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SUNDAY 3 PM Pacific Time: Above is a celebrity stand-in during Red Carpet rehearsals for the 80th Academy Awards telecast Sunday (photo by Jonathan Alcorn) followed by the real George Clooney arriving on the real Red Carpet. My preview of the Oscars is here. I hear that ABC dramatically lowered expectations about tonight’s TV ratings to advertisers. It will be interesting to see the Nielsen’s, as the rain-postponed NASCAR Sprint Cup Series – Auto Club 500 race in Fontana is just about to restart at Lap 20 with a total of 300. After that there is another NASCAR race, the Nationwide series – Stater Bros 300, that is 200 laps. Will America tune out NASCAR to watch the Oscars? Meanwhile, a London source tells me that the BBC radio did a call-in show on the Oscars and no one phoned. Even Hollywood interest in the show is at its lowest point in recent memory. This may be the 80th Academy Awards, but they’re really the 11th hour Oscars — because not only were they almost picketed by the writers strike, and put together with only 13 days of major preparations instead of the usual months and months, but also the endless ceremony always seems like it lasts 11 hours.

PREDICTIONS: Two things I can forecast already about the show: George Clooney (who’s on Time magazine’s cover as “The Last Movie Star”) will be fawned over and fussed over, just like he was to an embarrassing degree on the Red Carpet today. Regis Philbin slobbered how everyone wants to be George Clooney and compared him to Cary Grant. Clooney replied that Grant is dead. Sure, George has no prayer of winning an Oscar tonight. But Clooneymania is such a cult now that it’s giving Obama-mania a run for its fainting spells. And there’ll be a lot of inside jokes about the writers strike and the possible actors strike that no one outside of Burbank and Broadway can comprehend. Meanwhile, the presenters and performers should come with their own personal chyron explanations of who they are, like Miley Cyrus. Yes, many this year are that obscure because the Big Names couldn’t get it together in just two weeks to show up inside the Kodak Theatre instead of outside on a picket line. That’s just one reason why the show needs a total facelift, not just Botox. But that’s another article…

Handicapping this year’s Best Motion Picture Of the Year or many other categories is about as tough as picking the Superbowl winner after the big game is already held. Of course, No Country For Old Men will get the Oscar. Of course, Daniel Day Lewis will be named Best Actor In A Leading Role. Of course, Javier Bardem will win Best Actor In A Supporting Role.

But it’s probably a 50-50 toss-up between Julie Christie and Marion Cotillard for Best Actress In A Leading Role. The members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences skew geriatric, so in this case the voters probably went for Julie whom many know from years past. They also like the way she’s been hanging in there — not just because she’s still finding roles at her age, which is hard because of Hollywood’s rampant ageism and sexism, or because she’s doing films that actually say something, but also because she survived Warren Beatty.

As for Performance By An Actress In A Supporting Role, always the wild card category, most believe Cate Blanchett will win for playing Bob Dylan since cross-gender stunt casting usually guarantees an Oscar. (Hilary Swank and Linda Hunt can vouch for that.) But Cate won this category fairly recently, and if sentimentality holds, then Ruby Dee can win just like she did at the SAG awards. But a lot of Academy voters like to encourage young actresses, and many liked Gone Baby Gone more than they thought they would so Amy Ryan (hey, 40ish is young to them) could win as well. Personally, I’d like Ruby Dee to grab the gold, but I suspect Cate will.

Finally, I’m going out on a limb and predicting that Paul Thomas Anderson will win Best Director instead of the Coen brothers. My reasoning is: I like Anderson. And no one in Hollywood actually likes the Coen brothers. (Two past examples: Lauren Bacall and Eddie Murphy.) Besides, Oscar voters sometimes like to spread the wealth around. ‘Nuff said.

5:50 PM: The show begins inside the Kodak Theatre:

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I was told not to expect much in the way of an opening. I was told right. Led by Gil Cates, the Hollywood team that puts on the Academy Awards show tried to shoot the usual montage of the Oscar host, this time Jon Stewart, in situations with various movie stars. “But it proved too hard to write, cast, shoot and edit in 16 days, what with the rest of the show to take care of,” an insider confided to me, referring to the  sudden and unexpected settlement of the writers strike which meant the Oscars could be held as planned. “The booking alone would have taken 15 days.”

Jon Stewart’s monologue was better than the last time he hosted the show. Which isn’t saying much. At least it was mercifully shorter. Problem is, halfway through this year’s stand-up, he must have thought he was doing The Daily Show instead of doing the Academy Awards. It was obvious that the Hollywood audience was nervous, very nervous, when he launched into one political joke after another. The VIPs didn’t laugh so much as politely titter. “Uh-oh,” many of them clearly were thinking as Stewart ventured into The Danger Zone.

Stewart noted that Hollywood’s Iraq War-themed movies in 2007 “did not go as well as hoped. Let’s face it. I tell you, if we stay the course and keep these movies in the theaters, even if they have to stay there 100 years… We can not let the audience win.” Nervous titters since Stewart was using the same phrase as presumptive GOP candidate John McCain in what amounted to a diss. “Uh-oh,” people were thinking.

Stewart then made fun of Hollywood liberals without actually calling them Hollywood liberals. ”Have you had a chance to study and pick the Democrat you’ll vote for?” he asked the audience. Nervous titters.

About Hillary vs Obama, Jon quipped, more successfully, ”Normally, when you see a black man or woman as president, an asteroid is about to hit the Statue of Liberty.” But then Stewart may have gone too far by noting that Hussein is Obama’s middle name and his last same rhymes with Osama — as if it were necessary for the Oscars audience of 30+ million people to know that — and wondering how the last presidential candidate “Gadolf Titler” did in the general election. “Uh-oh.”

Best Costume Design
Alexandra Byrne, Elizabeth: The Golden Age (Universal)

Best Animated Feature
Ratatouille
(Walt Disney/Pixar), Brad Bird

Best Makeup
Didier Lavergne and Jan Archibald, La Vie En Rose (Picturehouse)

Don’t be surprised if George Clooney shows up soon in a late-night infomercial for hair gel. He had so much product in his slicked-down hair that he looked like Alfafa from the Little Rascals.

For crissakes, tonight’s winners can’t even thank their mother, much less their lawyer, without being cut off by the music. Obviously, Gil Cates is yet another family values-hating Hollywooder. Or maybe he just hates trial attorneys.

Best Visual Effects
Michael Fink, Bill Westenhofer, Ben Morris, Trevor Wood, The Golden Compass (New Line)

Best Art Direction
Art Direction: Dante Ferretti, Set Decoration: Francesca Lo Schiavo, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street (DreamWorks/Paramount)

Best Performance By An Actor In A Supporting Role
Javier Bardem, No Country For Old Men (Paramount Vantage/Miramax)

Javier bounded to the stage in 3 seconds flat.”I have to speak quickly here, man” He thanked the Coen brothers “for being crazy enough to think I could do this” and also for making him wear “one of the worst haircuts on my head”. Then he launched into Spanish for his mother, which was heartfelt and charming. For non-Spanish speakers, here’s a translation: ”Mom, this is for you, for your grandparents, for your parents Rafael and Matilde, for the comedians of Spain who, like you, have brought dignity and pride to our profession. This is for Spain and for all of us.” (For those who don’t know, Bardem hails from a family of actors and filmmakers. Bardem’s mother, Pilar, and his late grandfather, Rafael, are both renowned Spanish actors. His uncle, Juan Antonio, is a famed director.

Jeez, free the winners. Let them talk. Let them have time to at least say outrageous stuff. Why the heck does Gil Cates think we watch this god-awful show… For the obit segment?

Here’s the segment I was told about: Jon Stewart showing some of the clip packages that purportedly were prepared in case the writers strike had remained in force, but fortunately did not make the cut. Now that I’ve seen them, they were AWFUL. And if they were supposed to be awful, then they had to be a lot more awful for them to even approach funny. Even Stewart called them “a waste of your time”… This Oscars is starting to get painful.

Oh no, that sensation I recognize so well is starting to come on. That panic. That hopelessness. That this-effing-show-is-going-to-last-a-lifetime feeling.

So, tell me: Is News Corp No. 2 Peter Chernin happy that Fox Sports’s NASCAR races are opposite the Academy Awards tonight? I bet his pal Disney/ABC boss Bob Iger isn’t…

Best Live Action Short Film
Le Mozart des Pickpockets (Premium Films), Philippe Pollet-Villard
Someone tell that fox Philippe Pollet-Villard that I’ll help him with his English at midnight.

Oh no, he’s baaaack. Jerry Seinfeld (who insulted movie theater owners everywhere last year), this time as a bee because of his Bee Movie. And that segment showing clips of bees in movies was so not funny. Why the hell have we lost our ability to do comedy in this country?

Best Animated Short Film
Peter & The Wolf
(BreakThru Films), Suzie Templeton and Hugh Welchman

Best Performance By An Actress In A Supporting Role
Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton (Warner Bros)

What a SHOCKER! Swinton, petting her Oscar, said, “I have an American agent who is the spitting image of this, the same shaped head and the buttocks. And I’m giving this to him because there’s no way I would ever be in America if it weren’t for him.” The agent is Brian Swardstrom from Endeavor — wow, what a shout-out! (Even better than Tom Strickler’s at the same agency during a previous year’s Oscars.) Funny thing, Tilda told a reporter on the Red Carpet earlier that she hadn’t prepared an acceptance speech because she was so certain she wasn’t going to win. So were we all!

I was thinking today that if the Oscars had been held, say, the first or second week in January, that Michael Clayton would have won hands down. Certainly, every Oscar voter I talked to at that time kept mentioning they liked it best. But then No Country For Old Men fever took hold as the movie they thought they should vote for because it was winning so many other awards (SAG, film critics). But I do think what hurt Michael Clayton is how lousy it opened at the U.S. box office given that it was a major studio pic with major motion picture stars. And then it just never took off. I know the Academy members hate to look out of touch with the taste of the American public. That was before this year when none of the movies except Juno made a dime.

Best Adapted Screenplay
Joel & Ethan Coen, No Country For Old Men (Paramount Vantage/Miramax)

Not only did Joel Coen thank Scott Rudin, but his brother Ethan teared up so sweetly that he couldn’t say a thing. Nice moment. Joel Coen said the Oscar was “entirely attributable to how selective we are. We’ve only ever adapted Homer and Cormac McCarthy.”

So, finally, there’s Miley Cyrus, the presenter nobody over the age of 13 has ever heard of…

Wow, that chick from West Wing, Kristin Chenoweth, has an amazing set of pipes. (Sorry, I don’t do Broadway or I would have known this…)

Wow, but Jon Stewart’s ability to ad-lib tonight is non-existent. I could give him a pass by saying he’s rusty from having sat out during the writers strike, but Jon went to work during the entire writers strike. So he just is sucking tonight, that’s all. I can’t even say the ad-libs written for him are really bad, because it looks like he’s just standing there uncomfortably searching for a few words to say. Ugh.

Best Sounding Editing
Karen Baker Landers and Per Hallberg, The Bourne Ultimatum (Universal)

Boy, these two are going to be really embarrassed tomorrow when they relive how they forgot everyone’s names tonight. But, hey, unless you’ve won an Oscar, you can’t know the nervousness they feel.

Best Sound Mixing
Scott Milan, David Parker and Kirk Francis, The Bourne Ultimatum (Universal)

Gosh, I don’t remember the Best Actress award coming this early in the show…

Best Performance By An Actress In A Leading Role
Marion Cotillard, La Vie En Rose(Picturehouse)

Here’s hoping Lionsgate keeps making more Oscar-worthy films than torture porn movies even though the studio lost out tonight. Expectedly, Julie was the epitome of a class act and looked really surprised but also really happy for Marion, who was truly gobsmacked. “It is true there are some angels in this city,” she finally got out. Hey, girl, you’re one of them. What a great great win, so richly deserved. I rarely gush, but I loved her performance and the movie. I just figured that her foreignness and her freshness would lose to Christie since, usually but not always, this award goes to a seasoned veteran well known to Academy voters.

Thank god, it’s Jack. In great eyeglasses, too. Too cool the way he does that “hahaha” in the middle of his speech. Reminds you of every movie you’ve ever seen him in.

It’s so obvious that Gil Cates really expected to put on an actor-less and writer-less and director-less Oscars due to the strike because there are way more film clips than normal tonight. But the problem is that the show just doesn’t seem alive. And the clips are too short — often just one scene or face — to really make you yearn for more. (And go out and rent buy the DVDs, as the Hollywood CEOs would dearly like you to do…)

Best Film Editing
Christopher Rouse, The Bourne Ultimatum (Universal)

Nice that his father won an Oscar, too.

The other day, I was wondering why The Bourne Ultimatum wasn’t nominated for Best Picture. (Sorry, I was too busy reporting on the writers strike to really analyze the Oscar nods when they were announced.) I mean, it was a great film, and The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Supremacy were satisfying, too. And obviously, the public loved all three. As I said, just a thought. Then again, I also thought Into The Wild deserved a Best Picture nod. Clearly, I’m out of step with the Oscar voters. Or is it the other way around?

C’mon, AMPAS, there’s no reason to wait until someone deserving like production designer Robert F. Boyle is 97 years old to give him an honorary Oscar. Though he said, trenchantly, “That’s the good part of getting old. I don’t recommend the other.”

Best Foreign Language Film Of The Year
The Counterfeiters - Austria

This is the first Academy Award and 2nd nomination for Austria. Mentioning Hollywood legends like Billy Wilder who were Austrian, the winner made a good point noting that “most of them had to leave my country because of the Nazis so it makes sense that the first Oscar to win is about the Nazi crimes.”

THAT was the big John Travolta dance segment I heard about on Friday? A trained poodle could have done that. In fact, I’m sure one did at the Westminster Dog Show. What the hell happened to John Travolta’s career? (Answer, William Morris…)

Best Achievement In Music Written For Motion Pictures (Original Song)
“Falling Slowly”, Once (Fox Searchlight), music and lyric by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova

OK, we get it already. You made the film for $100K. That’s what Peter Rice spends on lunch at the Fox commissary. That is, if he ate lunch at the Fox commissary occasionally and not always at The Grill.

Nice moment when they brought out the “Falling Slowly” chick to give her time to make an acceptance speech. But why her when everyone else was cut off? Call from Peter Rice to Peter Chernin to Bob Iger to Gil Cates? Nah, probably just Jon Stewart wanting to look like a nice guy.

Best Achievement In Cinematography
Robert Elswit, There Will Be Blood (Paramount Vantage/Miramax)

I don’t recall ever seeing agents in the obits segment before. After all, agents still can’t vote in the Academy Awards…

I’m starting to get deja vu that I’ve seen this ceremony before. Oh yeah, it was this year’s Golden Globes where people simply read off the names and there wasn’t any show.  Is this really the effect that AMPAS was going for this year? Hell of a way to celebrate the 80th Oscars by keeping the spoken words and the skits and everything else enjoyable to a mimimum. Was Gil Cates trying to get back at the Writers Guild?

Best Achievement In Music Written For Motion Pictures (Original Score)
Dario Marianelli, Atonement (Focus Features)

Stewart notes that Tom Hanks was not nominated tonight, “So, if you ask me, he has no place being here.” That’s it? That’s the best line anyone could come up with?

Tom Hanks who’s on the Academy’s Board of Governors, showed America (and the GOP) that Hollywood does, too, care about the troops. Even if one of the Best Documentary Short Subject films champions gays (who aren’t supposed to serve in the U.S. military). The troops actually presented the Oscar for:

Best Documentary Short Subject
Freeheld
(A Lieutenant Films Production), Cynthia Wade and Vanessa Roth

Ooh, tears. Oops, the film about gays won. There goes the brownie points AMPAS was trying to win with the Republicans. This is what happens when Hollywood stoops to pander.

Best Documentary Feature
Taxi To The Dark Side
(THINKFilm), (An X-Ray Production), Alex Gibney and Eva Orner

An anti-military film wins (if you’re a Republican) or a truthful film about the military wins (if you’re a Democrat). Rush Limbaugh, look on the bright side: the Academy voters could have given another Oscar to Michael Moore.

Best Original Screenplay
Diablo Cody, Juno (Fox Searchlight)

“This is for the writers,” Cody said holding aloft her Oscar. “Most of all I want to thank my family for loving me exactly the way I am.” Not cloying. But she could have been a bit more profound, however. She is, after all, a writer.

Did you notice how the laughter was nervous when Helen Mirren dissed the studio heads? (Rather, the writers dissed the studio heads. Although Mirren could have asked them to write something else and didn’t. Kudos for your courage, Helen.)

Best Performance By An Actor In A Leading Role
Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood (Paramount Vantage/Miramax)

“That’s the closest I’ll ever come to getting a knighthood,” said Daniel, thanking the Academy for ”whacking me with the handsomest bludgeon in town”. (By the way, I love the double earring look…) Nicely worded, even uber-literate, acceptance speech by him, especially this about his brand new Oscar: “…thinking this sprang like a golden sapling out of the fertile head of Paul Thomas Anderson”.  Humbleness becomes Day-Lewis.

Quick, someone tell Gil Cates that THE WRITERS STRIKE IS OVER! Enough with the clips substituting for live stuff. He killed the 80th Oscars by doing this.

On the other hand, this is the shortest Academy Awards broadcast in recent years ever. So I should be grateful for small favors, right?

Best Achievement In Directing
Joel & Ethan Coen, No Country For Old Men (Paramount vantage/Miramax)

Ethan Coen was charming when he said: “I don’t have a lot to add to what I said earlier. Thank you.” Good one. So Joel speechified for them both: “Ethan and I have been making stories with movie cameras since we were kids,” noting how in the late 60s, they took a Super-8 camera to the airport and did a movie about Henry Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy. “Honestly, what we do now doesn’t feel that much different from what we did then. We’re very grateful to all of you for letting us continue to play in our corner of the sandbox.”

Instead of its voters nominating American Gangster, AMPAS sent out Denzel Washington to announce Best Picture. Not enough of a sop, guys.

Best Motion Picture Of the Year
No Country For Old Men (Paramount Vantage/Miramax), A Scott Rudin/Mike Zoss Production. Producers Scott Rudin, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen.

Good for Scott Rudin for thanking Cormac Mccarthy (and nice camerawork, ABC, for panning to him in the audience) Even better, Rudin’s shout-out to Sidney Pollack and decision to dedicate the Oscar to him. (It’s not just that Scott works with Pollack’s production company Mirage Enterprises. It’s also that Pollack hasn’t been well.)

It’s over. This wasn’t an Oscars. This was a slightly longer version of the Golden Globes announcement. And I hope we’ve seen the last of Jon Stewart as host.

Going to eat dinner then weave in some of tonight’s photos and maybe more stuff.

Editor-in-Chief Nikki Finke - tip her here.