga "The Aviator" presented the evening's key matchup for best picture.

The other contenders were "Finding Neverland," a fanciful look at playwright J.M. Barrie's inspirations in writing "Peter Pan"; "Ray," a hearty portrait of the loves, lusts, failings and musical triumphs of singer Charles; and "Sideways," the critics' darling about a dour wretch whose road trip with a buddy leads him to new hope for romance.

Scorsese and Eastwood's duel for best director carried almost as much drama as the best-picture race.

One of American cinema's most esteemed filmmakers, Scorsese was in danger of joining such luminaries as Alfred Hitchcock and Robert Altman as record holders for Oscar futility: Five directing nominations, five losses.

Eastwood, a past directing and best-picture Oscar recipient for the 1992 Western "Unforgiven," beat Scorsese for both the Directors Guild of America prize and the Golden Globe directing honor for "Million Dollar Baby." Those prizes are solid indicators on who ultimately wins the best-director Oscar.

Scorsese also has never delivered a best-picture winner, though many in Hollywood believe his 1980 masterpiece "Raging Bull" should have won that honor and the best-director prize. Robert Redford's "Ordinary People" took both those awards that year.

At the 1990 Oscars, Scorsese's "GoodFellas" lost both categories to Kevin Costner (news)'s "Dances With Wolves." If Eastwood prevails, it would be the third time a superstar-actor-turned-director had skunked Scorsese on Oscar night.

Eastwood also scored a best-actor nomination for "Million Dollar Baby," though Foxx was considered one of the strongest favorites in Oscar history for his exceptional emulation of Charles, a portrayal so eerily believable it jolted even the late singer's friends and family.

Hilary Swank, an Oscar winner for "Boys Don't Cry," had the edge for best-actress for her role as a bullheaded boxer in "Million Dollar Baby," but Annette Bening (news) was a serious rival for the theater farce "Being Julia."

Morgan Freeman of "Million Dollar Baby" and Cate Blanchett (news) of "The Aviator" were favorites for supporting actor and actress, though Thomas Haden Church and Virginia Madsen of "Sideways" and Clive Owen and Natalie Portman of the sex drama "Closer" offered strong competition.

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