Battered by bizarre turns, Oscar's big night arrives

LOS ANGELES (AP) - Hollywood's finest screenwriters would have trouble matching the odd twists leading up to this year's Oscars. It's been a bit like the limo ride from hell.

The buildup to Hollywood's big night included misplaced Academy Awards ballots and stolen statues, culminating in the discovery of the missing Oscars by a salvager foraging around trash bins where the trophies had been dumped.

The Academy's cherished secrecy was threatened, first by a Web site that claimed it had an advance list of potential nominees, then by a Wall Street Journal story that polled Oscar voters to prophesy how the awards might shake out.

Then there are the nominees, as unlikely a lot as the staid Academy has seen in years. Sweeping epics in the vein of ''Schindler's List,'' ''The English Patient'' and ''Titanic'' definitely are out this year.

In their place are such flicks as the morbidly funny family satire ''American Beauty,'' the ghostly blockbuster ''The Sixth Sense,'' and ''The Cider House Rules,'' which has a classic Oscar look but delivers a clear message favoring women's right to abortion.

Added to the mix are the supernatural prison saga ''The Green Mile,'' the tobacco-whistleblower thriller ''The Insider,'' the nuthouse drama ''Girl, Interrupted,'' the wildly eclectic ''Magnolia,'' the gender-bending ''Boys Don't Cry,'' the demented ''Being John Malkovich'' and the murderous ''The Talented Mr. Ripley.''

And consider this: The one G-rated film among nominees in top categories, ''The Straight Story,'' comes from director David Lynch, who made such emotionally and visually disturbing movies as ''Eraserhead'' and ''Blue Velvet.''

Another certified family movie among nominees in leading categories, ''Music of the Heart,'' was directed by horror maestro Wes Craven. Oscar perennial Meryl Streep is up for best actress for the film, tying Katharine Hepburn for most acting nominations with 12.

Oscar's infatuation with all things British continued, with a twist. Six of the 20 acting nominees are British or Australian, but five adopt American accents and the sixth, Samantha Morton in ''Sweet and Lowdown,'' plays an American who is mute.

The one British accent is donned by North Carolina-born Julianne Moore in ''The End of the Affair.''

Strange as the Oscar contenders turned out, Hollywood's big night has almost been overshadowed by outside circumstance.

A day before nominations came out Feb. 15, a Web site posted what it claimed was a short list from which nominees would be drawn. The information proved false.

Academy executives reacted with irritation over reports that The Wall Street Journal was surveying voters. The newspaper ran a story Friday based on interviews with 356 of the 5,607 Academy voters, predicting ''American Beauty'' would win best picture, Hilary Swank would take best actress for ''Boys Don't Cry'' and ''The Hurricane's'' Denzel Washington would narrowly win best actor.

The Academy had already had to send new ballots to most of its members after 4,000 voting forms got lost in the mail.

The finishing touch came when 55 Oscars were stolen March 8 from the shipping company hired to deliver the statues. An employee of the company was charged with grand theft.

All but three Oscars were found in a garbage bin last weekend by Willie Fulgear, who scavenges trash for a living.

The Academy has rolled with the punches, holding a news conference to announce the disappearance of the statues and joining the police briefing to celebrate their recovery.

Academy executive director Bruce Davis jokingly warned Oscar host Billy Crystal to stay away from Bell, Calif., the community where the ballots and statues vanished, because it ''seems to be a Bermuda Triangle for Oscar things.''

Now Academy officials are bracing, again good-naturedly, for the inevitable ribbing Crystal will dish out over the mishaps come Oscar night.

''It's been a very, very, very weird year,'' said Academy spokesman John Pavlik.

On with the show.


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