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By Bob Tourtellotte
LOS ANGELES, Feb 22 (Reuters) - Hollywood rolled out the red carpet for the Oscars on Sunday, hoping to reverse a slide in television viewership by dazzling audiences with a program created around the musical talent of host Hugh Jackman.
With rags-to-riches romance “Slumdog Millionaire” expected to win the world’s top film honor for best movie, suspense at the gala affair has shifted to whether Jackman and producers Bill Condon and Laurence Mark (movie musical “Dreamgirls”) can offer fans a sparkling showcase of top stars and films.
Condon and 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 Web site TheEnvelope.com.
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 Theatre and outside on the fashionable red carpet are the likes of Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Sean Penn, Meryl Streep and scores of other stars.
In recent years, comedians have hosted the show where awards are given in more than 20 categories from best movies and performances to make-up design and even short films.
But U.S. viewership hit a record low of 32 million in 2008, down from 40 million in 2007. Condon, Mark and Jackman, who won a Tony on Broadway for his work in “The Boy From Oz” as well as TV’s Emmy award for hosting the stage world’s Tonys, were brought to reverse that trend.
The trio have been mostly quiet about their plans, but The Los Angeles Times has said the pair hired Australian director Baz Luhrmann (“Moulin Rouge”) to stage one number and comic writer/director Judd Apatow (“Knocked Up”) for laughs. Jackman will perform at least one musical introduction and a longer routine in the middle of the more than three-hour telecast.
Still, the biggest draw for Oscars has always been having popular movies at the center of the show and suspense over which films, actors and actresses will win awards.
“Slumdog,” an often dark but ultimately hopeful tale about a poor Indian boy competing for love and money on a TV game show, has generated about $150 million in global ticket sales. It has earned awards from critics and industry groups whose members include actors, directors, producers and writers.
The movie’s key competition comes from “Milk,” starring Penn as gay activist Harvey Milk, as well as “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” with Pitt as a man who ages backward.
The other two nominees are “Frost/Nixon,” which recounts the historic interviews of disgraced former U.S. President Richard Nixon by British TV host David Frost, and drama “The Reader,” starring Kate Winslet.
The best-actor race appears to be a two-way battle between Penn and Mickey Rourke as a faded athlete in “The Wrestler.” On Saturday, Rourke won the independent film world’s Spirit Award for best actor, but that honor comes from different voters than the roughly 6.000 academy members who cast Oscar ballots.
Winslet is tipped for best actress playing a German Nazi-era prison guard in “The Reader” over Meryl Streep as a nun who suspects sex abuse in a Catholic school in “Doubt.
Heath Ledger, who died in 2008 of an accidental prescription drug overdose, is favored for best supporting actor as the villain Joker in Batman movie “The Dark Knight.”
Pundits say supporting actress is wide open with Penelope Cruz in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” up for the Oscar against Marisa Tomei in “The Wrestler,” Taraji P. Henson for “Benjamin Button” and Viola Davis and Amy Adams, both in “Doubt.”
Fashionistas will be watching the gowns on the red carpet, and while experts say the recession has stars dressing down, they are quick to add the designs won’t all be dull. (Editing by Cynthia Osterman)