- Associated Press - Sunday, February 27, 2011

LOS ANGELES (AP) - The Lewis Carroll update “Alice in Wonderland” won the first prize at the Academy Awards on Sunday, claiming the art direction Oscar over a field including best-picture favorite “The King’s Speech.”

“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.

The show opened with co-hosts Anne Hathaway and James Franco inserted into a montage of scenes from best-picture nominees, built as a series of dream sequences reminiscent of Oscar contender “Inception.” The footage included such guests as Morgan Freeman and last year’s Oscar co-host Alec Baldwin.

Franco started off telling Hathaway how beautiful she looked. Hathaway shot back, “You look very appealing to a younger demographic, as well.”

“Alice in Wonderland” production designer Robert Stromberg had warm words for the film’s director, Tim Burton.

“Meet me with a saw, because half of this is yours,” Stromberg told Burton, holding up his Oscar.

Also up for best picture: 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.”

“Inception” took the night’s second prize, for cinematography, leaving “The King’s Speech” zero-for-two on its first nominations.

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 Hathaway and Franco (also a best-actor nominee for “127 Hours”) and promised 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.

To hear Franco describe it, this year’s nearly four hour show should prove a mix of old and new.

The Oscars have “been going on for 83 years. I’m kind of joining a bigger apparatus, so it’s going to be pretty familiar in some ways, but I think it’ll be fun,” Franco said backstage Saturday at the Spirit Awards honoring independent film, where he won best actor for “127 Hours.” “They’re allowing us to be relaxed. They’re not stretching us into some mold that we don’t fit.”

There are front-runners in most major categories and a few near-certain winners, including Colin Firth for best actor in the title role of “The King’s Speech” and Christian Bale for supporting-actor as real-life boxer-turned-drug abuser Dicky Eklund in “The Fighter.”

Natalie Portman is expected to win best actress as a ballerina lost in dangerous delusion in “Black Swan,” while Leo is the supporting-actress favorite as a boxing clan’s domineering matriarch in “The Fighter.”

But both actresses face potential upsets. Bening, a Hollywood favorite nominated three times previously without a win, is a strong best-actress contender as a stern but loving lesbian mom in “The Kids Are All Right.”

Portman won best actress over a field that included Bening at the Spirit Awards, where “Black Swan” led with four prizes, including best picture and director for Darren Aronofsky.

The supporting-actress ranks offer really strong competitors, among them Leo’s “The Fighter” co-star Adams as boxer Micky Ward’s scrappy girlfriend. Momentum for “The King’s Speech” also could propel Helena Bonham Carter to an Oscar win as George’s devoted wife, Queen Elizabeth, while 14-year-old newcomer Steinfeld has good prospects as a dauntless teen pursuing her father’s killer in “True Grit.”

The best-director Oscar comes down to Tom Hooper for “The King’s Speech” and David Fincher for “The Social Network.”

Hollywood veteran Fincher, a previous Oscar nominee for “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” won best director at the Globes. First-time nominee Hooper, best-known previously for classy television productions, won the filmmaking prize from the Directors Guild of America, whose recipient has gone on to take the directing Oscar 56 times in the past 62 years of the guild’s awards.


Associated Press writers Beth Harris and Raquel Dillon contributed to this report.




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