Go to Live-Blogging of the Oscars here beginning at 5 PM Pacific Time.

SUNDAY 3 PM Pacific Time: Above is a celebrity stand-in during Red Carpet rehearsals for the 80th Academy Awards telecast Sunday (photo by Jonathan Alcorn). Now the real Red Carpet arrivals are starting. I hear that ABC dramatically lowered expectations about tonight’s TV ratings to advertisers. It will be interesting to see the Nielsen’s, as the rain-postponed NASCAR Sprint Cup Series – Auto Club 550 race in Fontana is just about to restart at Lap 20 with a total of 300. After that there is another NASCAR race, the Nationwide series – Stater Bros 300, that is 200 laps. Will America tune out NASCAR to watch the Oscars? Meanwhile, a London source tells me that the BBC did a call in on the Oscars and no one phoned. Even Hollywood interest in the show is at its lowest point in recent memory. This may be the 80th Academy Awards, but they’re really the 11th hour Oscars — because not only were they almost picketed by the writers strike, and put together with only 13 days of major preparations instead of the usual months and months, but also the endless ceremony always seems like it lasts 11 hours.

PREDICTIONS: Two things I can forecast already about the show: George Clooney (who’s on Time magazine’s cover as “The Last Movie Star”) will be fawned over and fussed over, just like he was to an embarrassing degree on the Red Carpet today. Regis Philbin slobbered to George Clooney how everybody wants to be the actor and compared him to Cary Grant. Clooney replied that Grant is dead. Sure, George has no prayer of winning an Oscar tonight. But Clooneymania is such a cult now that it’s giving Obamania a run for its fainting spells. And there’ll be a lot of inside jokes about the writers strike and the possible actors strike that no one outside of Burbank and Broadway can comprehend. Meanwhile, the presenters and performers should come with their own personal chyron explanations of who they are, like Miley Cyrus. Yes, many this year are that obscure because the Big Names couldn’t get it together in just two weeks to show up inside the Kodak Theatre instead of outside on a picket line. That’s just one reason why the show needs a total facelift, not just Botox. But that’s another article…

Handicapping this year’s Best Motion Picture Of the Year or many other categories is about as tough as picking the Superbowl winner after the big game is already held. Of course, No Country For Old Men will get the Oscar. Of course, Daniel Day Lewis will be named Best Actor In A Leading Role. Of course, Javier Bardem will win Best Actor In A Supporting Role.

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But it’s probably a 50-50 toss-up between Julie Christie and Marion Cotillard for Best Actress In A Leading Role. The members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences skew geriatric, so in this case the voters probably went for Julie whom many know from years past. They also like the way she’s been hanging in there — not just because she’s still finding roles at her age, which is hard because of Hollywood’s rampant ageism and sexism, or because she’s doing films that actually say something, but also because she survived Warren Beatty.

As for Performance By An Actress In A Supporting Role, always the wild card category, most believe Cate Blanchett will win for playing Bob Dylan since cross-gender stunt casting usually guarantees an Oscar. (Hilary Swank and Linda Hunt can vouch for that.) But Cate won this category fairly recently, and if sentimentality holds, then Ruby Dee can win just like she did at the SAG awards. But a lot of Academy voters like to encourage young actresses, and many liked Gone Baby Gone more than they thought they would so Amy Ryan (hey, 40ish is young to them) could win as well. Personally, I’d like Ruby Dee to grab the gold, but I suspect Cate will.

Finally, I’m going out on a limb and predicting that Paul Thomas Anderson will win Best Director instead of the Coen brothers. My reasoning is: no one in Hollywood actually likes the Coen brothers. (Two past examples: Lauren Bacall and Eddie Murphy.) Besides, Oscar voters like to spread the wealth around. ‘Nuff said.

A chilly rain fell off and on so the Red Carpet has been tented. Nerves are still frayed from the writers strike just ended. oscars08-getting-ready2.jpgPanic is setting in about an actors strike that may be on the way. Few in America or the world have seen the nominated pics and performances. There’s no suspense because Hollywood has long ago guessed who and what will probably win. The vast majority of the presenters aren’t big names. And not only has the host done it before to really poor ratings, but Jon Stewart couldn’t even find anything funny to say about it while guesting on Larry King Live. So, all in all, I think everyone should expect the Worst Oscars Ever In The History Of Hollywood. Really, Sunday can’t come fast enough to put this beleaguered 80th Academy Awards which almost was picketed into oblivion out of its misery. Nevertheless, I have some scoops to share about what to expect on the ABC show produced by the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences which bestows the Oscars inside Hollywood’s Kodak Theatre:

– Despite speculation that somehow The Daily Show‘s Stewart will work in this year’s presidential candidates into his opening, I’m told no politicians of any stripe are scheduled to appear even though John McCain did a cameo in the 2005 Vince Vaughn-Owen Wilson laugher Wedding Crashers. (“But we do have Miley Cyrus and The Rock,” one insider wisecracked.)

jonstewart08.jpg– Thankfully there will be no shadow puppets, last year’s worst Oscars idea!

– Led by Gil Cates, the Hollywood team that puts on the Academy Awards show was trying to shoot another montage with Jon Stewart and various movie stars. “But it proved too hard to write, cast, shoot and edit in 16 days, what with the rest of the show to take care of,” an insider confided to me, referring to the  sudden and unexpected settlement of the writers strike which meant the Oscars could be held as planned. “The booking alone would have taken 15 days.”

– Jon Stewart will be showing some of the clip packages that purportedly were prepared in case the writers strike had remained in force, but fortunately did not make the cut.

– If this year’s Oscars suck, don’t blame the writers. I’m told that arrangements were so last-minute because of the writers strike that some of the show’s scribes began doing the Oscars by phone, fax and cyberspace. An insider tells me, “Every writer had been festering with ideas they were not allowed to put on paper, so the moment the strike ended it was like a starting gun went off and the Internet lit up. Everyone needed to clear their schedules so it could come off as envisioned. I don’t know what they had to clear — who was workin’? — but that doesn’t seem to change a thing.”

travolta-edna-2.jpg– Queen Latifah, one of the scheduled presenters, had a family emergency and had to drop out.

–  John Travolta, who played Edna Turnblad in last summer’s hit musical Hairspray, will dance. As a man.

– This year’s unofficial Academy Awards Drinking Game will consist of counting the number of times the cameras cut to Sean Combs (aka P. Diddy) in the audience. His star turn in the ABC telemovie Raisin In The Sun airs the day after the Oscars, on Monday night.

The official ABC telecast kicks off Sunday at 5 PM Pacific time. Academy Award nominees, presenters and performers will be greeted on Oscar’s Red Carpet by film historian, television host and Hollywood Reporter columnist Robert Osborne. Red Carpet guest arrivals are expected to begin at approximately 3 PM PT.

ABC morning show co-host Regis Philbin also will be on the Red Carpet, and, no, he wasn’t at the first ceremony 80 years ago. Actually, I’m told that venerable 97-year-old production designer Robert F. Boyle (who is receiving an honorary award for art direction from Nicole Kidman and her baby bump) was 17 when the first Oscars were given out, and remembers it.

oscars-08-tent.jpgFashion reporters are predicting hot fall colors — the blues, purples and greens seen in the recent European couture show — and a burst of spring colors — lavender, red rose, peach, pink, grass green, even sunny daffodil — on Sunday’s red carpet. But there’d better be heaters on the Red Carpet for all that exposed cleavage and bare shoulders because rain is likely with temps only in the 50s and winds at 10-15 mph.

The Oscar broadcast drew just 38.9 million viewers on Jon Stewart’s watch in 2006. That number was smaller than the 39.9 million drawn by 2007’s ceremony hosted by Ellen DeGeneres. (Compare both to the 55 million who tuned in for Billy Crystal back in 1998. Those were the good old days.) Most of the overseas audience for Oscars have never even heard of Jon Stewart. So he’s been chosen twice to host after bombing first time out. At least he admitted last time he was a poor choice to host the Oscars, given that his film experience amounted to little more than “the fourth male lead from Death to Smoochy“.

oscars-08-denzel-rehearsal.jpgIt’s not exactly all Triple-A presenters and performers who will participate in the Oscar telecast this time. Because most of the big names needed more than just two weeks’ notice to show up post-strike after Hollywood had been shut down for months. Those scheduled include all four of last year’s winners in the acting categories—Alan Arkin, Jennifer Hudson, Helen Mirren and Forest Whitaker—as well as Amy Adams, Jessica Alba, Cate Blanchett, Josh Brolin, Steve Carell, George Clooney, Penelope Cruz, Miley Cyrus, Patrick Dempsey, Cameron Diaz, Colin Farrell, Harrison Ford, Jennifer Garner, Tom Hanks, Anne Hathaway, Katherine Heigl, Jonah Hill, Dwayne Johnson, Nicole Kidman, James McAvoy, Jack Nicholson, Seth Rogen, Keri Russell, Martin Scorsese, Hilary Swank, John Travolta, Denzel Washington (photo, Denzel onstage at the Oscars rehearsal inside the Kodak Theater) and Renee Zellweger.

amd_enchanted.jpgHere are the performers of the nominated songs: Amy Adams will sing “Happy Working Song” from Enchanted (music by Alan Menken and lyric by Stephen Schwartz). Also from “Enchanted” (and written by Menken and Schwartz) will be “That’s How You Know,” sung by Kristin Chenoweth and Marlon Saunders, and “So Close,” to be performed by Jon McLaughlin. Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova will perform their nominated song, “Falling Slowly,” from the motion picture Once. Jamia Simone Nash will perform “Raise It Up,” from August Rush, with the IMPACT Repertory Theatre of Harlem, headed by Jamal Joseph, who shares the song’s music and lyric credit with Charles Mack and Tevin Thomas.

The Oscar telecast team of writers include headliners Hal Kanter, Buz Kohan, Jon Macks and Bruce Vilanch. Second-time Oscar show host Jon Stewart also brought on several writers to work on the show and especially his monologue.

This year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has launched a branded Oscars channel on YouTube – www.YouTube.com/Oscars – featuring Academy Awards show highlights and exclusive video interviews with members from each of the Academy’s branches. Participants include Quincy Jones, Alfred Molina, Sidney Poitier and John Travolta.

oscars-08-wolfgang-puck.jpgAs usual, following the Academy Awards presentation, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will host its annual Governors Ball in the Grand Ballroom of the Hollywood & Highland Center. The Ball’s decor this year is a color palette inspired by two of Hollywood’s most recognizable icons, the Red Carpet and the gold Oscar statuette. Chef Wolfgang Puck will be serving an organic menu but was asked to scale down the lavish menu from previous years because of the strike woes. But Wolf’s idea of simple is a baked potato wrapped in gold leaf and topped with $89-an-ounce Tsar Nicoulai caviar, and mac ‘n’ cheese with black truffles. (photo, Puck holds a plate of mini kobe cheeseburgers with remoulade appetizers, next to a dessert tray of completely edible 24-carat gold solid chocolate Oscars) The Ball’s 1,500 guests will include Oscar winners and nominees, show presenters and performers.

I’ve put together an Oscar party schedule for Hollywood glitterati here.

The celebrities interviewed on ABC’s Barbara Walters Special timed to the Oscars are Miley Cyrus, Ellen Page, Harrison Ford and Vanessa Williams.

(Keep refreshing for latest news. I will be live-blogging the Academy Awards on Sunday. Come for the cynicism. Stay for the subversion.)