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This film image released by Warner Bros Pictures shows a scene from ‘Gravity’, directed by Alfonso Cuaron. (AP)
Oscar horse race to be photo finish ‘Gravity’, ‘12 Years’ among front-runners

LOS ANGELES, March 1, (Agencies): Many of the winners who will take home an Oscar on Sunday have long been forecast, their triumph made seemingly self-evident after months of anticipation. That is, except for one little category: best picture. Even in a particularly lengthy awards season (the Academy Awards were pushed back slightly for the Olympics), and despite the tireless analysis of an ever-swelling Oscar blogosphere, no one really knows which film is going to take the night’s biggest award. This Oscars, more than any in years, will go down to the wire. Of the nine best picture nominees, the front-runners are widely considered to be Alfonso Cuaron’s 3-D spectacle “Gravity,” Steve McQueen’s historical odyssey “12 Years a Slave” and David O. Russell’s corruption comedy “American Hustle.”

The industry guild awards, usually the most predictive honors, have only muddied the waters.
Actors, the largest branch of the Academy of Motion Pictures, have been most enthusiastic for “Hustle.” The Screen Actors Guild awarded it their top honor. Just as Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook” did last year, “American Hustle” managed the very rare feat of landing nominations in all four acting categories (for Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper).
Cuaron and “Gravity” won at the Directors Guild. The Producers Guild couldn’t even decide: “12 Years a Slave” and “Gravity” tied for its top prize. “12 Years a Slave” also won best picture at the Golden Globes and at Britain’s BAFTA Awards.

Is history any guide? Last year, the academy was also faced with a choice between an historical epic centered on slavery (“Lincoln”) and a 1970s caper (“Argo”) and it went for Ben Affleck’s more ebullient option. “American Hustle” shares a lot with “Argo,” including its wardrobe. But this year, the weight of “12 Years a Slave” is suspected to be impossible to deny. The “Gurus o’ Gold” poll of Oscar onlookers by film blog Movie City News has nine of 15 analysts predicting McQueen’s drama. The others chose “Gravity,” which all agree will clean up in technical categories like visual effects and cinematography. Awards for either film (both of which premiered in September at the Telluride Film Festival within days of each other) could mean Oscar history. If the Mexican filmmaker Cuaron takes best director, as he’s expected to, he’ll be the first Latino winner in the category.

Similarly, were the British McQueen to win best director, he’d be the first black filmmaker to win. And if “12 Years a Slave” wins best picture, it will be the first time a film directed by a black filmmaker wins the academy’s top honor. Such landmarks of diversity would be welcome for the academy, whose approximately 6,000 members are overwhelmingly older white men. A 2012 study by The Los Angeles Times found that Oscar voters are almost 94 percent white and 77 percent male. African Americans, the Times found, make up about 2 percent of the academy, and Latinos are less than 2 percent. Voters (who keep membership for life) have a median age of 62.

The academy is trying to change that, and has recently opened up its ranks to hundreds of new members. Sunday’s ceremony will be the first for new president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the academy’s first black president. So as the make-up of the academy gradually shifts, the awards it picks could, too. This year’s best picture race offers stark choices between your big box-office crowd-pleaser (“Gravity”), your hard-to-watch history lesson (“12 Years”) and your actors-having-a-ball party (“American Hustle”).
Whichever film wins will crown not just a razor-thin race (Harvey Weinstein has called it “the most competitive season I’ve ever seen”), but a particularly strong best-picture field in a year roundly hailed as an excellent one for movies. Also nominated is Spike Jonze’s futuristic romance “Her,” Alexander Payne’s black-and-white road trip “Nebraska,” Martin Scorsese’s financial meltdown “The Wolf of Wall Street,” the Texas AIDS drama “Dallas Buyers Club” and the family history investigation “Philomena.”
It’s only fitting that a movie year so full of drama should end as a nail-biter.

The 86th Academy Awards will begin at 5:30 pm PT on Sunday, and the Best Picture winner will be announced somewhere around three-and-a-half hours later.  The exact time will depend on the number of standing ovations, long speeches, musical numbers, interpretive dances and hugs in the aisles on the way to the stage. Parts of the show may be a long, slow slog and parts may be delightfully entertaining — but there’s more going on than just a three-hour wait to see whether “Gravity,” “12 Years a Slave” or “American Hustle” wins the big prize. Here are 10 other things to watch for on Oscar night:

1. Lupita Nyong’o’s dress
I don’t generally care about the fashion side of the Oscars (hey, I’ve been wearing the same tux since the ‘90s), but it’s impossible not to notice the dramatic fashion sense of “12 Years a Slave” actress Lupita Nyong’o. She’s been turning heads since her film premiered at Telluride and Toronto, and she seems to up her game for the big events.
How bold and striking will she be at the Oscars? It’s worth tuning in to find out.

2. Ellen DeGeneres’ opening
The last time Ellen DeGeneres hosted an Academy Awards (in 2007), her opening number included a gospel song during which she banged a tambourine so hard that she had to go backstage and ice her hand during commercial breaks. The last time Craig Zadan and Neil Meron produced an Oscars (last year), their opening included a controversial Seth MacFarlane ditty called “We Saw Your Boobs” and a very extended, very meta sequence exploring just how bad a host MacFarlane might be.
Now DeGeneres, Zadan and Meron get a reboot — and it’s safe to assume that the host’s opening will be friendlier and less divisive than MacFarlane’s, and that it won’t include a tambourine. But what will it include? And can DeGeneres pull off the relatively rare feat of calming and amusing a room full of nervous nominees while simultaneously entertaining a home audience?

3. Best Supporting Actress
This or Best Supporting Actor is traditionally the first award of the night, and we all know that Jared Leto’s going to win the latter. But the supporting-actress race is a nail biter, with Nyong’o and Jennifer Lawrence (“American Hustle”) the neck-and-neck frontrunners and June Squibb a delightful possibility for a big upset.
The bottom line: If Nyong’o doesn’t win, it could spell trouble for “12 Years a Slave” later in the evening (though that film has enjoyed a couple of last-minute triumphs this year). And if Lawrence does win, watch to see if she trips coming up the stairs the way she did last year.

4. Reaction shots
This is where Oscar directors often get in trouble. It’s one thing to turn your cameras on co-stars or colleagues in the audience, or to people from whatever movie is being joked about — but when Hamish Hamilton last directed the Oscars, in 2010, he made some choices that drew criticism for their rather blunt embrace of ethnic shorthand. (To be fair, many other directors have faced similar complaints.)
When hosts Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin joked about Jews in Hollywood, Hamilton showed Ethan Coen in the audience; when they made a comment about “Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire,” he showed Morgan Freeman.
So this year, a year in which “12 Years a Slave” has put racial issues in the forefront, the guy had better choose his shots carefully.
Another thing to watch: If DeGeneres makes any “12 Years a Slave” jokes, will she get a laugh from that film’s director, Steve McQueen? Or will he be this year’s Tommy Lee Jones, sitting stonefaced despite the host’s best efforts?

5. Best Production Design
Most people expect this award to go to the spectacularly lavish “The Great Gatsby” — and if it does, it won’t tell you much about the rest of the evening.
But if something else wins, pay close attention. A victory for “12 Years a Slave” or “Gravity,” either of which is possible, would be a departure from the norm, and a potential sign that this category’s winner is on the path to the ultimate victory.

6. Best Sound Mixing and Best Sound Editing
Most likely, these two awards will go to “Gravity,” just as they went to previous big, loud movies like “Inception,” “The Bourne Ultimatum” and “The Matrix.” But if they don’t, it’ll be significant: When “The Hurt Locker” beat “Avatar” in both sound categories four years ago, that was an unmistakable sign that James Cameron’s big blue movie was NOT going to win Best Picture. “Gravity” really ought to win both of these.

7. Wardrobe malfunctions and bleeps
A seven-second delay was instituted in 2004, but the Oscars have rarely used it. Apart from Melissa Leo’s F-bomb three years ago, it’s hard to remember any high-profile winners who needed to be bleeped by ABC’s Standards and Practices watchdogs. But that makes it all the more enticing to listen for the rare moments when it does happen.
And if you see somebody on the red carpet whose dress appears to be dangerously low-cut (say, the kind of thing Amy Adams wore throughout “American Hustle”) or potentially see-through, pay attention how they’re shot if they appear onstage. In the past, the ABC censor has instructed the show’s director to focus on tight shots of Cameron Diaz and Gwyneth Paltrow when their gowns were deemed insufficiently opaque.

8. Early “American Hustle” wins
While the conventional wisdom says that “Gravity” and “12 Years a Slave” are the most likely winners, one way to get some real tension going would be through a series of “American Hustle” wins. So if David O. Russell’s movie takes a few categories — Best Supporting Actress, Best Costume Design, Best Original Screenplay or even Best Editing — watch out: It could be riding its Actors Branch support all the way to a Best Picture upset.

9. Best Makeup
If you want to know how daring Oscar voters were this year, wait for this category. The work that transformed Johnny Knoxville into an old man for “Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa” was by far the most elaborate and essential makeup in the category, but the film might well be too raunchy and lowbrow for the Academy.
But if “Bad Grandpa” upsets “Dallas Buyers Club” here, all bets are off.

10. U2’s performance of “Ordinary Love”
U2 has performed on the Oscars once before, in 2003, when their song “The Hands That Built America” lost to Eminem’s “Lose Yourself.” In their Oscar performance that year, singer Bono changed the words of one verse to refer to the war in Iraq, which had just begun. (He sang the original lyrics during rehearsal, so nobody knew the change was coming.)
This year, is there something on Bono’s mind that might prompt another lyric change?

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