Hollywood's stars arrive on the red carpet

Hollywood’s finest have started to arrive on the red carpet in advance of tonight's Oscars awards show.

Hollywood's stars arrive on the red carpet

Hollywood’s finest have started to arrive on the red carpet in advance of tonight's Oscars awards show.

Tonight’s glittering ceremony could see Meryl Streep join an elite acting club with a third Academy Award, Jean Dujardin could become the first Frenchman to win best actor, and Christopher Plummer could become the oldest acting winner ever at 82.

And 'The Artist' is favoured to become the only silent movie to take the best-picture prize since the first Oscar ceremony 83 years ago.

Along with Streep, Hollywood’s big night has plenty of other returning stars. Past Oscar winners and nominees George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Glenn Close, Michelle Williams and Nick Nolte are also in the running again.

The show also has a returning favourite as ringmaster. After an eight-year absence, Billy Crystal is back for his ninth time as host.

Because of a change in voting rules, the Oscars feature nine best-picture nominees for the first time, instead of the 10 they had the last two years.

Competing against The Artist for the top honour are Clooney’s family drama 'The Descendants'; the Deep South tale 'The Help', featuring best-actress nominee Viola Davis and supporting-actress favourite Octavia Spencer; and the Paris adventure 'Hugo', from director Martin Scorsese.

Also in the line-up: the romantic fantasy 'Midnight In Paris', from writer-director Woody Allen; Pitt’s baseball tale 'Moneyball' and his family saga 'The Tree Of Life'; the First World War epic 'War Horse', directed by Steven Spielberg; and Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock’s September 11 story 'Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close'.

'Hugo' leads with 11 nominations in total, with The Artist right behind with 10.

Spencer is a virtual lock for supporting actress, having dominated earlier film honours for her breakout role in The Help as a brash maid in 1960s Mississippi. The same holds true for Plummer, the front-runner for supporting actor for his role as an elderly widower who comes out as gay in 'Beginners'.

The lead-acting categories are where the drama lies. Best actress shapes up as a two-woman race between Davis as a courageous maid leading an effort to reveal the hardships of black housekeepers’ lives in 'The Help' and Streep as former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher in 'The Iron Lady'.

The record-holder with 17 acting nominations, Streep has won twice and would become only the fifth performer to receive three Oscars. Jack Nicholson, Ingrid Bergman and Walter Brennan all earned three, while Katharine Hepburn won four.

It has been almost three decades since Streep last received an Oscar, for 1982’s 'Sophie’s Choice'.

Though she has the most acting nominations, she also has the most losses – 14. Another loss would be her 13th in a row.

Best actor also looks like a two-person contest between Clooney as the distressed patriarch of a Hawaiian clan in 'The Descendants' and Dujardin as a silent-era superstar whose career tanks as talking pictures take over in 'The Artist'.

It would be the second Oscar for Clooney, who won the supporting-actor prize for 2005’s 'Syriana'.

While French actresses have won before, among them Marion Cotillard and Juliette Binoche, Dujardin would be the first actor from France to receive an Oscar.

Dujardin was picked as best actor yesterday at the Spirit Awards honouring independent film, where 'The Artist' ruled with four prizes, including best picture and director for Michel Hazanavicius, who is favoured for the same trophy at the Oscars.

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