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'THE ACADEMY AWARDS
BILLY CRYSTAL IS BACK AS HOST OF THE 72ND ANNUAL OSCARCAST WITH NEW TECHNOLOGY, FASTER PACING, INTERNET ACCESS AND LOTS OF STAR-POWERED GLAMOUR

Tonight, a sizable chunk of the world's population will tune into the broadcast of "The 72nd Annual Academy Awards."

Beginning at 8 p.m. on Channel 7 with the "Oscar Preview Show," they'll tune in for the suspense, for the glamour, to see what the stars are and (in the case of folks like Jennifer Lopez) aren't wearing, for the comedy stylings of host Billy Crystal, and to see which of the five nominated films -- "American Beauty," "The Cider House Rules," "The Green Mile," "The Insider," "The Sixth Sense" -- walks away as Best Picture (compiled from replacements for the more than 4,000 Oscar ballots that were misrouted in the mail last month).

After taking a year off, Crystal will do his seventh stint as host, working with first-time Oscar-show producers Richard D. Zanuck and Lili Fini Zanuck.

The Zanucks are hoping to restore excitement to a ceremony that has slipped in the regard of the public and Hollywood itself.

Ratings for last year's bloated, four-hour-plus affair plummeted. And Zanuck, 65, who was steeped in decades of Academy Award tradition as the son of studio mogul Darryl F. Zanuck, can attest to insiders' dissatisfaction.

"The industry celebrated itself. Everybody in town fought to get into the presentation," he recalled. Now, he says, "stars don't go to the show unless they're involved in it somehow. They just don't go to be a part of the evening, which is kind of sad in a way but that's what it is today."

The Zanucks, Oscar winners themselves for producing the 1989 Best Picture "Driving Miss Daisy," are trying to bring back the glamour -- by moving into the future.

They promise tonight's broadcast will be sharpened by new technology, including the use of high-definition masters to cut the movie clips that highlight major awards categories.

There will be a more international flavor to acknowledge that filmmaking extends beyond Hollywood, the Zanucks said. Presenters will include Hong Kong actor Chow Yun-fat and Spain's Penelope Cruz.

After Brad Pitt called, volunteering to be in the show, "We just thought that was wonderful, a wonderful gesture, and we're thrilled by it," Zanuck said.

Hollywood golden boy Leonardo DiCaprio, however, appeared to be a lost cause.

"We've decided to lay off Leonardo," Fini Zanuck said. "We've let Leonardo know enough we wanted him, so let's give him a break now." Other presenters include Antonio Banderas, Cameron Diaz, Jane Fonda, Mel Gibson, Salma Hayek, Samuel L. Jackson, Lucy Liu, Mike Myers, Gwyneth Paltrow, Keanu Reeves and Charlize Theron.

To tighten the ceremony, the Zanucks have banished the dance numbers that sometimes proved real groaners, such as Rob Lowe's spin with Snow White in 1989 or last year's "Saving Private Ryan" tap demonstration.

Aware that viewers are now accustomed to the quicker cuts of movies and television, the producers say the show's pacing and editing will be improved.

Nominated songs and scores will be presented in a way that recognizes how important music has become in films and how aware audiences are of soundtracks.

"Dick and I are real purists about this," Fini Zanuck said. "We not only asked the artist to perform (their nominated song) but with the musicians of their choice. So, for instance, Aimee Mann will be doing "Save Me" (from "Magnolia") with her band. ... Phil Collins will perform his song ("You'll Be in My Heart" from "Tarzan") exactly the way he's chosen to."

"Music of My Heart" (from "Music of the Heart") will be performed by Gloria Estefan and popular boy band 'N Sync; "When She Loved Me" ("Toy Story II") will be performed by Sarah MacLachlan and Randy Newman; and Robin Williams will sing "Blame Canada" from "South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut."

The Zanucks were relieved that Crystal agreed to return as Oscar host.

The host "has to be someone who everybody likes, who's funny, charming, who can be spontaneous, and Billy is all those things," Zanuck said.

"People really like him on this show. They want to see him, they want to see what he's going to do," said Fini Zanuck, referring to Crystal's past crowd-pleasing openings in which he spoofed the nominees in song and costume.

So what's he planning?

"We don't know and we're not telling," said Fini Zanuck.

Corrected her husband: "We DO know, but we're not telling."

Head writer Bruce Vilanch, an Oscar veteran, says Crystal makes the ceremony a "big party" where anything can happen. Vilanch and his team will be poised to capitalize on those unexpected moments.

Zanuck predicts that the ceremony will clock in, without counting commercials, at "three hours and 14 minutes of pure solid action," meaning the show could end by 12:14 a.m.

Meanwhile, Oscar fans with Internet access will have the chance to experience the ceremony as never before through www.oscars.com/, the official website for the Oscar broadcast. The site will have streaming video of celebrity arrivals on the red carpet, updated lists of winners, backstage interviews and, after the ceremony, a visit to the prestigious Governor's Ball.

Here are the nominees in selected categories for the 72nd annual Academy Awards:

Best Picture: "American Beauty"; "The Cider House Rules"; "The Green Mile"; "The Insider"; "The Sixth Sense."

Best Actor: Russell Crowe, "The Insider"; Richard Farnsworth, "The Straight Story"; Sean Penn, "Sweet and Lowdown"; Kevin Spacey, "American Beauty"; Denzel Washington, "The Hurricane."

Best Actress: Annette Bening, "American Beauty"; Janet McTeer, "Tumbleweeds"; Julianne Moore, "The End of the Affair"; Meryl Streep, "Music of the Heart"; Hilary Swank, "Boys Don't Cry."

Best Supporting Actor: Michael Caine, "The Cider House Rules"; Tom Cruise, "Magnolia"; Michael Clarke Duncan, "The Green Mile"; Jude Law, "The Talented Mr. Ripley"; Haley Joel Osment, "The Sixth Sense."

Best Supporting Actress: Toni Collette, "The Sixth Sense"; Angelina Jolie, "Girl, Interrupted"; Catherine Keener, "Being John Malkovich"; Samantha Morton, "Sweet and Lowdown"; Chloe Sevigny, "Boys Don't Cry."

Best Director: Lasse Hallstrom, "The Cider House Rules"; Spike Jonze, "Being John Malkovich"; Michael Mann, "The Insider"; Sam Mendes, "American Beauty"; M. Night Shyamalan, "The Sixth Sense."