LOS ANGELES, March 2 (Reuters) - In true Hollywood fashion, the Academy Awards on Sunday promised a cliffhanger ending in the race for best picture Oscar between favorites “12 Years a Slave” and “Gravity” along with extra drama thrown in by a tempestuous Mother Nature.
After three days of heavy downpours soaked parts of the red carpet along Hollywood Boulevard, there was no guarantee the rain would stop by the time hundreds of movie stars in custom-made designer dresses and tuxedos begin arriving for Hollywood’s biggest night.
The 86th annual Academy Awards will be hosted by comedian Ellen DeGeneres, under pressure to deliver an entertaining yet tasteful three-hour show after critics widely panned last year’s ceremony and host Seth MacFarlane’s provocative humor.
This year’s Oscars celebrate what is widely regarded as one of the most high quality years in film and performances in recent memory. The president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, called it the best line-up “in the last decade or so.”
Nine films are competing for the top honor of best picture and Paul Sheehan, editor at awards handicapping site Goldderby.com, says that unlike past years, the high quality means “eight of the nine films could be a credible best picture winner.”
While British director Steve McQueen’s brutal slavery drama “12 Years a Slave” and Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron’s space thriller “Gravity” are the frontrunners and have split many of the season’s awards, experts say an upset is possible because no one can know for sure how the 6,000 plus members of the Academy voted.
“I feel more comfortable putting my chips on ‘12 Years a Slave’ just because there is more historical basis for doing so,” said Scott Feinberg, awards analyst at The Hollywood Reporter. “But at the same time there is no denying that there is great enthusiasm for other movies.”
Among those is 1970s crime caper “American Hustle” from director David O. Russell, who scored 10 nominations and, for the second year in a row, the rare feat of having his actors nominated in all four acting categories. Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street,” a tale of financial greed and excess, has also been a hit with audiences and critics.
Other best picture nominees are “Captain Phillips,” and smaller films “Philomena,” “Nebraska,” “Her,” and “Dallas Buyers Club.”
But the Academy could also make history this year if it chooses “12 Years a Slave” for best picture. It would be the first time that the top film honor goes to a movie by a black director in the 86 years of the Oscars.
On Saturday, the real-life story of free man turned plantation slave Solomon Northup gained more momentum by sweeping the Independent Spirit Awards, a show that recognizes movies made on small budgets. It scored five wins in seven nominations, including best feature film.
The Spirit Awards also bestowed honors on the frontrunners for all four acting races for the Oscars, which may yield few surprises on Sunday.
Cate Blanchett won best actress at the Spirit Awards for her portrayal of the disgraced socialite in Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine.” Matthew McConaughey took best actor for his role as the unlikely AIDS activist in “Dallas Buyers Club,” for which he lost some 50 pounds (23 kg) and his co-star Jared Leto won best supporting actor.
Also on Saturday, newcomer Lupita Nyong‘o won best supporting actress for her role as hardworking slave Patsey in “12 Years a Slave” but she faces a challenge at the Oscars from Jennifer Lawrence as the loopy housewife in “American Hustle.”
“This is a film that many thought would be a film too difficult for people to embrace and people have embraced it over and over again,” Nyong‘o said on Saturday, her 31st birthday.
The biggest night in Hollywood will feature homages to movie heroes and “The Wizard of Oz” on its 75th anniversary. U2 and Pharrell Williams will be among the performers for best original song.
Among the presenters will be Hollywood power couple of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt as well as Sidney Poitier on the 50th anniversary of his best actor win for “Lilies of the Field,” the first Oscar in that category for an African American.
The show from Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre will be broadcast live on ABC television starting at 5:30 PST (0130 GMT) and to 225 countries around the world. (Editing by Jill Serjeant and Sandra Maler)