Uncertainty was in the air for Hollywood''s big night on Sunday, with an Academy Awards show potentially packed with drama yet lacking the box-office muscle to ensure a decent television viewing audience.
Movie stars packed the red carpet, posing for cameras and talking to the media before entering the Kodak Theatre for the 77th Oscars ceremony.
Unlike last year, when "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" dominated the awards and flat-out front-runners took all four acting prizes, the 77th Oscars shaped up as a mixed bag, with only "Ray" star Jamie Foxx an outright favourite to win.
Clint Eastwood''s emotionally piercing prizefight drama "Million Dollar Baby" and Martin Scorsese''s gloriously rendered Howard Hughes saga "The Aviator" presented the evening''s key films for best picture.
The other contenders were "Finding Neverland," a fanciful look at playwright J.M. Barrie''s inspirations in writing "Peter Pan"; "Ray," a hearty portrait of the loves, lusts, failings and musical triumphs of singer Ray Charles; and "Sideways," the critics'' favourite about a dour wretch whose road trip with a buddy leads him to new hope for romance.
Scorsese and Eastwood''s duel for best director carried almost as much drama as the best picture race.
One of American cinema''s most esteemed filmmakers, Scorsese was in danger of joining such luminaries as Alfred Hitchcock and Robert Altman as record holders for Oscar futility. Five directing nominations, five losses.
Eastwood, a past directing and best picture Oscar recipient for the 1992 western "Unforgiven," beat Scorsese for both the Directors Guild of America prize and the Golden Globe directing honour for "Million Dollar Baby."
Those prizes are solid indicators on who ultimately wins the best director Oscar.
Scorsese also has never delivered a best picture winner, though many in Hollywood believe his 1980 masterpiece "Raging Bull" should have won that honour and the best director prize.
Eastwood also scored a best actor nomination for "Million Dollar Baby," though Foxx was considered one of the strongest favourites in Oscar history for his exceptional emulation of Ray Charles, a portrayal so eerily believable it jolted even the late singer''s friends and family.
Hilary Swank, an Oscar winner for "Boys Don''t Cry," had the edge for best actress for her role as a bull-headed boxer in "Million Dollar Baby," but Annette Bening was a serious rival for the theatre farce "Being Julia."
Morgan Freeman of "Million Dollar Baby" confirmed his favouritism by winning the Oscar for best supporting actor in the movie "Million Dollar Baby".
Cate Blanchett of "The Aviator" was also favourite for supporting actress, though Thomas Haden Church and Virginia Madsen of "Sideways" and Clive Owen and Natalie Portman of the sex drama "Closer" offered strong competition.