Curtain Up At Oscars, "Hugo" An Early Winner

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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The curtain rose on Hollywood's Oscars on Sunday with host Billy Crystal playing the crowd for laughs, actresses stunning their fans in dazzling gowns and "Hugo" taking two early awards for cinematography and art direction

Crystal, who returned to emcee the show for the ninth time, had the crowd of A-list Hollywood stars includingGeorge Clooney, Michelle Williams, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt laughing loudly with an opening video in which he was edited into the year's top movies including silent film "The Artist."

He was kissed by George Clooney on the lips in a scene out of"The Descendants" and even ate a tainted pie from "The Help." He opened with a monologue in which he joked: "there's nothing like watching a bunch of millionaires present each other with golden statues" and sang a song about the movies that drew a loud round of applause.

The first award for cinematography went toMartin Scorsese's "Hugo," which came into the night with more nominations, 11, than any other film. The movie about a boy lost in a train station that also serves as an ode to the early days of filmmaking, also won for art direction.

Hollywood's biggest fashion parade on the Oscar red carpet heated up with Michelle Williams in a stunning red dress from Louis Vuitton, "The Help" star Jessica Chastain in a dazzlingAlexander McQueen black and gold embroidered gown, while Gwyneth Paltrow chose Tom Ford and white, a popular color.

Jewelry was minimal, as expected, and the men wore tuxedos with hand-tied bow ties being a must-have item. Comic actorSacha Baron Cohen put in an appearance, too, dressed in the military uniform of his character "The Dictator."

But it is later in the night that the action truly begins with awards for best film, performances, directing and writing.

This year, "The Artist," a tale of old Hollywood that sees a fading star find redemption through the love of a woman just as silent movies are being taken over by talkies, is widely picked to take home best film by most industry pundits.

It comes into the night with 10 nominations, second only to Scorsese's "Hugo." But most of the nods for "Hugo" are in technical categories like cinematography, whereas "The Artist" nominations are spread across several categories.

"It's unbeatable," said Dave Karger, movie writer for Entertainment Weekly magazine.

BEYOND "THE ARTIST"

While it faces keen competition from civil rightsdrama "The Help," "The Artist" has come out on top in most award shows this year. Still, pundits point out that "The Help" did win best ensemble cast from the Screen Actors Guild, and actors make up the biggest group of Oscar voters.

The third movie that has had Hollywood buzzing this season is family drama "The Descendants," starring George Clooney as a man trying to keep his family together after his cheating wife is hospitalized in a coma. But "Descendants" has failed to spark Oscar voters, and its key win is seen as adapted screenplay.

The category of best actress features a too-close-to-call race betweenViola Davis playing a maid in "The Help" and Meryl Streep as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in "The Iron Lady." Tom O'Neil of awards website Goldderby.com calls that race "neck and neck."

The best actor category sees American Clooney "Descendants" face FrenchmanJean Dujardin, star of "The Artist." For a long time, Clooney seemed to have the upper hand, but Dujardin has won most every time the two have been pitted against each other.

Supporting actor and actress appear locked forChristopher Plummer, playing an elderly gay man in "Beginners," and Octavia Spencer as one of the black maids in "The Help."

At age 82, Plummer would be the oldest Oscar winner ever, and if both Spencer and Davis are victorious, then it would be the first time two African American women have won those categories in the same year for the same movie.

The race for director is widely tipped to go to "The Artist" makerMichel Hazanavicius, but could see a surprise by "Hugo" and Scorsese, Woody Allen with "Midnight in Paris" or Alexander Payne and "The Descendants."

Finally, Iranian film"A Separation" goes up against Israel's "Footnote" in the category for foreign language film, bringing world politics into the movie industry awards.

The other major award is for animated movie where major U.S. studio movies"Rango," "Puss in Boots" and "Kung Fu Panda 2" will be squaring off against a pair of foreign entries, "A Cat in Paris" and "Chico & Rita."

(Reporting By Bob Tourtellotte; Editing by Sandra Maler and Cynthia Osterman)

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