- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 22, 2009

LOS ANGELES (AP) — “Slumdog Millionaire” is arriving at the last stop in its rags-to-riches journey, steaming into the Academy Awards as the sure-fire favorite.

In keeping with its theme of bottomless optimism amid adversity, “Slumdog Millionaire” has led a charmed life, dodging a flirtation with going straight to DVD, winning over critics and climbing toward $100 million hit status. The film has won top honors at all key earlier awards ceremonies, with one to go.

As Sunday dawned under gray skies in Los Angeles, where rain threatened to dampen the red carpet for the second year in a row and Hollywood’s latest labor feud kicked up fresh news of another contract rejection, it seemed as if nothing could drag down the year’s most uplifting storyline.

Now its cast of unknowns — from new celebrities Dev Patel and Freida Pinto to kids plucked by British director Danny Boyle from the slums of Mumbai, India — are all getting a trip to Hollywood’s glitziest party.

For best picture, “Slumdog Millionaire” faces off against the romantic epic “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” the Richard Nixon saga “Frost/Nixon,” the Harvey Milk tale “Milk” and the Holocaust-themed drama “The Reader.”

Shot in India on a modest budget of $14 million, “Slumdog Millionaire” traces the life of a Mumbai orphan who overcomes poverty, betrayal, police torture and other hardships on his way to a reunion with his childhood love and success on India’s version of the TV game show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”

The film nearly got lost in the shuffle as Warner Bros. folded its art-house banner, Warner Independent, which had been slated to distribute “Slumdog Millionaire.” It was rescued from the direct-to-video scrap heap when Fox Searchlight stepped in to release the film.

It’s not all sunshine for “Slumdog Millionaire” going into the Oscars, though. Hollywood’s big night may get a drenching, with a 30 percent chance of evening showers forecast for Greater Los Angeles. And hope of warm feelings between the Screen Actors Guild and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers was lost late Saturday night when SAG’s board of directors rejected the producers’ “last, best and final offer” for a new contract.

After last year’s Oscars delivered their worst TV ratings ever, producers this time say they aim to liven up the show with some surprises and new ways of presenting awards. While some details have surfaced in the past week, most plans have remained a secret, including the identities of celebrities who are presenting the trophies.

The host is no secret. The producers have tapped 40-year-old Australian entertainer Hugh Jackman, who has hosted Broadway’s Tony Awards three times, to emcee the Oscars for the first time.

“If I hadn’t done the Tonys, I think I’d be a lot more nervous than I am,” Mr. Jackman said.

Sunday’s ceremony, airing live on the ABC television network, features a mix of fresh faces and old Oscar hands in the acting categories. Two-time winner Meryl Streep extended her record to 15 nominations, this time for best actress in “Doubt,” while other past Oscar recipients and nominees include Sean Penn (best actor for “Milk”), Kate Winslet (best actress for “The Reader”), Robert Downey Jr. (supporting actor for “Tropic Thunder”) and Philip Seymour Hoffman (supporting actor for “Doubt.”)

Newcomers include a rush of veteran performers, among them best-actress contenders Anne Hathaway (“Rachel Getting Married”) and Melissa Leo (“Frozen River”) and best-actor candidates Mickey Rourke (“The Wrestler”), Frank Langella (“Frost/Nixon”) and Richard Jenkins (“The Visitor”).

“The Dark Knight” co-star Heath Ledger is considered as strong a lock to win supporting actor as “Slumdog Millionaire” is to win best picture and director. Mr. Ledger, who died on Oscar nominations day last year, took comic-book villains to new heights with his delirious incarnation of Batman foe the Joker.

Past winner Angelina Jolie and her man, Brad Pitt, both are nominated. She’s up for best actress in “Changeling,” and he’s competing for best actor in “Benjamin Button,” which leads with 13 nominations, followed by “Slumdog” with 10.

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