Hollywood crackled with excitement as stars lit up the red carpet ahead of the 81st Oscars, with rags-to-riches drama "Slumdog Millionaire" tipped to win the race for best picture.
Celebrities have begun to arrive at the Kodak Theater, which will host the 81st edition of the Academy Awards starting at 5.30pm (0130 GMT Monday).
The stars of "Slumdog Millionaire" delighted onlookers, with director Danny Boyle accompanying two of the child actors who were flown to Hollywood for the ceremony -- a world away from their lives in Mumbai's shantytowns.
Other early arrivals included teen idol Miley Cyrus, "Milk" star Emile Hirsch, and veteran British actor Anthony Hopkins.
Cyrus, best known as the 16-year-old star of Disney's "Hannah Montana" television show, said she was looking forward to "star-stalking." "I want to see Angelina Jolie. She could adopt me if she wants to," Cyrus joked.
Meanwhile, Hirsch, who has a key role in gay rights biopic "Milk," arrived in a traditional black tuxedo with a white ribbon pinned to a lapel, a symbol of support for same-sex marriage.
The build-up to this year's ceremony has been dominated by the Bollywood-inspired "Slumdog," which has swept other awards and is considered the overwhelming favorite for the best picture statuette.
Although period drama "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" will start the night with the most nominations, 13 compared to 10 for "Slumdog" -- experts say that Boyle's film is unbeatable.
"It would be the biggest upset in modern Oscars history to see 'Slumdog' lose," said Pete Hammond, a veteran awards season pundit and Maxim film critic.
Pundits say "Slumdog" has delighted audiences with its rags-to-riches plot about a Mumbai tea boy who rises out from poverty and enters a television quiz show to win millions and be reunited with the love of his life.
Other rivals in the best picture category are "Benjamin Button," political drama "Frost/Nixon," biopic "Milk" and Holocaust drama "The Reader."
With "Slumdog" and Boyle heavily favored to win best picture and director, pundits are looking to the acting honors to provide suspense.
Sean Penn, who plays a trailblazing gay politician in "Milk," and Kate Winslet, who plays a Nazi death camp guard in "The Reader" are the front-runners in the best actor and actress categories.
However Penn faces stiff competition from Mickey Rourke, who won last month's Golden Globes for playing a washed up prizefighter in "The Wrestler."
Rourke received an eve-of-Oscars morale-boost Saturday when he won best actor at the Independent Spirit Awards.
Meanwhile, Winslet's hopes of a first Academy Award after missing out on five previous occasions are threatened by two-time Oscar-winner Meryl Streep ("Doubt"), with Melissa Leo ("Frozen River") tipped as a dark horse.
In the supporting categories, late Australian actor Heath Ledger is poised to become only the second performer in history to win a posthumous Oscar, a year after his death from a drug overdose in New York.
Bookmakers have installed Ledger as the 1/50 favorite to win for his turn as the villainous Joker in Batman blockbuster "The Dark Knight."
In the supporting actress category, Penelope Cruz is the favorite and would be the first Spanish actress to win an Oscar, for her performance in Woody Allen comedy "Vicky Cristina Barcelona."
Like Rourke, Cruz was a winner at the Spirit Awards in Santa Monica on Saturday.
The other element of surprise in Sunday's show is the new-look format being promised by organizers as they seek to bounce back from 2008 television viewing figures that were the worst in Oscars history.
The show's producers have promised tweaks to the format, even withholding the names of Oscars presenters in an effort to build hype.
"It's going to be a show that takes some bold risks," said Sid Ganis, president of the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences.
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