Hollywood Prepares for its Big Night

Record-breaking storms have soaked Southern California, but on Sunday, Oscar will reign -- and the stars are preparing to make their big entrances, even if it means trudging along a soggy red carpet.

Academy Award planners aren't taking any chances that a spate of bad weather will spoil the parade of stars. They've pitched a plastic tent over the red carpet outside Hollywood's Kodak Theatre to keep every famous face dry, at least until the heartfelt victory speeches.

Metal barricades line the streets outside the theater, where more than 3,000 fans are expected to cheer as Hollywood's finest show off their Oscar attire. The festivities will be broadcast on ABC, beginning with a preshow special at 8 p.m. ET.

A new energy fills this year's show. Chris Rock takes over as host, and the Emmy-winning comic, known for his raw humor, is big step away from the congenial humor of Billy Crystal and Steve Martin. Rock is promising to keep it clean, but show producers are no doubt ready to press the bleep button.

"I'm never proper or careful, but I never curse in front of my mother, either," Rock told reporters when it was announced that he would host the ceremony,

"I don't think people are nervous," the comedian said. "I just came off tour in America. A million people came to see me. They weren't nervous."

This year's Oscar race also promises more surprises than recent ones. The dominance of "The Lord of the Ring: The Return of the King" made last year's show utterly predictable. The final installment of the J.R.R. Tolkien saga won every category in which it was nominated, taking home 10 awards.

This year figures to be a showdown between Martin Scorsese's "The Aviator" and Clint Eastwood's "Million Dollar Baby." Either of these heavily nominated films could end up the evening's big winner.

Victory would be especially sweet for Scorsese. The legendary director has lost four times previously when nominated for best director, and none of his films has ever won best picture.

On the other hand, Eastwood could take home his second Oscar for directing. He's also competing for best actor, and while he is a long-shot in that category, the very fact that he was nominated speaks volumes about his popularity in Hollywood, especially among actors, who make up the largest contingent of Academy Award voters.

That may bode well for "Million Dollar Baby" star Hilary Swank, who might punch her way to her second Oscar for her portrayal of a female boxer, and for Morgan Freeman, who may earn his first nod from the academy as one of her trainers.

The biggest star of the evening, however, may end up being Jamie Foxx, who has been hailed for his uncannily realistic portrayal of Ray Charles in "Ray," and is favored by many critics to win best actor.

Foxx joined an elite group of actors this year, becoming only the ninth performer to earn two acting nominations in a single year. He's also competing in the category of best supporting actor for his turn in "Collateral" as a nervous cab driver forced at gunpoint to drive a hit man along his appointed rounds.

Here's a look at the most-watched categories:

Best Picture

The Nominees: Best picture: "The Aviator," "Finding Neverland," "Million Dollar Baby," "Ray," "Sideways"

"The Aviator" is almost tailor-made for Oscar competition. It's a sweeping epic about a towering legend in American history. But the Howard Hughes biopic might be seen as lacking "Million Dollar Baby's" emotional wallop -- and that could be the deciding factor.

"Sideways" topped many critics' top 10 lists as the best film of 2004. The tale of two middle-aged men on a romp through California's wineries is funny and touching. But it might lack the sort of grandeur that voters look for in a best picture.

Best Director

The Nominees: Martin Scorsese, "The Aviator"; Clint Eastwood, "Million Dollar Baby"; Taylor Hackford, "Ray"; Alexander Payne, "Sideways"; Mike Leigh, "Vera Drake"

No one denies that Scorsese is owed an Oscar. But so were Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles and Stanley Kubrick, all of whom should have been honored by their Hollywood peers for their directorial genius, but weren't.

Scorsese's fate of losing his fifth bid for best director seemed sealed a few weeks ago, when the Directors Guild of America gave its annual award to Eastwood. Only six times in the DGA's 56-year history has the guild's winner failed to go on to receive the directing Oscar.

Needless to say, Scorsese has failed to ever win the DGA award either, even though he's been nominated for that honor six times.

Still, if Scorsese's fate is to produce films like "Raging Bull," "Goodfellas" and "Taxi Driver" and come home empty-handed on Oscar night, Hollywood could use more losers like him.

Best Actress

The Nominees: Annette Bening, "Being Julia"; Catalina Sandino Moreno, "Maria Full of Grace"; Imelda Staunton, "Vera Drake"; Hilary Swank, "Million Dollar Baby"; Kate Winslet, "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind"

Five years ago, Swank emerged from obscurity when she sheared her hair, dressed like a man, and took home an Oscar for the searing transgender movie "Boys Don't Cry." In doing so, she beat the classy Bening, who was nominated for "American Beauty" and was heavily favored to win.

This year, Swank is the favorite and Bening is the underdog. But the results may be the same. Critics raved about Bening's work in "Being Julia" as a British stage diva who wreaks delicious revenge on her rivals and her unfaithful husband. But the film failed to find an audience.

Best Actor

The Nominees: Don Cheadle, "Hotel Rwanda"; Johnny Depp, "Finding Neverland"; Leonardo DiCaprio, "The Aviator"; Clint Eastwood, "Million Dollar Baby"; Jamie Foxx, "Ray"

Just a few years ago, Foxx was a TV sketch comic. Suddenly, he's jumped to Hollywood's highest echelons. He looked every inch the champ at last month's Golden Globe Awards and recent honors from the Screen Actors Guild only cement his newfound stature.

Depp is competing in this category for the second consecutive year. He earned a surprise nomination for his over-the-top performance last year in "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl." This year, as "Peter Pan" playwright J.M. Barrie, Depp gave a more subdued performance, perhaps not the kind that shows his full range.

DiCaprio had a very tough assignment. Many critics thought the baby-faced actor was too young to play bizarre billionaire Howard Hughes. He proved them wrong, but many audiences found the freakishness of DiCaprio's character to be a turnoff.

Best Supporting Actress

The Nominees: Cate Blanchett, "The Aviator"; Laura Linney, "Kinsey"; Virginia Madsen, "Sideways"; Sophie Okonedo, "Hotel Rwanda"; Natalie Portman, "Closer"

Many movie fans cried foul when Paul Giamatti was snubbed in the best actor category. Still, "Sideways" became the darling of critics, thanks in large part to Madsen's tender performance as the waitress who sees through Giamatti's wine-soaked depression. Madsen's toast to the joys of wine-drinking may be one of the best big screen moments of the year, and for that, she should be rewarded.

Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn in "The Aviator" is something to behold. She's so highly regarded, that she fits in that category of performers who seem to be owed an Oscar, and that might win her some votes. But will it be enough?

Best Supporting Actor

The Nominees: Alan Alda, "The Aviator"; Thomas Haden Church, "Sideways"; Jamie Foxx, "Collateral"; Morgan Freeman, "Million Dollar Baby"; Clive Owen, "Closer"

With his world-weary voice, Freeman as a narrator does for "Million Dollar Baby" what he earlier did for "The Shawshank Redemption," one of many roles for which the actor could have won an Oscar, but didn't.

Foxx was wonderful in "Collateral," but his work in "Ray" probably overshadows his efforts in this film. Owen is picked by some insiders to be a legitimate contender, but many critics were divided on "Closer," and that might hurt his chances.

Church might be Freeman's greatest rival. His performance in "Sideways" as an actor painfully aware of his declining career is heartfelt. But it leans too much toward comedy, and Oscar voters tend to favor drama.