LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The Academy Awards have long been dominated by men and their movies, but Hollywood's women may steal the spotlight Sunday when the final curtain falls on the top film honors watched around the world.
Kathryn Bigelow is the frontrunner to win the golden trophy dubbed Oscar for best director with Iraq war film "The Hurt Locker." If so, she would make history as the first woman to win that award in more than 80 years the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has given them away.
"America's Sweetheart" Sandra Bullock is favored to earn her first Academy Award for best actress playing a strong mom in "The Blind Side." A day earlier, she was given a worst actress "Razzie" by a group of Hollywood critics.
No performer -- male or female -- has ever been best and worst in 30 years of that dubious distinction.
If Bullock fails on Oscar night, pundits say the likely best actress is veteran Meryl Streep as trailblazing chef Julia Child in the culinary comedy "Julie & Julia." If she takes the Academy Award in her record 16th nomination, Streep will be just one victory short of legendary Katharine Hepburn, who had four Oscars in her lifetime, more than any man or woman.
Comedian Mo'Nique has claimed almost every supporting actress honor in sight for her dramatic turn as an abusive mother in "Precious: Based On the Novel 'Push' By Sapphire," and she is favored at the Oscars, too.
Jeff Bridges seems to be a lock for best actor as a drunken singer in "Crazy Heart" and Christoph Waltz is favored for supporting actor as a menacing Nazi in "Inglourious Basterds." Both have claimed numerous other awards for their work.
Yet, even with the acting categories all but sewn up, Oscar watchers say some drama remains for the televised ceremony starting at 8:30 pm EDT (0130 GMT) in downtown Hollywood where the red carpet is rolled out and a fashion parade awaits. That drama comes from "Avatar" director James Cameron.
As Hollywood's award season has played out since December, Bigelow and her reality-fueled "Hurt Locker" have trumped her ex-husband Cameron and his effects-filled "Avatar" at almost every event.
But in the past two weeks, "Hurt Locker" began seeing some unsavory headlines after producer Nicolas Chartier was caught campaigning for best film by disparaging "Avatar," causing the Academy to banish him from Sunday's ceremony.
At private Hollywood parties, there have been whispers that the 5,800 Oscar voters may prefer "Avatar" with its $2.5 billion at global box offices, compared to about $20 million for "Hurt Locker." Both have earned solid critical praise.
As important, some Oscar watchers think a preferential voting system and 10 best film nominees for the first time since 1943, could cause the frontrunners to split the vote and allow "Inglourious Basterds" or "Precious" to claim the award.
Still, an "Avatar" win would be good for the Academy and the ABC network that airs the TV show. History has shown that when a popular movie such as Cameron's "Titanic" wins big at the Oscars, more viewers tune in.
The telecast may not even be seen by some viewers in and around New York, where a cable TV company has pulled its plug on the network in a money dispute.
Still, the show must go on for hundreds of millions more viewers worldwide, and producers have brought in Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin as co-hosts to keep the laughs coming.
Editing by Alan Elsner