Oscar countdown begins in Hollywood
By Bob Tourtellotte
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - It is Oscar week in Hollywood, and after three months in the dark winter of a bitter labor strike, the movie industry finally has something to celebrate -- itself.
This Sunday, the world's top film awards get under way with a full array of stars such as George Clooney and Cate Blanchett parading up the red carpet outside the Kodak Theatre where Academy Award nominees hope to be named best actor or actress.
Some 5,800 voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will anoint one film as their favorite among nominees that include crime drama "No Country for Old Men" and teen pregnancy comedy "Juno."
With a fresh crew of writers, Oscar host Jon Stewart hopes to keep audiences laughing through the three-hour live telecast.
"Here we are. After a long winter, comes the spring and now the summer," said Oscar producer Gil Cates. "It's been a terrible three months."
Some 10,500 members of the Writers Guild of America walked off the job on November 5, throwing into disarray the awards season that runs from December through the February 24 Oscars.
Gala dinners and ceremonies honoring films and their makers were canceled or changed drastically. January's glitzy Golden Globe Awards turned into a news conference watched by about a quarter of the typical audience of 20 million viewers.
But the strike ended one week ago, and Oscar organizers are promising a traditional ceremony for a global TV audience with big stars, dazzling fashion and, hopefully, memorable winners.
VYING FOR OSCAR GLORY
Oscar watchers expect some drama in key races, despite the fact many categories have clear front-runners. Academy Award voters, the experts said, enjoy defying the oddsmakers.
"Sometimes the Hollywood honchos vote with their heart just to remind us they have one," said Tom O'Neil, veteran Oscar watcher with awards Web site, TheEnvelope.com.
"No Country" heads into Sunday leading the race for best film because it earned top honors from the guilds of producers, directors, actors and writers -- four key indicators of Academy Award success.
But the pundits sense taut legal thriller "Michael Clayton" is surging due to the popularity of its star Clooney, and note the emergence of "Juno," which is the only nominated film to surpass the pivotal $100 million mark at U.S. box offices.
The other two nominees are oil drama "There Will Be Blood," a meditation on the corrupting power of money, and romance "Atonement," another drama with a dark ending.
Briton Daniel Day-Lewis playing a hard-charging oil man in "Blood" has earned front-runner status in the best actor race by virtue of several critics' and other awards this season, but the experts said Clooney is giving him a run for his money.
Among best actress nominees another Briton, Julie Christie, has been the darling of award season as an Alzheimer's sufferer in "Away From Her." But don't count out French actress Marion Cotillard as singer Edith Piaf in "La Vie En Rose" or Ellen Page as the defiantly pregnant teen in "Juno."
In other races, Spain's Javier Bardem is tipped to win supporting actor playing a killer in "No Country." Tilda Swinton leads supporting actresses in her role as a manipulative corporate lawyer in "Clayton."
Finally, brothers Joel and Ethan Coen look to be the team to beat in the race for best director with "No Country." And regardless of who wins or loses, Academy Award organizers are happy about one thing: this year, the Oscar goes on.
(Editing by Mary Milliken and Eric Walsh)