Matt Sayles, Associated Press
LOS ANGELES — Best actor nominees George Clooney and Jean Dujardin hit the Academy Award red carpet Sunday night to the delight of fans in the bleachers outside the Hollywood & Highland Center, but comedian Sacha Baron Cohen threatened to upset the chic Hollywood tone.
Cohen arrived dressed in an over-the-top white military uniform, sunglasses and a thick beard to promote his upcoming film "The Dictator." Holding an urn he jokingly claimed were the ashes of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il, Cohen then dumped the container onto "American Idol" host Ryan Seacrest.
The stunt couldn't dampen Dujardin's hopes. He would like to become the first Frenchman to win best actor and his "The Artist" is favored to become the only silent movie to take the best-picture prize since the first Oscar ceremony 83 years ago.
Christopher Plummer is in line to become the oldest acting winner ever at 82. Meryl Streep might join the acting three-peat club with a third Academy Award.
Along with Streep, Hollywood's big night on Sunday has plenty of returning stars, too, with past Oscar winners and nominees such as Clooney — who arrived with girlfriend Stacy Keibler dressed like an Oscar statuette — Brad Pitt, Glenn Close, Michelle Williams and Nick Nolte in the running again.
The show also has a returning favorite as ringmaster: After an eight-year absence, Billy Crystal is back for his ninth time as host. Some early cheers were heard for dresses worn by Viola Davis, who wore a green Vera Wang, and Octavia Spencer in a gown by Tadashi Shoji.
Because of a change in voting rules, the Oscars feature nine best-picture nominees for the first time, instead of the 10 they had the last two years.
Competing against "The Artist" for the top honor are Clooney's family drama "The Descendants"; the Deep South tale "The Help," featuring best-actress nominee Davis and supporting-actress favorite Octavia Spencer; and the Paris adventure "Hugo," from director Martin Scorsese.
Also in the lineup: the romantic fantasy "Midnight in Paris," from writer-director Woody Allen; Pitt's baseball tale "Moneyball" and his family saga "The Tree of Life"; the World War I epic "War Horse," directed by Steven Spielberg; and Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock's Sept. 11 story "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close."
"Hugo" leads with 11 nominations, with "The Artist" right behind with 10.
Spencer's a virtual lock for supporting actress, having dominated earlier film honors for her breakout role in "The Help" as a brash maid in 1960s Mississippi. The same holds true for Plummer, the front-runner for supporting actor for his role as an elderly widower who comes out as gay in "Beginners."
The lead-acting categories are where the drama lies. Best actress shapes up as a two-woman race between Davis as a courageous maid leading an effort to reveal the hardships of black housekeepers' lives in "The Help" and Streep as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in "The Iron Lady."
The record-holder with 17 acting nominations, Streep has won twice and would become only the fifth performer to receive three Oscars. Jack Nicholson, Ingrid Bergman and Walter Brennan all earned three, while Katharine Hepburn won four.
It's been almost three decades since Streep last received an Oscar, for 1982's "Sophie's Choice." Though she has the most acting nominations, she also has the most losses — 14. Another loss would be her 13th in a row.
Best actor also looks like a two-person contest between Clooney as the distressed patriarch of a Hawaiian clan in "The Descendants" and Dujardin as a silent-era superstar whose career tanks as talking pictures take over in "The Artist."
It would be the second Oscar for Clooney, who won the supporting-actor prize for 2005's "Syriana." While French actresses have won before, among them Marion Cotillard and Juliette Binoche, Dujardin would be the first actor from France to receive an Oscar.
Dujardin was picked as best actor Saturday at the Spirit Awards honoring independent film, where "The Artist" ruled with four prizes, including best picture and director for Michel Hazanavicius, who is favored for the same trophy at the Oscars.
"The Artist" has dominated Hollywood honors this season, winning key prizes at the Golden Globes and awards shows held by the Directors, Producers and Screen Actors guilds.
"This means a lot, because it's a small movie. It's not expensive. We did it with small money," Hazanavicius said backstage at the Spirit Awards. "And it's black and white and silent."
If "The Artist" comes away with the best-picture trophy, it would be the first win for a silent film since the war story "Wings" was named outstanding picture at the inaugural Oscars in 1929.
The 84th Academy Awards show begins at 8:30 p.m. EST, broadcast live on ABC from the Hollywood & Highland Center in Los Angeles.
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