When the Academy Awards get underway Sunday, they'll bring plenty of suspense and surprises. There's the question of the broadcast itself -- can Neil Patrick Harris out-selfie the queen of photography-themed social media, Ellen DeGeneres? -- but also plenty of drama with the awards. The prizes that are decided are really decided, and those that aren't are, well, wide open.
Fortunately for those of us who like a little tension with our award shows, the latter applies to some of the biggest prizes of the night.
Here are five story lines to watch once the Oscars get started from Hollywood's Dolby Theatre come Sunday evening.
OK, so three of the four acting prizes are pretty much in the bag. But that last one, for lead actor, is a doozy. On one side is the front-runner and Screen Actors Guild award winner Eddie Redmayne. Redmayne is a classically trained British theater actor who only the most hard-core "Les Miserables" fan was aware of coming into the season -- yet has soared to the top of the prediction heap with his sharp portrayal of Stephen Hawking in "The Theory of Everything."
On the other side is "Birdman" star Michael Keaton, a veteran and beloved superhero character who kicked off the whole modern era of such things -- and who with his Oscar-nominated performance is now riffing on all he started. Keaton was an early favorite, is far better known and took the Spirit Award on Saturday afternoon.
Making matters even juicier is underdog Bradley Cooper, who hasn't won any major prizes this year but, as Chris Kyle in "American Sniper," stars in the runaway hit of award season and has earned some good will to boot, what with this being his third straight Oscar nomination. There's a good chance it's Redmayne, but don't mortgage the house on it until presumptive presenter Cate Blanchett opens the envelope near the end of Sunday night's show.
It's not so much who will win -- let's call it for Common and John Legend's "Glory" right now, what with their rousing hip-hop-flavored anthem in "Selma" the original-song phenom of award season. It’s how they'll accept the award that's interesting. Common gave one of the most notable speeches at the Golden Globes (“Now is our time to change the world,” he implored the audience, so how he’ll follow that up is a matter of some intrigue.)
Perhaps more to the point, this is likely to be the only award "Selma" will win (even Oprah herself probably isn't holding out much hope for a picture shocker). Which means one of the most persuasive award winners will be carrying the mantle for perhaps the most socially charged movie in the field. Expect Common's speech to be anything but.
BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
In some ways the surprise in this category already happened -- "The Lego Movie," that animated phenom from a year ago, was snubbed when Oscar nominations were announced in January. But we may not be done with surprises. "How To Train Your Dragon 2" is the pundit favorite, but "Big Hero 6" shouldn't be discounted, not with studio Disney/Pixar scooping up six of the past seven prizes. Look for the winner to resolve one of the more interesting story lines of the evening — and then the speech to navigate around the Lego elephant in the room.
What to say? He’s the sure-handed, surely loved host of many Tony and Emmy shows. So the quality should be high. So will the expectations. Critics and ratings watchers will be keeping a close eye to see if Harris can live up to the hype. If he does, he’ll be hailed as a new Crystalian savior of an Oscar show badly in need of one. If he doesn’t, there will be hand-wringing about his ability to perform on the big stage — and whether the Oscars is, truly, an impossible job.
THE BIG ONE
“Boyhood” versus “Birdman” for best picture. Sure, guilds this and BAFTA that. But when the best-picture presenter starts making the "B" sound at the end of the Oscar telecast, are you sure which syllables will come after it? Would you wager a thousand dollars on it? A hundred? Who will actually walk away with the big prize — the Fox Searchlight dark comedy or the IFC upstart? The Richard Linklater epic or the Alejandro Iñárritu razzle-dazzle?
For all the arguments to and fro — and each camp has been making its case, and then some — this will be the big mystery of the night. Each film would be a longshot in nearly any other season — an existential black comedy about Broadway from the "Babel" director and a slice-of-life Zen epic from the man behind the "Before" series. Yet here they are, rounding the final turn, dividing audiences over which should win, which will win, which must win. We'll know tonight. Predictions are a fool's errand.