`King’s Speech’ poised for Oscar coronation?

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LOS ANGELES (AP) - King George the stutterer seems primed to reign at Sunday night’s Academy Awards, unless there’s a palace coup by that asocial billionaire who created Facebook.

The King’s Speech,” dramatizing British monarch George VI’s struggle to vanquish a crippling stammer, leads the 83rd annual Oscars with 12 nominations and is favored to win best picture.

Yet “The Social Network,” chronicling Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s fierce legal battles over the spoils of his creation, remains a serious candidate for the Oscar crown.

The two films have led a strong and varied field of best-picture contenders since they debuted nearly six months ago. “The Social Network” was the early leader, grabbing key critics’ honors and winning best drama at the Golden Globes. Momentum shifted to “The King’s Speech” as the film dominated on Oscar nominations morning and swept top awards from influential actors, directors and producers guilds.

Early arrivals to the red carpet included supporting actress nominees Melissa Leo, Amy Adams and Hailee Steinfeld, and best actress nominees Michelle Williams and Jennifer Lawrence.

Celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck, who is providing the grub for the post-awards show’s Governor’s Ball, also made a pass at the carpet, handing out some of the smoked salmon on flat bread he had prepared for appetizers. He also gave out chocolate Oscars.

Although it was bright and sunny over Los Angeles, it was very chilly with a cold wind blowing along the carpet. The stars didn’t don jackets that would cover up their designer clothes but many of the industry’s behind-the-scenes people wore fur coats and wraps.

“I never expected this after 48 years of acting,” said supporting actress nominee Jacki Weaver. “I can’t believe it. I’m so thrilled. It’s such an honor.”

Kevin Spacey got a big reaction from fans once he removed his sunglasses.

“I love her, I adore her,” he remarked about best actress nominee Annette Bening, his co-star in “American Beauty,” which earned him an Oscar (Bening lost her Oscar bid for that film). “I was sorry not to see her take it home then. She’s one of the great actresses we’ve ever produced.”

Also up for best picture at the ceremony: the psychosexual thriller “Black Swan”; the boxing drama “The Fighter”; the sci-fi blockbuster “Inception”; the lesbian-family tale “The Kids Are All Right”; the survival chronicle “127 Hours”; the animated comedy “Toy Story 3”; the Western “True Grit”; and the Ozarks crime story “Winter’s Bone.”

With TV ratings on a general decline over the last few decades, Oscar organizers doubled the best-picture category from five to 10 films last year, hoping to spice up the show and bring in a broader range of films. Academy overseers also have tried to liven up the show with fresh hosts, new routines and different ways of presenting awards.

It paid off last year, when the low-budget Iraq War drama “The Hurt Locker” beat sci-fi behemoth “Avatar” for best picture. TV viewers totaled 41.7 million, up 15 percent from the previous year and the biggest Oscar audience in five years.

This time, Oscar planners cast youthful hosts Anne Hathaway and James Franco (also a best-actor nominee for “127 Hours”) and are promising exotic visuals as backdrops to the ceremony. They also stepped up pressure for winners to keep speeches short and sharp, rather than intone long thank-you lists.

The speech factor gets an early test with a couple of technical awards _ art direction and cinematography _ leading off the show, to be televised live on ABC at 8 p.m. EST. Past Oscars typically started with a major prize such as supporting actress, but rather than a glib actor, the first word will come from behind-the-camera worker bees, whose speeches hold little interest for many TV viewers.

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