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Tuesday, March 16, 1999 Published at 17:34 GMT

Oscar countdown begins

Tom Hanks stars in Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan

Voting for the 1999 Oscars has closed - and only two people will know the winners of Hollywood's most prestigious prizes until Sunday.

Oscars '99
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' 5,557 members have been voting since 2 March on the nominations for the 71st Academy Awards.

Accountants at PricewaterhouseCoopers are getting down to the work of counting the votes and placing the winning names in sealed envelopes.

[ image: Roberto Benigni: Is nominated for Best Director and Best Actor]
Roberto Benigni: Is nominated for Best Director and Best Actor
Only two of the company's partners, Greg Garrison and Lisa Pierozzi, will know the results of the voting until the envelopes are opened on Sunday in Los Angeles.

A world-wide TV audience of one billion is expected to watch the show. Celebrities recently confirmed to appear at the show include Sophia Loren, Val Kilmer, Andy Garcia, Liam Neeson, John Travolta and Gwyneth Paltrow, who will make her first award presentation.

Singers Celine Dion and Andrea Bocelli will perform a duet, as will Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. Peter Gabriel and Randy Newman will also perform together. Aerosmith are also appearing on stage - lead singer Steven Tyler's daughter Liv will be presenting an award as well.

But it's hard work for ordinary film fans to get a glimpse at the stars. Stands are open on Sunday for fans to sit and watch from 0700 on the morning of the show.

Seating is first-come, first-served - but "guests will not be permitted to leave and re-enter," the Academy advises, adding: "Since the stay in the bleachers will be approximately 12 hours, guests are advised to bring their own water and lunch."

Tough fight in store

[ image: Terrence Malick is nominated for Best Director]
Terrence Malick is nominated for Best Director
Last year's Oscars were dominated by the epic Titanic, but honours are likely to be more evenly split for 1999's show.

A tough fight is in store for the most eagerly-awaited prize, Best Picture. Steven Spielberg's war epic Saving Private Ryan is hotly tipped, as is John Madden's Shakespeare In Love, starring Gwyneth Paltrow. Italian Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful is in the running too, after becoming North America's highest-grossing foreign-language film.

Benigni is also nominated for best actor and director.

Terrence Malick's comeback film, The Thin Red Line is also nominated, as is historical drama Elizabeth, considered a long shot by critics.

Best Director brings together Spielberg, Malick and Benigni along with The Truman Show's director Peter Weir.

Tom Hanks is nominated for Best Actor for Saving Private Ryan, as is Sir Ian McKellen. The British actor has a chance to win his first Oscar for his role as legendary director James Whale in Gods And Monsters.

British hopes high

[ image: Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth]
Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth
As well as Benigni, Ed Norton is also nominated for playing a neo-Nazi skinhead in American History X. Nick Nolte's role in Affliction - where he plays a volatile police officer dealing with his troubled past - earned him a nomination too.

For Best Actress, Shakespeare in Love's Gwyneth Paltrow faces Cate Blanchett from Elizabeth, Central Station star Fernanda Montenegro and Meryl Streep, who receives her 11th nomination for One True Thing. British actress Emily Watson is also nominated for her role as cellist Jacqueline Du Pre in Hilary and Jackie.

British hopes are highest in the best supporting actress category - Kathy Bates, Brenda Blethyn, Dame Judi Dench and Lynn Redgrave compete with Australian Rachel Griffiths.

Click here for BBC News Online's interactive Oscar Night vote

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