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73rd Academy Awards

The Oscar glow grows as showtime nears

Benicio Del Toro has been nominated as best supporting actor for his role in "Traffic"  

(CNN) -- The Academy Awards kicked off its 2001 Oscar ceremony with a red-carpet walk that included plenty of high style and high-caliber celebrities, plenty more media representation and screaming fans, and a dash of controversy.

Luminaries du jour such as Oscar nominees Julia Roberts, Russell Crowe and Benicio Del Toro strolled into the Shrine Auditorium in the glare of spotlights and camera flashes. Cheers and applause followed their glowing arrivals.

And, amid the kisses and hugs and protestations of affection, that universal question hovered in this hive of international attention: "Are you nervous?"

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    Some, like Sting, the musician nominated for best song for "My Funny Friend and Me" from "The Emperor's New Groove," admitted feeling some pressure. It was his first ceremony, and he'd brought his wife and two children along.

    "I'm still a novice in this world," he said. "It's pretty overwhelming. I'm not used to it. I'm not made for this kind of thing."

    Laura Linney, nominated as best actress in "You Can Count on Me," did not appear too blase, either.

    "I'm thrilled out of my mind to be here," she said. "I'm so proud. It's been an exciting experience."

    Del Toro, nominated for a supporting actor role in "Traffic," took the attention in stride, and noted that his career has enjoyed that Oscar push.

    "That phone is ringing and ringing and ringing," he said. "When you're an actor you want to be employed."

    Joan Allen, nominated for best actress in "The Contender," said this year marked her third trip to the Oscars. She's learning to enjoy the attention.

    "It's a little bit more relaxing because you know what to expect," Allen said. "I'm into the enjoyment factor of the event."

    All the upbeat words are good reason, of course. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is handing out its awards tonight -- the most prestigious honors bestowed by the film industry. The event is being telecast on ABC at 8:30 p.m. EST. Steve Martin is hosting the awards show for the first time.

    Best picture, actor, actress and a host of other awards will be handed out by the academy, represented by more than 5,000 voting members.

    One particular vote, already decided last year, remained a hot topic outside the Shrine.

    Protesters unhappy with last year's president election made their presence known, holding signs that included "Oscar for Bush: Best Performance in a coup d'etat," and "I agree with Julia Roberts -- Bush is not my president either."

    The envelopes, please

    This year's ceremony features some strong contenders, among them "Gladiator." The epic that recreates the days of ancient Rome and battle in its Colosseum heads into Sunday with a leading 12 nominations, including a nod for the top prize of best picture. It also was a killer at the box office -- always a plus.

    It's facing off in that category against "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," perhaps "Gladiator"'s stiffest competition with 10 nominations. "Traffic" (five nods), "Erin Brockovich" (five nominations) and "Chocolat" (also five) round out the best picture nominees.

    Best actress nominee Joan Allen  

    In the acting categories, Roberts and Crowe seem to be favorites to take top honors in their categories.

    Roberts wowed critics with her turn as the trashy-but-determined mother and legal crusader in "Erin Brockovich." She's been nominated twice before -- in 1990 for "Steel Magnolias" and the next year "Pretty Woman" -- but she has never won.

    Her best actress competition is Juliette Binoche ("Chocolat"), Allen ("The Contender"), Laura Linney ("You Can Count on Me"), and Ellen Burstyn ("Requiem for a Dream").

    Crowe, meantime, is vying for his first Oscar. The Australian actor seethed as "Gladiator"'s vengeful Maximus, who spills blood in the Colosseum only for the chance of one day avenging his slain family.

    He faces off in the best actor category against Hanks (the "Cast Away" star who already won back-to-back Oscars in 1994 and '95), Geoffrey Rush ("Quills"), Javier Bardem ("Before Night Falls") and Ed Harris ("Pollock").

    Best director nominees are Stephen Daldry ("Billy Elliot"), Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"), Ridley Scott ("Gladiator"), Steven Soderbergh ("Erin Brockovich") and Soderbergh again ("Traffic").

    Lee has earned top directing honors at previous awards, but Soderbergh has the industry's buzz. He's the first director since 1938 -- and just the third in history -- to win two best director nominations in the same year.

    Best supporting actor nominees are Del Toro ("Traffic"), Willem Dafoe ("Shadow of the Vampire"), Jeff Bridges ("The Contender"), Albert Finney ("Erin Brockovich"), and Joaquin Phoenix ("Gladiator").

    Willem Dafoe, nominated for best supporting actor for "Shadow of the Vampire"  

    Best supporting actress nominees are Judi Dench ("Chocolat"), Marcia Gay Harden ("Pollock"), Kate Hudson ("Almost Famous"), Frances McDormand ("Almost Famous"), and Julie Walters (Billy Elliot").

    Martin is taking the Oscar-hosting reins from event favorite Billy Crystal.

    The telecast most likely will be filled with its usual production numbers, along with performances by music artists like Sting and Bjork, meaning viewers won't know the winner of the top categories until near or after midnight on the East Coast.

    Along with the usual cast of presenters, which feature A-list celebrities like John Travolta, Ben Affleck and Annette Bening, science fiction writer Sir Arthur C. Clarke will announce -- with the help of a video recording -- the nominees and winner of best screenplay based on material previously published or produced.

    Clarke, 83, earlier this month taped his part of the show from his home in Colombo, Sri Lanka, according to the government of Sri Lanka's Web site.

    But just because Clarke has made a living prognosticating on future events doesn't mean he's privy to who will win the Oscar in that category.

    "I had to record five video clips presenting each nominee as the winner," the Web site quoted Clarke as saying. "I hope they'll play the right one that night."

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