‘Argo’ tipped as Hollywood counts down to Oscars

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The stage is set for the 85th Academy Awards on Sunday, with Ben Affleck’s Iran hostage drama “Argo” bidding to edge out Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” at the climax of Hollywood’s awards season.

The red carpet is rolled out and ready for Tinseltown’s finest to strut and preen before the Oscars show, widely seen as one of the least predictable in recent memory following a bumper movie year.

Affleck won a last-minute diplomatic boost Saturday when new U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry tweeted his best wishes for the film.

“Good luck @BenAffleck and #Argo at the Oscars. Nice seeing @StateDept & our Foreign Service on the big screen.-JK,” wrote Kerry, referring to the film’s plot about an audacious CIA plot which rescued six U.S. diplomats from Tehran.

British songstress Adele stunned at rehearsals on the eve of the highly anticipated musical night, when she will sing 007 theme tune “Skyfall” and legendary diva Barbra Streisand will give her first Oscars performance for 36 years.

Out front, on the closed-off section of Hollywood Boulevard, armies of technicians and workers have put the final touches to the red carpet where Spielberg, Affleck and dozens of fellow nominees gather before the show.

Spielberg, bidding for his first best picture Oscar since “Schindler's List” in 1994, tops the nominations with 12 nods for “Lincoln” – however “Argo” has cleaned up in Hollywood’s awards season so far, despite having only seven.

Although he started the season two months ago in front, Spielberg may have to settle Sunday for the best director award -- one that Affleck cannot beat him to, having not been nominated in the category, in a perceived snub.

But again here there could be an upset, with rivals including Taiwan-born Ang Lee for “Life of Pi,” David O. Russell for “Silver Linings Playbook,” or even Austrian dark horse director Michael Haneke for Cannes-topping “Amour.”

One near-certainty Sunday is that “Lincoln” star Daniel Day-Lewis will be named best actor, a record third for the British-Irish actor after wins in 1990 for “My Left Foot” and in 2008 for “There Will Be Blood.”

For best actress, the early favorite was Jessica Chastain, playing a CIA agent hunting Osama bin Laden in “Zero Dark Thirty,” but the clever money is now on Jennifer Lawrence for her turn in “Silver Linings Playbook.”

The best supporting actress race is more open, although Anne Hathaway is probably still the frontrunner for her heart-wrenching turn in “Les Miserables,” which is also nominated for best picture.

The most unpredictable race of all is perhaps for supporting actor, with Hollywood legend Robert De Niro tipped by some for playing Bradley Cooper’s father in “Silver Linings Playbook.”

But strong rivals in the category include Austrian Christoph Waltz as a white bounty hunter who frees Jamie Foxx’s black slave in Quentin Tarantino’s blood-spattered “Django Unchained,” as well as Tommy Lee Jones in “Lincoln.”

On the foreign front, the clear frontrunner is “Amour,” which won the Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival for its heart-wrenching portrayal of an elderly couple coping with encroaching physical and mental illness.

Its French female lead, Emmanuelle Riva, could even cause an upset in the best actress category, some critics believe. Riva, who will be 86 on Sunday, is coincidentally also the oldest ever best actress nominee.

The best animated feature contest is widely seen as a battle between Scottish-themed princess adventure “Brave” and “Wreck-It Ralph,” about a video game villain fed up with being the bad guy.

On the eve of the Oscars, “Silver Linings Playbook” got a publicity boost Saturday when it was named best film at the Independent Spirit Awards, as well as winning the best actress and best director prizes.

In a more dubious honor, the anti-Oscar Golden Raspberries, or Razzies, gave seven of their 10 prizes to the last installment of the “Twilight” franchise, including worst film, worst director and worst actress for Kristen Stewart.

Remarkably, as film directors worry about their creations, organizers are growing increasingly concerned about the viability of the awards show itself that appears to be losing its luster as an undisputable advertising juggernaut.

If the nationally televised ceremony drew an average of 46 million viewers in the 1990s, according to Nielsen, its viewership, for the most part, was below 40 million in the last five years.

In addition, the median age of the audience has risen from barely 39 twenty years ago to nearly 53 last year.

These figures are of concern to advertisers and organizers who are making a concerted effort to inject new life into what is still considered a must-see TV event.

This year’s show will feature songs from Barbra Streisand and Adele, a sketch based on the movie “Ted,” and a James Bond tribute.

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