Oscars 2020 preview: Five things to watch, from Joaquin Phoenix to Billie Eilish

Joaquin Phoenix accepts his SAG Awards trophy. What will he say if he wins the Oscar?
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

This year’s Oscars will have no host and, if you believe the pundits, no suspense.

Joaquin Phoenix, Renée Zellweger, Brad Pitt and Laura Dern accepted trophies five weeks ago at the Golden Globes ... and at the SAG Awards two weeks later ... and at the British Film and Television Academy Awards last weekend. And as practice makes perfect, they’re really honing their craft!

Actually, Pitt didn’t give a speech at the BAFTAs because he didn’t make the trip to London. He was likely too busy working out new jokes for the Oscars. Dude’s having the time of his life. And why not? He leaves every show with a trophy. As Pitt said at the National Board of Review gala last month, “It’s nice to be able to leave this carrying something other than George Clooney.”

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Of course, there might be some drama in the air before the final envelope is opened, though sometimes I wonder if most of the good vibrations being sent to Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” are coming from people (like me) leading with their hearts and not their heads. This is, after all, the Oscars. Ninety-one years of bad faith and we’re still wishing for good things.

But that’s why we watch. Well, that and things like Billy Porter walking the red carpet, Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga having a moment, and Julia Roberts randomly returning to the stage for exactly 11 seconds to wrap up the evening and tell her children goodnight.

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Those things all happened at the 91st Oscars. What awaits us this year, other than the inevitable heartbreak and disappointment?

Why pay attention to the production design winner?


The motion picture academy caught flak last year when it proposed handing out some crafts awards during commercial breaks to shorten the ceremony. “In the history of CINEMA, masterpieces have existed without sound, without color, without a story, without actors and without music,” “Roma” filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón tweeted. “No one single film has ever existed without CINEMAtography and without editing.”

So, yes, rest assured there will be 24 Oscars bestowed Sunday night, though producer Stephanie Allain promises some “unexpected things” early in the show to keep us on our toes. Given the spotty history of the show, this sounds vaguely threatening, but we’ll cross our fingers and think good thoughts.

In years when the outcome of the best picture race remains uncertain, there’s often an award presented earlier in the show that offers a telltale clue. The moment “Green Book” won the Oscar for original screenplay last year pretty much ended “Roma’s” chance to become the first non-English-language film to win best picture.

This year, the revelation might come in production design, where the presumed best picture front-runners — Sam Mendes’ war film “1917” and Bong Joon Ho’s wickedly funny thriller “Parasite” — are competing against each other. A win for either could indicate broad academy support. Or “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood” could prevail for its superb time-capsule re-creation of 1969 Los Angeles and we’ll be left reading the room, looking for clues and bracing ourselves for “unexpected things.”

What will Joaquin Phoenix say?

Pitt’s entertaining acceptance speeches this season have been a consistent delight. But Phoenix has used his trips to the lectern to produce grand theater, calling out Hollywood for its lack of diversity and its hypocrisy in a manner that somehow feels both controlled and spontaneous. You do not know what he’s going to say — and he gives you the feeling, as he stands there, massaging his temples, rubbing his stubble, that he doesn’t know either. It’s electrifying, and I think he’s saving something special for the Oscars.


What will Billie Eilish and Janelle Monáe sing?

Billie Eilish performs onstage during the 2019 iHeartRadio Music Festival and Daytime Stage at the Las Vegas Festival Grounds on September 21, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
(Bryan Steffy/Getty Images)

We know that Elton John, Randy Newman, Chrissy Metz, Cynthia Erivo and Idina Menzel will perform their numbers nominated for original song. A decent enough lineup, yes. But the “special performances” from Grammy-certified Eilish and Monáe add intrigue.

Some speculate that Eilish will sing her theme song for the upcoming James Bond film, “No Time to Die.” But Bond movie songs (even ones sung by Sam Smith, as 007 purists will gripe) tend to earn Oscar nominations and sometimes go on to win Oscars. (Sam Smith!) So (early Oscar prediction) Eilish probably will be back next year, accepting an Oscar for this very song.

That leaves the In Memoriam tribute and ... perhaps a salute to Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant? “LIIIIIVVVVVVE !! Kansas City Born and raised !!!” Monáe teased on her Instagram account. I’m sure whatever she does, she’ll represent the Great State of Kansas very well.

Will the no-host show turn into an annual tradition?


Do you remember who hosted the Emmys last year? Sorry, it’s a trick question because the Emmys, like the Oscars, went hostless. And unless somebody really wants the job (and no one does these days, because it’s thankless), why bother? And if somebody really doesn’t want the job, look what happens: You get Ricky Gervais’ bored affect at the Golden Globes.

Will the final Oscar go to ... “Jojo Rabbit”?

For all the talk about the best picture race coming down to “Parasite” versus “1917,” what if the answer is: None of the above? What if the answer is the life-affirming, anti-hate satire (I just wanted to write that overused bit of marketing one last time) that has found its way into the hearts of a strong core of true believers so passionate that they make #BongHive look indifferent by comparison?

Consider this: Unlike “Parasite” and “1917,” “Jojo” earned nominations in three key categories normally associated with a best picture winner — acting, screenplay and editing. And writer-director Taika Waititi looks like he’s going to come away with an Oscar for his adapted screenplay. A return trip to the stage would be the stuff of dreams (albeit nightmares for some) for this little movie’s fervent fans.