With just one day to go before Hollywood's highest decorations are doled out, odds makers were still stumped as they tried handicap several too-close-to-call Oscar races.
Russell Crowe fought tigers in the Roman Coliseum in "Gladiator" - but his epic will face tigers of another kind at Sunday's Oscar showdown with the leaping Chinese warriors of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."
Both films lead all others in nominations - 12 for "Gladiator" and 10 for "Crouching Tiger" at the 73rd annual Academy Awards.
Crowe, Julia Roberts, Tom Hanks, Benicio Del Toro, Ridley Scott the rest of Hollywood's royalty will walk up the 73-meter (240-foot) red carpet to see if years of work will pay off with a coveted golden statue.
But most Oscar-watchers agree that no movie will sweep this year's awards as has happened so often in the past, notably in 1998 when "Titanic" sunk the competition to grab 11 statues, tying "Ben Hur's" 1959 record.
"A lot of times a movie will get a certain momentum, a certain buzz you hear in LA," said Timothy Gray, managing editor at trade bible Variety. "But this year all five of those movies have momentum."
Rounding out the five best pic nominations are "Erin Brockovich," Roberts' legal David and Goliath saga, and "Chocolat."
This year's edition also has a decidedly international, even multilingual flavor, with Mandarin-language martial arts phenom "Crouching Tiger" and drug drama "Traffic" (one third in Spanish) drawing wide attention, big box office and critical praise -- not to mention nominations for best picture.
"Tiger" also picked up nods for best adapted screenplay, best original score, best song, film editing, costume design, cinematography and art direction.
Roberts will likely win best actress for her portrayal of real-life brassy, tough-talking heroine Erin Brockovich, who took on a California power utility and won.
Even fellow nominee, France's Juliette Binoche ("Chocolat") has said she hopes Roberts will win.
"Gladiator" (which some wags have dubbed "Saving General Maximus") and star Crowe remain favorites to take best picture and best actor, respectively.
But Ed Harris -- he of the steely jaw and unblinking blue eyes -- drew raves for "Pollock," the story of the brilliant rise and brutal fall of the most celebrated American abstract painter.
And two-time best actor winner (and Academy favorite) Hanks turned in a stellar performance in "Cast Away."
"For me this is already a prize," said Spain's Javier Bardem, nominated for "Before Night Falls." The pressure is over."
After that predictions are dicey.
Kate Hudson ("Almost Famous") looks good for best supporting actress, but don't count out Judi Dench "Chocolat", Marcia Gay Harden "Pollack", Frances McDormand "Almost Famous" and Julie Walters "Billy Elliot".
Puerto Rican-born Del Toro's portrayal of an honest Mexican drug cop in "Traffic" is a favorite for best supporting actor.
But the sleepy-eyed actor faces stiff competition from Jeff Bridges ("Contender"), bloodsucking Willem Dafoe "Shadow of the Vampire", veteran Albert Finney "Brockovich" and Joaquin Phoenix's evil emperor in "Gladiator."
Taiwan's Ang Lee is expected to win best director for his visually stunning "Crouching Tiger."
"Audiences wanted to see something different," said the soft-spoken director of the unexpected success of his movie in the United States.
"I fulfilled my dream to a certain degree and the rest is a cultural phenomenon."
Ridley Scott "Gladiator" is also nominated for best director, as is Stephen Daldry for endearing British entry "Billy Elliot."
Ironically, Steven Soderbergh's dual nominations in that category for "Traffic" and "Brockovich" will likely hurt more than help, leading Academy voters to split their ballots -- AFP
© 2001 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com )