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.

Del Toro, the Puerto Rican native who had to brush up on his Spanish to play a Mexican cop, has hunk appeal. But the academy tends to honor older actors, and Finney — a five-time nominee — might be due for honors. Last year, Michael Caine took the prize for his work in The Cider House Rules.

Kate Hudson: Like Mother, Like Daughter?

Younger actresses tend to come out on top in the Best Supporting Actress competition. Marisa Tomei and Mira Sorvino were winners for My Cousin Vinny and Mighty Aphrodite. This year's pick could be Kate Hudson, the groupie with the heart of gold in the 1970s coming-of-age rock homage Almost Famous.

Hudson, the daughter of Goldie Hawn, has the added value of being an Oscar legacy. Her mom won Best Supporting Actress in 1969 for Cactus Flower. Such a victory would be a replay of last year, when Angelina Jolie, daughter of Oscar winner Jon Voight, won the award for Girl, Interrupted.

But Hudson faces two women who have already won Oscars, in Judi Dench (Chocolat) and Frances McDormand (Almost Famous). Marcia Gay Harden gave a much-praised performance as the wife of an tortured, alcoholic artist in Pollock. And Julie Walters got rave reviews as the dance instructor in Billy Elliot.

If there is one apparent certainty this year, it's Julia Roberts for Best Actress. She's never been honored, and Erin Brockovich is the sort of message movie that usually wins.

Will Crouching Tiger Surprise?

To be sure, it's decidedly less certain who will win Best Director. On the face of it, Steven Soderbergh has the best chance, with two nominations — Traffic and Erin Brockovich. He's the first director in since 1938 to achieve double directing nominations. But that might work against him if the vote for him is split between those two movies.

If so, that would leave Gladiator's Scott and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon's Ang Lee as front-runners. Some insiders say Dragon may be the more innovative film, but it was shot in Asia. Most of the 5,607 Academy members — actors, directors, and industry professionals — live or work in Los Angeles, and they might be partial to a homegrown product.

With 10 nominations, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon could make a run at history. The Taiwanese epic would become the first non-English language film to win Best Picture. In 1999, the Italian film Life Is Beautiful won Best Foreign Film ,with the directing award going to Roberto Benigni.

With the 45-second rule in place, it's a good thing the free-spirited Benigni — who climbed atop chairs to revel in his victory — is not nominated this time around.

ABCNEWS Radio's Heidi Oringer and Bill Diehl in Los Angeles contributed to this report.