Academy Awards Preview

Gladiator marches into the 73rd Academy Awards ceremony hoping to restore the glory of the Roman Empire in Hollywood, where the legendary Ben Hur once ruled.

The sandals-and-swords epic leads the competition with 12 nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director for Ridley Scott, and Best Actor for Russell Crowe.

Tonight's star-studded affair at Los Angeles' Shrine Auditorium is being broadcast live on ABC-TV, offering viewers all the classic envelope openings and anxious moments. The event also promises an all-star list of musical performers, with Sting, Bob Dylan and Icelandic singer Björk set to perform their Oscar-nominated songs.

Host Steve Martin, taking over for Billy Crystal, is likely to take the show in a new comic direction and organizers are promising a shorter, punchier production. Winners have been told they have just 45 seconds for their acceptance speeches — with the added incentive of a $2,500 high-definition TV for the winner who gives the shortest thank-you.

It remains to be seen just how many winners can contain themselves and keep to the allotted time. For the last two years, the festivities have dragged on more than four hours, with the ratings slipping in the second half, when the bigger awards are handed down.

Still, Oscar Night is the second most watched TV event after the Super Bowl, and when the red carpet is rolled out, the paparazzi jostle for position, and the stars come out, the world will be watching.

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Race Too Close to Call

In the battle for Best Picture, Crowe and his leather-clad legions clang swords with the drug dealers of Traffic, the flying martial arts warriors of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and legal assistant Erin Brockovich — who showed moviegoers just how far you can go with some moxie and ample cleavage.

Then again, Oscar just might develop a sweet tooth and honor the long shot for Best Picture, Chocolat.

The academy (that's the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) has a tradition of honoring historical films that recall the grandeur of old Hollywood, and that bodes well for Gladiator. Ben-Hur reigned in 1959 with 11 Academy Awards.

But in various award ceremonies leading up to the Oscars, actors, directors and critics split over their choice for top for 2000. An telephone poll also indicates a tight race.

Thirty-one percent of those questioned expect Erin Brockovich to preside, with 28 percent calling for Gladiator. The rest of the nominees lagged behind, gaining a vote of confidence from roughly 7 percent of the 1,000 adults polled by telephone.

Will Hanks Make History?

The contest for Best Actor seems to be shaping up as a two-man race, with Crowe pitted against Tom Hanks for Cast Away. If he takes home the statuette, Hanks would make history as the first winner of three Best Actor Oscars. But there's a feeling among some in Hollywood that he's too young for such an honor. Nevertheless, the guy gave a compelling performance as a marooned FedEx exec, who spent seven years with no one to talk to except for a volleyball he named Wilson.

Some feel that Volleyball Wilson should have earned a Best Supporting Actor nod. But show business insiders figure Benicio Del Toro of Traffic and Albert Finney of Erin Brockovich are the most viable nominees.

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