LOS ANGELES — Once an evening of backslapping and merrymaking within the narrow confines of Hollywood, the Academy Awards this time look like a United Nations exercise in diversity. The 79th annual Oscars tonight feature their most ethnically varied lineup ever, with stars and stories that reflect the growing multiculturalism taking root around the globe. Competing for best picture was Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s ”Babel,” a sweeping ensemble drama. The film’s cast ranges from A-listers such as Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett to comparative unknowns Adriana Barraza from Mexico and Rinko Kikuchi from Japan, who both earned supporting-actress nominations for ”Babel.” Also in the running were Stephen Frears’ classy British saga ”The Queen,” a portrait of the royal family in crisis, and Clint Eastwood’s Japanese-language war tale ”Letters From Iwo Jima.” Those films joined two idiosyncratic American stories nominated for best picture, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ road comedy ”Little Miss Sunshine” and Martin Scorsese’s crime epic ”The Departed.” Though set among the distinctive cops and mobsters of Boston, ”The Departed” had a global connection _ it was based on the Hong Kong crime thriller ”Infernal Affairs.” Gray clouds floated over the red carpet as limousines delivered guests to the Kodak Theatre, but the hint of rain didn’t diminish the enthusiasm of spectators as the likes of Maggie Gyllenhaal, James McAvoy, Al and Tipper Gore and Melissa Etheridge passed by. ”I don’t think there’s any pageant in the world that matches the Oscars,” said Gore, whose ”An Inconvenient Truth” was nominated for best documentary feature and best original song, ”I Need to Wake Up,” by Etheridge. ”Every star under the sun is here. It don’t get no bigger than this,” said nominee Jennifer Hudson. ”You can feel the excitement building,” said Kyle Wilson, 45, an events planner for a nursing home in San Diego who had been in the bleachers for about eight hours. ”This is when the wait is all worthwhile.” Celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck walked the red carpet showing off specialties created for the post-show Governors Ball: Oscar-shaped smoked salmon with caviar, mini-cheeseburgers, and gold-colored dessert chocolates shaped like Oscar statues. Of the 20 acting nominees, five were black, two were Hispanic and one was Asian, while only two Americans _ Eastwood and Scorsese _ were among the five best-director contenders. With a Directors Guild of America award and other top film honors behind him, Scorsese was considered a shoo-in to earn the directing Oscar, a prize that has eluded him throughout his illustrious career. There were clear front-runners in all four acting categories, as well: Forest Whitaker as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in ”The Last King of Scotland” and Helen Mirren as Elizabeth II in ”The Queen” for the lead-acting trophies, Eddie Murphy and Hudson as soul singers in ”Dreamgirls” for the supporting honors. The best-picture race was up for grabs, though, with all five films in the running but many Oscar watchers generally figuring it was a three-way race among ”Babel,” ”The Departed” and ”Little Miss Sunshine.” Organizers at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences hope the suspense of the wide-open best-picture category will help offset moviegoers’ relative lack of interest in the competing films. TV ratings for the Oscars tend to be lower when fewer people have seen the top nominees. Collectively, the five best-picture nominees had drawn a total domestic theatrical audience of about 38.5 million people, about a third the number of fans who have gone to see the contenders in recent peak years when such blockbusters as ”Gladiator” or ”The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” have won. ___ On the Net: http://www.oscars.org 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!