The Artist leads race as Oscars countdown begins

The Artist The Artist has become the runaway favourite of the Oscar season

The final countdown to the Oscars has begun, with silent French film The Artist as the clear favourite to take the coveted best picture prize.

The black-and-white film has won most of the major pre-Oscar honours during awards season.

The Artist has 10 nominations in total, while Martin Scorsese's 3D family film Hugo leads the race with 11, including best film and director.

The 84th Academy Awards, hosted by Billy Crystal, takes place on Sunday.

Crystal is back for his ninth stint as host, with Oscar-watchers predicting lots of silent film gags and jibes about the recent legal wrangle over the Kodak-branded theatre where the Oscars is held.

Crystal himself is giving nothing away, but tweeted this week: "First rehearsal: They said keep it 'fresh and new'. This from an industry that just brought us Fast & Furious 5 and Harry Potter 7, part 2."

Billy Crystal Crystal stepped in as host after Eddie Murphy pulled out in November

The final round of voting by the Academy's 5,783 members ended on Tuesday. Outside the venue, a section of Hollywood Boulevard has been sealed off and the red carpet is in place.

Industry newspaper The Hollywood Reporter says The Artist's predicted win for best picture follows its victory in the two strongest "Oscar bellwethers", the Producers Guild of America and the Directors Guild of America awards.

"This French-financed, Hollywood-shot, Harvey Weinstein-distributed love letter to the movies has gone on to seduce Hollywood since being unveiled at Cannes in May.

"It is now poised to become the first silent film in 83 years and the first black-and-white film in 18 years to win the top Oscar."

Close race

A change in the Academy voting rules means that there are nine films in the best picture race this year.

Alongside The Artist and Hugo, those in the running include War Horse, Moneyball, The Tree Of Life, Midnight In Paris, The Help, The Descendants, and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

George Clooney and Brad Pitt are both up for best actor, and Meryl Streep has her 17th Oscar nomination for her portrayal of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady.

Streep has won two Oscars - best supporting actress for 1979's Kramer vs Kramer and best actress for 1982's Sophie's Choice - but has been overlooked on her last 12 attempts.

Oscar pundits predict a close race between Streep and Viola Davies, for her performance as maid Aibileen Clark in civil rights drama The Help.

Viola Davis Davis has recently edged ahead of Streep in the Oscar race

In the supporting actress category, The Help's Octavia Spencer is the frontrunner, ahead of fellow cast member Jessica Chastain, and Melissa McCarthy and Britain's Janet McTeer - for Bridesmaids and Albert Nobbs respectively.

Unusually, this year's race for best supporting actor boasts two octogenarians: Christopher Plummer for Beginners and Max von Sydow for Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

Both are 82, and if either win they would become the oldest recipient of an acting award. The record is currently held by Jessica Tandy, who won for Driving Miss Daisy, aged 80.

Plummer is widely predicted to take the statuette for his role as an elderly father who comes out as gay after his wife dies.

The others in the category are Nick Nolte, for Warrior; Kenneth Branagh, for My Week with Marilyn; and 28-year-old Jonah Hill, for Moneyball.

Nostalgic choice

Things are less clear-cut in the race for best actor.

Hollywood heart-throbs Clooney and Pitt face a stiff challenge from The Artist's Jean Dujardin, who beat them - and British star Gary Oldman - at the Baftas earlier this month.

It's Oldman's first Oscar nomination, which recognises his quietly powerful performance as mole-catcher George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

The outsider in this category is Mexican actor Demian Bichir for his role as a Los Angeles gardener, struggling to keep his son out of gang culture, in A Better Life.

Earlier this week, an investigation by the Los Angeles Times revealed that the Academy demographic is much less diverse than the movie-going public.

Oscar voters, it said, are nearly 94% Caucasian and 77% male. They have a median age of 62, and under 50s constitute just 14% of the membership. All of which, puts The Artist in pole position.

Mike Goodridge, editor of Screen International, told the BBC: "You're looking at a group that are going to vote for The King's Speech over The Social Network, for The Hurt Locker over Avatar, and this year it's going to go for this portrait of days gone by."

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