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Action! as the 81st Oscars get under way

AFTER three months of movie critics awards, audience awards and industry awards, Hollywood last night finally got down to the business of giving out its Academy Awards, the world's top film honors.

But with rags-to-riches romance "Slumdog Millionaire" widely expected to collect the Oscar for best movie, suspense has shifted to whether host Hugh Jackman can dazzle audiences and stop a slide in television viewers.

Oscar producers Bill Condon and Laurence Mark "are proven showmen who know how to package entertainment and Hugh Jackman knows how to sell it," said Tom O'Neil, columnist for awards Website

That would be no small feat as the Oscars, which are given out by the Beverly Hills-based Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, raise the curtain on their 81st ceremony.

Expected inside Hollywood's Kodak Theater and outside on the fashionable red carpet are the likes of Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Sean Penn, Meryl Streep and scores of other stars.

Biggest draw

Viewership hit a record low of 32 million last year, down from 40 million in 2007. So, the academy hired movie musical producers Condon and Mark ("Dreamgirls") to shake up the show, and they hired actor and song-and-dance man Jackman, who thrilled audiences as the host of Broadway's Tony Awards.

Still, the biggest draw for the Oscars has always been having major movies at the center of the show and suspense over which films, actors and actresses will win awards.

This year, "Slumdog," which tells of a poor, young Indian man competing for love and money on a TV game show, has earned hit status with roughly US$150 million in global ticket sales.

"Slumdog" is widely picked to win best film over "Milk" and "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." The other nominees are "Frost/Nixon," and "The Reader," starring Kate Winslet.

The best-actor race appears to be a two-way battle between Penn in "Milk" and Mickey Rourke as a faded athlete in "The Wrestler."

Winslet is tipped for best actress for "The Reader."

Heath Ledger, who died in 2008 of an accidental prescription drug overdose, is favored for best supporting actor as the Joker in Batman movie "The Dark Knight."


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