It's been a bit of a rocky road to Sunday night's 84th Academy Awards: Original ceremony producer Brett Ratner resigned amid a cloud of controversy, Eddie Murphy bowed out of the hosting job and was replaced by Crystal, the Kodak Theatre became the no-name theater after the film company filed for bankruptcy and Sacha Baron Cohen has threatened some red carpet shenanigans.
Once the ceremony begins, though, the focus will at last be on the awards themselves, particularly in several races still considered too close to call. This year there are nine films in the best picture race, thanks to new academy rules that allow the category to have anywhere between five and 10 contenders depending on how the nominating ballots are cast. The contenders are "The Artist," "The Help," "Midnight in Paris," "Hugo," "Moneyball," "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close," "War Horse," "The Descendants" and "Tree of Life."
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Martin Scorsese's 3-D family film "Hugo" comes in with nominations in 11 different categories, the most of any movie, followed by the black and white, essentially silent film "The Artist," with 10. Although "The Artist" is seen by many as the movie to beat for the best picture statuette, there are sizable followings for "The Descendants," filmmaker Alexander Payne's tragicomedy about a father's attempt to reconnect with his daughters; Woody Allen's "Midnight" and "The Help," about black maids in 1960s Mississippi.
"The Help's" Octavia Spencer is seen by many prognosticators as a lock for the supporting actress category, where she's competing against fellow "Help" castmate Jessica Chastain, Melissa McCarthy from "Bridesmaids," Bérénice Bejo from "The Artist" and Janet McTeer from "Albert Nobbs." The octogenarian Christopher Plummer is a heavy favorite in the supporting actor race for his turn as an elderly man coming out of the closet in "Beginners." His competition includes fellow seniors Nick Nolte in "Warrior" and Max von Sydow in "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close," plus Kenneth Branagh in "My Week With Marilyn," and Jonah Hill in "Moneyball."
Beyond that, though, things could become interesting.
The lead actress battle seems to have come down to two performers, Viola Davis as a domestic in "The Help" and Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher "The Iron Lady." Others in the field are Glenn Close for her gender-bending turn in "Albert Nobbs," Rooney Mara for "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," and Michelle Williams for her portrayal of Marilyn Monroe in "My Week With Marilyn."
The original screenplay Oscar has two leading contenders: Michel Hazanavicius' script for "The Artist" and Allen's screenplay for the time-traveling comedy "Midnight in Paris." The competition for adapted screenplay is likely a two-film race matching Payne, Nat Faxon & Jim Rash from "The Descendants" against Stan Chervin, Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin's adaptation of the baseball tale "Moneyball."
The director's race is seen as a competition between Payne and Hazanavicius, while a parallel showdown is set for lead actor contest, with "Descendants" star Clooney, who sheds a couple of big tears in the film, facing "The Artist's" Jean Dujardin, a French actor with the best eyebrows since Mr. Spock on "Star Trek." (Other nominees in the category are Brad Pitt for "Moneyball," Gary Oldman for the slow-burning espionage tale "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" and Demián Bichir for the immigrant drama "A Better Life.")
The show is being produced by Hollywood veterans Brian Grazer and Don Mischer; Grazer stepped in after Ratner made a homophobic comment at a screening and described his sexual proclivities in an explicit radio interview. When Ratner walked, Murphy bailed, and in came Crystal, who last emceed the Academy Awards in 2004.
The red carpet could be more interesting than in years past too. Cohen, who stars in the upcoming comedy "The Dictator," has said he will enter the Hollywood & Highland center (with Kodak in bankruptcy, its name has been excised from the theater) in costume and character, which the academy feels is disrespectful but hasn't blocked.
FULL COVERAGE: Oscars 2012