Oscar is coming home — and he's bringing with him action, suspense and more than a little bit of controversy.
Insiders say it's a wide-open race. Will it be a beautiful evening for A Beautiful Mind? Will Lord of the Rings be the ringleader? Or will Oscar dance a cancan with the cast of Moulin Rouge?
The red carpet rolls out Sunday afternoon, with the festivities beginning at 8 p.m. ET and broadcast live on ABC-TV. Whoopi Goldberg returns for her fourth stint as host and the parade of presenters includes Tom Hanks, Helen Hunt, Jennifer Lopez, Mel Gibson and John Travolta.
Beautiful Mind, Ugly Controversy
Whenever a Hollywood controversy emerges, there's a good chance Russell Crowe will be involved. This time, it's not him, but his movie, as an alleged smear claim has been waged against A Beautiful Mind..
In the film, Crowe stars as a mathematician John Forbes Nash, who battles schizophrenia on the way to winning a Nobel Prize. In the weeks leading up the the festivities, the film seemed to be emerging as a front-runner in the Best Picture race.
But questionable stories about the real John Nash have been promulgated on the Internet — purely to undermine the movie's credibility, some say.
"I don't recall any Oscar campaign in the past where quite so overt a campaign against a movie has been waged," said Richard Schickel, Time magazine's film critic.
Those rumors included allegations that Nash is anti-Semitic, had a homosexual liaison, and had a child with another woman — subjects that were alluded to in the book but left out of the movie. Nash and his wife took to the air to dispute the allegations, but many feel the damage was done.
If A Beautiful Mind fades, Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, with a leading 13 nominations, might be a major beneficiary. The other Best Picture nominees are the musical Moulin Rouge, the tragic family drama In the Bedroom, and British class-warfare tale Gosford Park.
In the race for Best Actor, Crowe might prove to be his own worst enemy. The hot-tempered actor from Down Under could be poised to join Spencer Tracy and Tom Hanks as the only actors to win consecutive Best Actor Oscars. But his buzz took a beating when he publicly berated the producer of the British Film Academy Awards ceremony for cutting his acceptance speech from the broadcast.
Crowe later apologized. But he's already earned a reputation as a Hollywood bad boy and members of the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Science may consider him unworthy of consecutive Oscar honors.
Black Actors Could Make History
This year marks the first time two African-American actors have been nominated for Best Actor — one playing a hero, the other a villain. Will Smith bulked up for his heavyweight performance in Ali and Denzel Washington took a turn as an on-the-take cop in Training Day.
Only one African-American has won a lead-acting award in the 74-year history of the Oscars — Sidney Poitier, for 1963's Lilies of the Field.
Likewise, among actresses, a win by Halle Berry would make her the first African-American woman ever to claim Best Actress honors.
But Washington — who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his work in 1989's Glory — doesn't want the focus to be on race.
"It's not about race," he said. "This might suggest that they are doing us a favor because we are black."
In Monster's Ball, Berry plays the widow of a death-row inmate who falls in love with her husband's executioner. Her surprise victory at the Screen Actors Guild Awards a few weeks ago put momentum behind her nomination.
The Best Actress race also features Nicole Kidman's turn as dying nightclub singer in Moulin Rouge; Judi Dench as British writer Iris Murdoch in Iris; Sissy Spacek as a bitter, grieving mother in In the Bedroom; and Renee Zellweger, who played the lovelorn Londoner in Bridget Jones's Diary.
Return to Glamour
Forget trying to guess who will win. Many viewers tune in just to see what the stars wear. After the Sept. 11 attacks, celebrity events were toned down. Now, the powers that be have deemed it OK to once again unabashedly party hardy.
"I think we're going to see a lot of glamour this year on the red carpet because this is the most glamorous year of nominees," said celebrity stylist Philip Bloch.
With actresses such as Kidman, Zellweger, Dench and Best Actress nominee Helen Mirren (Gosford Parl), Bloch says the fashion parade on the red carpet will definitely dispel some myths.
"Everyone says, 'Oh, Hollywood glamour is just young girls and bimbo-y actresses'. And this year, I think we are definitely going to see that this is not the case," he said. "I don't think we're going to see a lot of cocktail attire."
Still, the world has changed. Oscar-bound celebrities are scheduled to arrive between 2 p.m. and 5:25 p.m. Pacific Time, much earlier than usual, to pass through what producer Lara Ziskin called "presidential-level" security.
Goldberg: 'It's Much More Important This Year'
After three turns as host, Goldberg had sworn off another Oscar gig. She had taken a lot of flack for the raunchiness of her last appearance. But the Sept. 11 attack changed her mind.
"The tone of the show, and the tone of the Oscars, in a way, has always been about worldwide connections," Goldberg said.
"And somehow, I think it's much more important this year for us to remember that we're part of a world partnership," she said. "It has really to do with connection. I very much want to connect to the world, and what better way than hosting the Oscars, something I said I would never do again."
Ziskin — the first woman to produce an Oscar show — has made some daring moves to speed up the festivities — which have been criticized in the past for running in excess of four hours. For the first time in memory, there will be no song-and-dance extravaganza.
Viewers will still be treated to world-class entertainment — only the performances will be shorter. Sting, Paul McCartney, Enya, Randy Newman and Faith Hill will share the same stage, performing the songs nominated for Best Original Song, one after the next.
"You can't re-invent the Oscars," Ziskin said. "I've called on screenwriters and some filmmakers I know to contribute to the show, so that may be the difference a little bit."
This year also marks Oscar's homecoming. The show returns to Hollywood for the first time since 1960. Recent festivities were held at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. Now, Hollywood's biggest party moves to the spanking new, 3,100-seat Kodak Theater, built with this event in mind.
"It's Oscar's pad," Goldberg said. "So, you know, Oscar's a guy. He needs a hostess, and why not me? I love a good housewarming."
ABCNEWS Radio's Dave Alpert, Bill Diehl and Heidi Oringer in Los Angeles and ABCNEWS.com's Buck Wolf in New York contributed to this report.