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One Oscar to rule them all

Will the Academy crown 'Rings' its champion?

"The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" -- with its epic sweep and personal stories -- is considered the front-runner for best picture.

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Academy Awards
Peter Jackson

(CNN) -- The first one was nosed out by a schizophrenic mathematician. The second fell to a pair of 1920s schemers.

Will the third time be the charm for "The Lord of the Rings"?

If you believe the advance press, the last film in the trilogy, "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," is going all the way Sunday at this year's Academy Awards.

Never mind that the Academy has never honored a fantasy film. Never mind that none of the "Rings" actors were nominated for trophies. Never mind that blockbusters seldom grab Hollywood's ultimate brass ring, much less the shiny world-controlling jewel at the center of J.R.R. Tolkien's trilogy.

This, say the pundits, is the year of "Rings."

"Give those hairy little hobbits their Oscar and be done with it," writes The Associated Press' David Germain. "'The Return of the King' is steamrolling its way to the top prize with momentum not seen since 1997's 'Titanic'."

And Thelma Adams of Us magazine calls a "Rings" triumph a "slam dunk," according to the handicapping site

Of course, as CNN's Paul Clinton noted in his predictions, guessing Oscar is never a sure thing. Martin Scorsese, thought to be last year's best director front-runner, knows that first-hand. (Roman Polanski, on almost nobody's radar, took the prize.) So does Steven Spielberg, who watched "Saving Private Ryan" get bounced by "Shakespeare in Love" for 1998's best picture.

Hoping for big things

So the only thing to do is watch the activity at Hollywood's Kodak Theatre, where the awards get under way Sunday at 8 p.m. ET.

"Rings" is up for 11 awards, one more than "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World," the seafaring adventure based on Patrick O'Brian's novels, which is also up for best picture.

The other best picture nominees are the Boston-set tragedy "Mystic River," which also earned acting nods for cast members Sean Penn, Tim Robbins and Marcia Gay Harden; "Lost in Translation," with best actor nominee Bill Murray as an aimless, sleepless American actor in Tokyo; and "Seabiscuit," the story of the famed Depression-era racehorse.

Billy Crystal is back as host, his eighth turn as master of ceremonies. Oscar-watchers are hoping he's the key to a rise in Oscar ratings, which fell to just 33 million last year -- a 22 million-person drop from 1998, when "Titanic" took home best picture.

Organizers are also hoping for a bump from this year's scheduling, which placed the Academy Awards at the end of February, instead of the traditional late March. With the rise of other awards in recent years -- the Golden Globes, the Screen Actors Guild Awards, and others -- there have been concerns that the Oscars have become anticlimactic, which has been thought to hurt ratings.

Star power

But nothing will help ratings more than a good show, both in terms of the individual category races and the broadcast as a whole.

Oscar may fall short when it comes to drama in a number of categories. Only best actor is considered a tight race, with Penn ("Mystic River") and Murray ("Lost in Translation") considered favorites, but Johnny Depp ("Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl") coming up fast, thanks to his victory at the SAG Awards. (The actors' branch is the largest bloc of Academy voters, which is believed to help Depp's chances.)

Bill Murray is up for best actor for "Lost in Translation."

Moreover, though the nominated movies and performances are typically fine, Oscar is missing some of the star power that tends to attract viewers. Tom Cruise ("The Last Samurai") didn't get nominated, and neither did his ex-wife, Nicole Kidman ("Cold Mountain"). Russell Crowe ("Master and Commander") was also overlooked.

In their places are faces from a number of "small" films -- "Thirteen" (best supporting actress nominee Holly Hunter), "Whale Rider" (best actress nominee Keisha Castle-Hughes), "21 Grams" (actress and supporting actor Naomi Watts and Benicio Del Toro, respectively) and "Monster" (actress front-runner Charlize Theron).

The Oscar telecast is, as always, a wild card. Frequently derided as self-importantly overlong, the awards this year -- as wags have noted -- will be even longer, thanks to a five-second delay to prevent an outbreak of Janet Jackson-type controversy. Producers have said that winners will be allowed to say their piece, even if that piece is as contentious as Michael Moore's anti-Bush acceptance speech from last year.

"Mystic River," with Kevin Bacon and best actor nominee Sean Penn, is considered "Rings'" main competition for best picture.

But, given the popularity of "Rings" -- "Return of the King" is now the second-highest-grossing film of all time worldwide, after "Titanic" -- many of these questions may be moot. Movie lovers everywhere are wondering if the huge gamble, a $300 million project to which director Peter Jackson gave nine years of his life, will have the ultimate payoff: best picture.

If predictions come to pass and the big trophy goes to the hobbits and humans of Tolkien's fantasy land, expect celebrating in Middle Earth -- and many other places.

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