LOS ANGELES: Hollywood Boulevard is still open to traffic, but not for long: sometime this week, the Oscars mega-circus will start to pitch its tent, for the climax of Tinseltown's annual awards season.
With only seven days to go before next Sunday's extravaganza, everyone knows the frontrunners: Martin Scorsese's visually lavish adventure "Hugo" and French-directed silent movie "The Artist," starring a cute canine called Uggie.
But unlike some years, there is little consensus over whether either will walk away with the prestigious golden statuette for Best Picture when the envelopes are opened at the Kodak Theatre.
Indeed, the mood is slightly strange this year because, less than a fortnight before the show, the Kodak Theatre lost its name after the legendary photographic company filed for bankruptcy.
The run-up to this year's Oscars has definitely had its share of bumps: veteran host Billy Crystal will front the show, but only after first-choice Eddie Murphy quit in November in a row over anti-gay comments by a producer.
At about the same time they also abruptly lost their head of communications, who hasn't been replaced.
That hasn't stopped Oscars organizers the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences from pressing ahead with plans for its annual bonanza, watched by hundreds of millions of viewers around the world.
In their latest drip-feed announcement of who will be starring in the show -- aside from the Oscar winners, that is -- the Academy said Friday that Canadian dance troupe Cirque du Soleil will stage a one-off performance.
Others already lined up to present include Ben Stiller, Bradley Cooper, Penelope Cruz, Angelina Jolie, Cameron Diaz, Halle Berry, Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, Jennifer Lopez and Melissa McCarthy.
Scorsese's "Hugo" is nominated in the most categories, with 11 nods, followed by 10 for silent film hit "The Artist" including best actor for French star Jean Dujardin and best director for Michel Hazanavicius.
"The Artist" has taken a string of top prizes over the last few months including Golden Globe best film, and seven gongs at Britain's BAFTAs last week led by best picture.
Dujardin -- whose mustachioed photo has been plastered on movie billboards for months -- has kept his head down in recent weeks after getting into trouble back in France when his face appeared in a poster denounced as sexist.
The French movie's other star is Uggie, the Jack Russell who saves Dujardin's bacon from a fire at one point -- and who came out on top in a pre-Oscars canine contest.
The trick-performing terrier was named top dog at the first-ever Golden Collar awards last week, beating rivals including Doberman Blackie from Scorsese's movie.
While "The Artist" and "Hugo" are in the lead, other movies up for best film include "The Descendants" starring George Clooney, "The Help," "Moneyball," "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" and Terence Mallick's "The Tree of Life."
Steven Spielberg's equine epic "War Horse" and Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris" are also in the running, in what some Oscar-watchers say is an unusually open field for the top prize.
Clooney is tipped to go head-to-head with fellow A-lister Brad Pitt for best actor, along with Dujardin, Gary Oldman for spy thriller "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" or Mexican dark horse Demian Bichir for "A Better Life."
For best actress all eyes are on Meryl Streep, who also triumphed at Britain's BAFTAs but sought to dampen expectations of a third Academy Award for her "Iron Lady" performance when pressed by reporters at the Berlin Film Festival last week.
Asked whether the hype around the woman frequently called the world's top actress might just be exaggerated, the 62-year-old said incredulously: "Yeah. Of course. Of course."
Come next weekend -- after the red carpet is rolled out along the closed-off stretch of Hollywood Boulevard outside the Kodak/not Kodak Theatre, the huge lighting rigs erected and all the rest -- she, and others, will find out. AGENCIES