By Margaret A. McGurk
The Cincinnati Enquirer
With 11 nominations, The Lord of The Rings: The Return of the King stands to dominate tonight's 76th Academy Awards ceremony.
The Lord of The Rings: The Return of the King may lead the Oscar race.
Oddsmakers are saying that the final entry in Peter Jackson's filmed version of the J.R.R. Tolkien novels is likely to win best-picture honors - thereby breaking one of the most stubborn biases in Oscar history.
The list of fantasy and science-fiction movies that have ended up on the also-ran list on Oscar nights through the years reads like an All-Star roster: E.T.: The Extraterrestrial. Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. Star Wars.All are among the most popular and influential movies of the last 25 years; none received a best-picture Oscar. None of the three Matrix films even scored a nomination.
However, the accolades for Return of the King did not extend to its cast. No cast members were nominated in the acting categories. (Ian McKellen earned a supporting-actor nomination for the first film in 2001.) The same phenomenon struck Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, with 10 nominations, and Seabiscuit, with seven - none for acting.
ON THE AIR
What: The 76th Academy Awards and pre-ceremony arrivals
Where: Channels 9, 2
When: 8 p.m. today (red-carpet arrivals); ceremony starts 8:30 p.m.
On cable: E! and WGN air red-carpet arrivals, 6-8 p.m.
Our critic: Who will win, who should win
Mystic River, widely hailed as Clint Eastwood's best work since the Oscar-winning Unforgiven (1992), has six nominations, including best picture and director, as well as acting nods for Sean Penn (actor), Tim Robbins (supporting actor) and Marcia Gay Harden (supporting actress).
Cold Mountain, on the other hand, is absent from best-picture, director and other key categories, except acting, where Jude Law (actor) and Renee Zellweger (supporting actress) carry the film's banner.
The one and only nomination for Monster went to Charlize Theron (best actress), who obliterated her glamour-girl image to play a murderous, alcoholic prostitute.
Among the year's surprises are 13-year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes of Whale Rider, the youngest nominee ever in the best-actress category, and Bill Murray, who wowed critics with his skillful turn in Lost in Translation, which picked up four nominations (including best picture) and made Sofia Coppola the first American woman nominated for best director.
Though its power as a TV ratings draw has been drifting downward recently, this year the Oscars ceremony is expected to draw a big TV audience, thanks to the popularity of the Rings films.
As always, the Academy has recruited a crowd of big stars to pump up the glamour quotient. Presenters include Julia Roberts, Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, John Travolta, Pierce Brosnan, Angelina Jolie and Sandra Bullock.
With the furor still alive over Janet Jackson's surprise breast-baring during the Super Bowl, ABC has imposed a tape-delay system to guard against dirty words and naked skin, though it promises not to delete political statements and first-time show producer Joe Roth (Mona Lisa Smile) has encouraged winners to create Oscar "moments" that will spur water cooler talk.
The Academy also has changed its timetable; after years of holding the ceremony in late March, this year the festivities arrive a month early. The move to February meant a shorter season for campaigning, which entails such traditions as buying huge ads in trade papers and visiting Los Angeles retirement homes to lobby for votes from Academy members.
It also meant less time for the Academy's 5,803 members to see the movies, which is why such an outcry greeted an industry plan to bar studios from sending videotape and DVD screeners to voters in an effort to stem the tide of movie piracy. Eventually, the ban was lifted, and independent films - which some feared the ban would hurt the most - fared well, with nods for American Splendor, Whale Rider, City of God and Monster.
The ban did end up costing character actor Carmine Caridi his Academy membership. Caridi became the first person ever stripped of Academy privileges after he admitted violating the no-sharing pledge required from those who received screening copies. Some of his screeners ended up in the hands of a man later accused of posting the movies on the Web.
The earlier ceremony also undercut the alleged influence of the Golden Globes, which gained a reputation as a precursor to the Oscars only because of its timing. Under the new schedule, Oscar nominating ballots were already filed by the time the Clobes were unveiled last month.
There is another change this year: Bleacher seats outside the Kodak Theater are normally awarded by lottery. Not so for 2004, because all the spots were filled with fans bumped from last year's festivities. In 2003, the bleachers were scrapped as part of an effort to tone down the glitz in the face of the then-impending war in Iraq.
Anticipating the Oscars
Our critic: Who will win, who should win
Oh, Oscar, let us all just go to sleep
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