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Oscar returns in full glamour mode

Storm clouds threaten but the red carpet will still be rolled out
/ Source: Reuters

A year after Iraq war angst muted the mood of the Oscars, Hollywood’s biggest celebration returns in style Sunday with favorite host Billy Crystal back in his tuxedo and a plush red carpet back under the feet of the stars.

But in a break with tradition, the only U.S. entertainment awards show that has long been televised live coast-to-coast will for the first time be presented on a five-second delay, an anti-smut safeguard imposed by ABC in the aftermath of Janet Jackson’s breast-baring Super Bowl performance.

Producers have promised the delay will not be used to censor political statements by Oscar winners or presenters.

Presenters this year include some of Hollywood’s most outspoken political partisans, including supporting-actor nominees Alec Baldwin and Tim Robbins, and Robbins’ wife Susan Sarandon, while Iraq war opponent Sean Penn may make take the stage if he wins best actor in “Mystic River.” And that’s just the liberals.

Indeed, for an Oscar season that seems decidedly lacking in suspense, the night’s biggest surprises may come from unscripted moments on stage if socially conscious stars succumb to the temptation of venting their election-year views to one of the world’s biggest TV audiences.

Although last year’s ceremony — overshadowed by the U.S. invasion of Iraq — drew historically low ratings, an estimated 62 million Americans still tuned in for some portion of the telecast. Many millions more watched around the globe.

Cause celebreThis year’s main cause celebre is shaping up to be environmentally friendly automobiles, with several stars eschewing limousines and SUVs in favor of electric cars or gasoline-electric hybrids. Among them are Diane Keaton, Marcia Gay Harden, Robin Williams, and Keisha Castle-Hughes, 13, star of “The Whale Rider” and the youngest nominee ever for best actress.

But Sunday’s event will be anything but austere. A year after organizers literally rolled up the red carpet and kept fans away from arrivals in keeping with somber wartime sentiments, the glitz is back in full force.

Spectator bleachers have been reinstalled, along with 500 feet of plush red carpet along Hollywood Boulevard, and veteran comedian Joan Rivers will return with her equally tart-tongued daughter, Melissa, to dish out fashion commentary for pre-show viewers.

Missing from this year’s shortened Oscar season — the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is presenting the ceremony a month earlier than usual — has been much of the mudslinging and hard-ball pre-Oscar campaigning that added to the hype of years past.

‘An athelete's mentality’
At the Kodak Theatre, where the Academy Awards are being held for their third year, rehearsals began Thursday, but details of the show have been shrouded in secrecy.

Crystal, who had bowed out of the Oscar spotlight for the past three years, will be back at the 76th annual awards for his eighth stint as master of ceremonies.

In an ABC interview airing Oscar night, the 56-year-old comedian tells Barbara Walters he treats the Oscars as “an endurance race” and prepares himself physically.

“We have two run-throughs that day, and in between I’ll do a couple of hundred sit-ups, 50, 60, 70, however many push-ups I can do, so my whole body feels good when I go out there,” he said. “It’s having an athlete’s mentality for me.”

It was unknown whether Crystal, a favorite of Oscar audiences and critics alike for his deadpan humor and Hollywood sendups, would present another of his famed film-parody montages.

Film executive Joe Roth, making his TV debut as Oscar telecast producer, has kept mum about his plans for the show, or how he’ll keep the proceedings moving to wrap up in the 3 1/2 hours allotted the show.

The one wild card that had hung over the Oscars earlier in the week was the weather. After days of torrential rains that soaked Southern California, the skies cleared Friday, and academy officials said they were counting on a clear forecast for Sunday night, allowing them to remove plastic canopies that had been draped over the red-carpet area as a precaution.