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Varied films and unlikely hosts spice up Oscars

The Academy Awards are generally a predictable affair, but a varied bunch of nominated films, a tiny touch of drama in the acting races, and an unlikely choice of hosts have added some intrigue this year.


It’s Hollywood’s most cherished annual ritual. On Sunday, February 27, the US film industry will spruce itself up and strut down the red carpet of the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles to honour what it has deemed the best movies, performances, and technical contributions of the year.

All the excitement, glitter, and designer evening wear cannot hide the fact that the Oscars have, in recent years, become a predictable affair. The awards come on the heels of a lengthy “campaign” season, during which nominees smile their way through endless interviews and studios take out splashy magazine ads to boost their films’ odds, resulting in clear frontrunners.

This time around is indeed no different. But with a strikingly varied slate of nominees, a splash of drama in a few of the acting races, and the youngest hosts ever set to preside over the evening, the 2011 Academy Awards have managed to generate considerable interest – and even a bit of suspense.

Hollywood loves a British accent

The coveted Best Picture statuette, once seen as a lock for David Fincher’s thriller-paced, fast-talking Facebook saga “The Social Network”, is now expected to go to Tom Hooper’s British crowd pleaser “The King’s Speech”. As is often the case, Academy voters will likely find it hard to resist a prestigious historical production with posh accents and an uplifting storyline (the film is about King George VI overcoming his speech impediment).

Those two favourites, almost diametrically opposed in both style and content, lead a notably diverse pack of nominated works. Those are “Black Swan”, a dazzling psychological horror film about a ballerina cracking under pressure; the third installment in the beloved computer-animated “Toy Story” franchise; the Coen brothers’ darkly comic western “True Grit”; “Winter’s Bone”, a bleak Sundance winner about rural meth producers; “The Kids are All Right”, a sparkling comedy of manners also known as “the lesbian marriage movie”; the ambitious, logic-defying blockbuster “Inception”; “The Fighter”, a drama about boxing, drugs, and family dysfunction; and “127 Hours”, based on a true story of a climber who goes to grisly lengths to survive.

Actresses compete and campaign

If Colin Firth is a sure bet to win Best Actor for his stammering royal, the Best Actress race offers slightly more tension. After losing twice in the past to younger actress Hilary Swank, Annette Bening was finally in line to take home the prize for her pitch-perfect turn as the more stable half of the couple at the centre of Lisa Cholodenko’s “The Kids are All Right”.

Alas, history looks set to repeat itself: 29-year-old Natalie Portman’s virtuoso portrayal of an obsessive dancer in “Black Swan” – a role for which she endured a grueling diet and ballet training schedule – has since stolen Bening’s more low-key buzz. Still, the Academy has been known to reward actors for their entire careers rather than the individual performance nominated, so Bening (a well-liked industry veteran) certainly has a shot.

The ladies provide whatever intrigue lies in the supporting acting categories, as well. Barring an upset, Christian Bale will snag the Best Supporting Actor trophy for his intense character work as a crack-addicted former boxing champ in “The Fighter”. His co-star Melissa Leo, who plays his chain-smoking control freak of a mother, was once considered the one to beat in the Supporting Actress category. That was until Leo - who has acquired a stellar reputation, but little fame, for her work in independent cinema – raised eyebrows by launching her own personally funded Oscar campaign, complete with glossy full-page magazine spreads soliciting Academy members’ votes.

Since Hollywood generally prefers actors’ ambition masked by a demure smile and a self-effacing shrug, Leo may very well have shot herself in the foot. If that turns out to be so, the likely beneficiary is thought to be 14-year-old Hailee Steinfeld, whose début alongside heavyweights Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon in “True Grit” was one of the most highly praised performances of the year.

But perhaps the biggest jitters on Sunday night will be felt not by nominees, but by the producers of the Academy Awards show. Instead of choosing more seasoned personalities to host the three-hour ceremony (Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin had the gig last year), organisers gambled on 32-year-old James Franco – himself up for Best Actor for “127 Hours” – and 28-year-old actress Anne Hathaway. If the two talented and telegenic but relatively untested stars ultimately underwhelm on stage, it’s going to be a long night.

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