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This year's Oscars dimmed by big picture

Annual movie awards, set for Sunday, taking different tone

By Todd Leopold

"Chicago," with Catherine Zeta-Jones, above, received 13 Oscar nods.

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What movie should win best picture?

'Gangs of New York'
'The Hours'
'The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers'
'The Pianist'

(CNN) -- Call them the Quiet Oscars.

OK, so things aren't so quiet in Hollywood, where preparations continue at and around the Kodak Theatre for the 75th annual Academy Awards. Nor are they in the entertainment press, where the Oscars are still the focus of the handicapping punditry.

But for the rest of the country, the Iraq war has reduced the traditional high-volume -- if good-natured -- arguments over "what's the best movie?" to a low hum, buried underneath the sound of bombs and the clash of armies in the Middle East.

Naturally, Hollywood is being affected by the stress of war as well, says CNN movie reviewer Paul Clinton. He notes "a large undercurrent of uncertainty. It's very somber." The red-carpet entrance will be severely altered, and wardrobes will likely be substantially toned down.

The war has brought up the question of whether the Oscars will even be held as scheduled Sunday night at 8:30 p.m. ET (5:30 p.m. PT).

"If you are a betting man, the show will go on, really and truly," said Oscar show producer Gil Cates on Tuesday.

"We all want to do the show. The public wants it, the stars want it. But we're all good Americans, so we'll try to [make it] a show that we can be proud of."

The Oscars have been postponed three times in its 75-year history: after the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., after the 1981 attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan, and by the 1938 Los Angeles floods.

'The show must go on'

But the broadcast of the show, which will air on ABC, might be interrupted by war coverage. Losing even a portion of the Oscars -- historically one of the highest-rated programs of the year -- would be a big hit for the network, which is charging in the neighborhood of $1.3 million for a 30-second commercial.

ABC has already scuttled the Barbara Walters interview program it has aired before the Oscars for many years.

However, ABC will probably stick with the show if at all possible, says awards observer Tom O'Neil, author of several books on entertainment awards and the keeper of the handicapping site

"I can't imagine ABC would kill the telecast," he says. It will provide counterprogramming for the network against war news from competitors, he says. And there's a general belief that "the show must go on," he says.

Daniel Day-Lewis' portrayal of the brutal Bill
Daniel Day-Lewis' portrayal of the brutal Bill "the Butcher" Cutting in "Gangs of New York" earned him a best actor nomination.

But even if ABC and the academy are willing, the wild card remains the people viewers tune in to see -- the stars. And there have been reports of many nervous celebrities coming out of Hollywood in recent days.

Will Smith "felt uncomfortable in attending and respectfully asked to be excused," according to a statement by his publicist. Daniel Day-Lewis, who's up for best actor, told reporters last week "it's going to be very difficult to find a way to do this."

O'Neil notes it was the stars' waffling that postponed the Emmys two years ago in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks.

The show was being rehearsed when celebrity representatives started to call, saying their clients were pulling out. That show, originally scheduled for late September 2001, finally went on in early November.

Nevertheless, the Oscars are a different game entirely. TV stars are often already in Los Angeles; film stars and industry honchos travel in from all over the world for Oscar weekend.

There are huge parties, major security concerns, and basic logistics that would have to be completely redrawn if the show were pushed back for any reason.

Stiff competition

Ironically, this year's awards are some of the most competitive in years, which should make for a great show.

"Chicago," the movie musical based on the 1975 Kander-Ebb Broadway show, received 13 nominations and is being seen as the odds-on favorite for best picture.

"Gangs of New York," Martin Scorsese's epic about 19th-century Manhattan, earned 10 nominations and has a best actor favorite in Day-Lewis' portrayal of the brutal Bill "the Butcher" Cutting.

The other three best picture nominees -- "The Hours," "The Pianist," and "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" -- all have their backers.

One awards observer said Adrian Brody in
One awards observer said Adrian Brody in "The Pianist" is "coming on fast" in the race for best actor.

"Chicago" star Renee Zellweger, who was thought to be in a close race with "The Hours'" Nicole Kidman and "Far From Heaven's" Julianne Moore, is now given the edge to win best actress, thanks to her victory at the Screen Actors Guild Awards. (Last year, the SAG proved to be the harbinger for Halle Berry's Oscar.)

And Day-Lewis' SAG and Bafta victories has given him the edge over "About Schmidt's" Jack Nicholson for best actor, despite much goodwill for the ever-present, 12-times-nominated Jack.

And don't count out "The Pianist's" Adrien Brody, says O'Neil.

"Brody's coming on fast," he says. "Oscar voters got a very late look at 'The Pianist' and may choose him" as a way to honor the Holocaust-themed film. Moreover, Brody is the only newcomer in a category of previous Oscar winners, O'Neil continues, and "Oscar loves newcomers."

O'Neil still believes Martin Scorsese, a four-time non-winner, has the edge for best director, despite "Chicago" director Rob Marshall's win from the Directors Guild and the backlash caused by campaigning on Scorsese's behalf by "Gangs'" studio head, Miramax's Harvey Weinstein.

"I think the backlash is too late," O'Neil says. "And I don't think [Oscar voters] will blame Marty for Harvey's sins."

Weinstein is likely to come up the big winner regardless. Two of the best picture nominees -- "Gangs" and "Chicago" -- are Miramax films, and "The Hours" was co-produced by the studio.

Still the same, and very different

Even with the shadow of the war hanging over the awards, some things about the Oscars won't change.

They'll still be star-studded. Host Steve Martin will be funny and thoughtful. There will be tributes to deceased performers, and probably at least one pointless dance number.

Some celebrity will make an ill-timed political point, and despite the producer's best hopes, many winners will talk too long, which will push the show well past bedtime in the East. (After all, the traditional tie-breaker for many Oscar pools is determining the length of the broadcast.)

And everybody will be wearing some fine finery, even if it's more undefined than usual. ("None of us knows what the appropriate attire is," says O'Neil, who says he'll be packing a double wardrobe for his commentary.)

Still, these Oscars may be unique in one other way: They could be the last Academy Awards held in March. Next year the awards shift to February. O'Neil suspects the shrunken campaign season will drain much of the drama from the show.

"This may be the last Oscars we see with that kind of suspense," he says. "They may become a rubber stamp for the Golden Globes."

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