In the best original score category, Lebanon-born composer Gabriel Yared received his third Oscar nomination for his score on civil war drama Cold Mountain. Yared, who is also French, won on Oscar in 1996 for his work in The English Patient.

Yared has also been nominated for a Golden Globe and a BAFTA this year for his Cold Mountain score.

And despite favourable reviews at film festivals for Palestinian director Elia Sulaiman's Divine Intervention, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences denied it entry into the 2004 Academy Awards.

The selection committee behind the Oscars said the film could not run in the best foreign language film category because it came from a country not formally recognised by the United Nations.

Moving away from the Middle East, South African beauty Charlize Theron had a hold on the best actress Oscar following her transformation into a harsh-faced prostitute and serial killer in Monster.

Vying against Theron is 13-year-old New Zealander Keisha Castle-Hughes, the youngest-ever best actress nominee, for Whale Rider; Australian Naomi Watts for 21 Grams and Britain's Samantha Morton for In America.   
Heightened security

Security was as tight as technologically and humanly possible at the Kodak theatre. Security will also be tight on stage as well for the first time.

South Africa's Charlize Theron
was transformed in Monster

The usually live show will be broadcast around the world with a five-second tape delay, just in case some star
decides to bare a breast or make some other untoward gesture a la Janet Jackson at the Super Bowl half-time show.

The producers have promised the delay will not be used to censor political statements by Academy Award winners or presenters.

Handing out awards this year will be 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 take the stage if he wins best actor in Mystic River.

The Lord of the Rings: the Return of the King, the third and final instalment of Peter Jackson's long and faithful
adaptation of JRR Tolkien's epic books is expected to swallow up the main prize of best picture.

Hail to the hobbits

Even though a fantasy film has never won a best picture award, Lord of the Rings has a lot going for it as it heads into Oscar night.

Oscar historian Robert Osborne said once every few years a movie comes along that overwhelms voters with both its
popularity and filmmaking prowess. The last time that happened was the 1997 blockbuster Titanic, a winner of 11 Oscars that, like Rings, earned most of its nominations in technical categories.

The Lord of the Rings is expected
to sweep the Oscars

Part of the reason that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences moved the Oscars up to 29 February from its is traditional late March date was to cut down on the campaigns that have come to resemble free-spending presidential primaries.
Experts think the battle for best actor is the night's only real cliffhanger since Theron is considered to have a lock on best actress for Monster. 

Comedian Bill Murray, who plays a man who has run out of jokes in Lost in Translation, is in a three-way battle for
best actor with Johnny Depp for Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl and Sean Penn for Mystic River.

For his part, Murray seemed to be dreading the Academy awards. "I just know it's gonna be a long time sitting in a monkey suit," he told reporters.

"It's gonna be sitting in a car for a long time, sitting in a theatre for a long time, sitting at a banquet with some maybe edible food for a long time, and then sitting in a car again for a long time. And then I'll have to figure out what happened."