By Bob Tourtellotte
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - When the curtain rises on the Oscars this Sunday, nervous anticipation will, as usual, fill the theater at the world's top film awards, but this year movie fans can relax.
After years of trying to jazz up the Academy Awards with flashy, hip hosts, emcee Billy Crystal is returning for a ninth time in 2012, bringing what Oscar watchers say is a level of predictability and comfort to the show.
Frontrunner films -- silent romance "The Artist," civil rights story "The Help" and drama "The Descendants" among them -- bring familiarity, comedy, love, humanity and a triumph of spirit that contrasts to recent years of darker, best film winners such as "The Hurt Locker" or "No Country for Old Men."
This year could even see some history-making events in acting categories.
It seems Oscar voters took a lesson from last year's winner, feel-good film "The King's Speech," or maybe from audiences who at box offices have favored escapist fare like "Avatar" over tales of woe and war amid the gloomy economy and world conflict.
Whatever the reason, voters at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences appear in sync with movie fans' appetite for entertainment, and there is no one better suited to celebrate Hollywood than Crystal, the 63-year-old comic and star of 1980s and 1990s films like "When Harry Met Sally" and "City Slickers."
"Billy is the emcee version of comfort food, tasty and familiar, but not very spicy" said Entertainment Weekly movie writer Dave Karger.
Exactly what Crystal has in store on Oscar night is still anybody's guess. The producers and host are notoriously tight-lipped. But it's likely Crystal will start as he has in past years, comically editing himself into a video reel of scenes from major movies.
Co-producer Don Mischer gave one interview and was asked to compare Crystal to Ricky Gervais, the acerbic comedian who hosted the Golden Globes. Mischer said "Ricky is entertaining and all that, but I don't think the Oscars is a place for being mean-spirited, or taking real brutal shots at people."
So, sit back, relax, and enjoy the races.
"ARTIST" V. "HELP"
Silent film "The Artist," which is set in the period when Hollywood was moving into the talkies and tells of a fading star who finds redemption through love, heads into Sunday night as the clear frontrunner for the top prize, best film.
It has 10 nominations, overall, second only to 11 for Martin Scorsese's "Hugo," the tale of a lost boy trying to find his way home that also is an homage to the early days of filmmaking.
But many nominations for "Hugo" are in technical categories like editing, opposed to major awards such as actors. "The Artist," by contrast, has nods in top categories out of the 24 possible awards, including best actor for Jean Dujardin, supporting actress for Berenice Bejo and directing and writing for Michel Hazanavicius.
"It's fun, it's emotional, it's about the industry, and the artist, and all those things appeal to people," said David Poland, veteran Oscar watcher and founder of MovieCityNews.com. "This is the movie that made people feel good."
If "Artist" is the film to beat, "The Help," a tale of black maids working for white southern families in the 1960s, is the movie to do it. It wooed academy members with a tale that ultimately is triumphant, and it has two frontrunners for acting Oscars. Actors are the biggest group of academy voters.
"Help" star Viola Davis, who plays a maid, is locked in a close battle with Meryl Streep as former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher in "The Iron Lady." Davis won at the Screen Actors Guild Awards this year, and that has her tipped for Oscar victory over Streep, a two-time past winner and 17-time nominee.
"In a tight race, the academy goes to the performance that moved them more," Karger said. "Yes Meryl put in a great performance, but it's Viola Davis who has the emotional pull."
Michelle Williams has an outside chance with her portrayal of Marilyn Monroe in "My Week with Marilyn," but most pundits see her fading fast. The other nominees are newcomer Rooney Mara in "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" and Glenn Close in little-seen, gender-bending "Albert Nobbs."
The other big boost for "Help" is in the supporting actress category where Octavia Spencer is widely expected to win over "Artist" star Berenice Bejo. If both Spencer and Davis take home the gold for "The Help," it will be the first time in Oscar history two African American women in the same film have won.
ACTORS AND DIRECTOR
Among actors, "Artist" star Jean Dujardin has been claiming most of the movie trophies this year for his performance as the film's lovable, fading star who turns his life around.
His stiffest competition comes from Mr. Hollywood, George Clooney, as a father trying to keep his family together at a time of crisis in "The Descendants" and from Brad Pitt as a math-minded baseball executive in "Moneyball."
But as well-liked as Clooney is, "Descendants" has not worked the magic with the academy that "Artist" has, experts say, and "Moneyball" just isn't a real contender. Other best actor nominees are Gary Oldman in British drama "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" and Demian Bichir in little seen "A Better Life."
Supporting actor is the night's other shot at Oscar history. If Christopher Plummer, 82, or Max Von Sydow, 82, bring home the gold, either one will be the oldest Academy Award winner ever.
Finally, there is a close race in the director category where "Hugo" maker Scorsese and "Artist" dreamer Hazanavicius square off against "Descendants" helmsman Alexander Payne. Hazanavicius has the upper hand, having won the award from the Directors Guild of America earlier this year, but Scorsese is a perennial favorite and Payne is no slouch.
For clues to a winner, experts say, tune into early categories and if "Artist" begins to claim victory in technical areas like costume design or cinematography, it could portend a clean sweep for the silent film. If not, the race for best movie will remain up in the air until the final envelope is opened.
In 2006, gay romance "Brokeback Mountain" won early awards for writing, directing and music, but lost in acting categories and finally succumbed to race drama "Crash" for best film.
"It could be an interesting year," said Poland. "The other thing is, it could be exactly what everybody is expecting."
(Reporting By Bob Tourtellotte, Editing by Christine Kearney)