Among the movies vying for the awards given on Sunday by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are director Clint Eastwood's saga of boxing and human friendship, Million Dollar Baby, and Martin Scorsese's biography of billionaire eccentric Howard Hughes, The Aviator.
For weeks, as Hollywood's awards season has run up to the Oscars, the battle between the two films has been as tight as any race of recent years. But some experts now think that Baby has the edge over The Aviator.
Professional guilds have split their awards, while critics' groups have favoured the wine country comedy Sideways. The other challengers for top film, Ray Charles biography Ray and the drama Finding Neverland, about the creation of Peter Pan, have failed to generate Oscar heat.
"There's no doubt it will be Million Dollar Baby. If it has competition, it is from Aviator, but Sideways is out," veteran film critic Emanuel Levy said.
Hollywood's Kodak Theatre is
preparing for the 77th Oscars
In the best actor race, Jamie Foxx's portrayal of Charles in Ray seems a shoo-in after he swept early awards from the Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe voters. He faces stiff competition from another Golden Globe winner, Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays Hughes in The Aviator as he begins to slip into madness.
Among best actress nominees, Hilary Swank as a female boxer in Million Dollar Baby is in the night's tightest bout against Annette Bening and her portrayal of an ageing stage diva in Being Julia.
TV audiences and Oscar show producer Gil Cates will be watching to see whether host Chris Rock, known for his raw onstage language, will upset TV regulators worried about obscenity after singer Janet Jackson's infamous "wardrobe malfunction" at last year's football Super Bowl.
"Chris is a very smart man, and he understands quite clearly the difference between the scatological observations he can make on his cable television specials and how to be funny within the boundaries allowed on the networks," Cates is reported to have said.
The Oscar telecast will be broadcast on the ABC network.
Keeping it simple
Elton John and others will be
hosting Oscar parties
The big question for the world's fashionistas will be what the stars are wearing on the red carpet outside Hollywood's Kodak Theatre.
Celebrities will sparkle and shine in gowns and tuxedos from designers such as Valentino, Carolina Herrera, Calvin Klein and Vera Wang.
Hollywood geared up for celebrity-filled parties thrown by the likes of Elton John and Vanity Fair magazine, and amid all the happenings comes the Miramax Films gala for The Aviator and Finding Neverland.
It may be the final hurrah at Miramax for Harvey Weinstein and his brother, Bob Weinstein, backers of past best Oscar winners The English Patient, Shakespeare in Love, and Chicago.
The pair are expected to leave the company they founded shortly after this year's Oscars - a bittersweet ending to the Weinstein's real-life Hollywood story.