The Academy Awards have always loved a comeback story. This year, the Oscars are also trying to die in one. On Sunday, the Academy Awards will attempt to return from a 2021 ceremony that was plagued by pandemic restrictions, a failed ending and record-breaking ratings. The 94th Academy Awards will return to their usual home, the Dolby Theater of Los Angeles, and will be broadcast live on ABC beginning at 8pm EDT. (It is also possible to stream it live on services such as Hulu Live TV, YouTubeTV and on ABC.com with provider authentication.)
How much of the decline of the Oscars would have to be accounted for until COVID-19? How much is the new normal? These are just a few of the questions that hang over an Academy Awards that feels like a crossroads for one of America’s most enduring pop culture institutions, and still the most watched annual show outside of the Super Bowl.
Can the Will Packer-produced awards fuel the pandemic, reversing years of declining ratings for network TV awards shows and a major tent event collaborating for a rapidly evolving film landscape? In the endless run-up to the Oscars in the spring, many in the sector were skeptical. Which brings us to the first of five questions that enter the show.
Will the latest makeover of the Oscars work?
The biggest drama on Sunday revolves around a broadcast that has been substantially revamped to stop the rating slips. As if it would make up for several years without hosts, this time there are three: Amy Schumer, Regina Hall and Wanda Sykes. Will their combined star power completely move the needle?
Under pressure from ABC, the academy will also first present eight categories – production design, editing, sound, score, makeup and hairstyle, and the three short film awards – before television begins. Clips of her victories and speeches will be edited throughout the show. Critics throughout the sector, however, have lined up to decide the change. The largest trade union representing workers behind the scenes, IATSE, on Monday called the decision detrimental to the “fundamental goal” of the Oscars.
So what will Packer do with the extra time? Beyoncé and Billie Eilish will perform their nominated songs. An eclectic group of presenters has also been announced, including some unexpected names like DJ Khaled, Tony Hawk, Sean “Diddy” Combs and Shaun White – so this may finally be the year that Judi Dench learns how to perform a “McTwist”.
Will a streamer take best photo home?
The two favorites both come from streaming services, who have ever won the best photo. The main contender, Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, for 12 awards, has long been the supposed frontrunner, and possibly Netflix’s best chance to date, to win the top Hollywood award. But after successive victories with the Screen Actors Guild and the Producers Guild, Sian Heder’s deaf family drama CODA may have the edge. The backer of the deep-pocketed movie, Apple TV +, has gone to great lengths to push a feel-good underdog indie to the front of the pack. If CODA wins, it will be the first time since 1932’s Grand Hotel that a film with less than four nominations (CODA has three) took the best picture. Some predictions this year were wild, however, so other nominees like Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast could still make an oversight.
How much will COVID drag the party down?
Last year’s Oscars came to Union Station for an intimate show with a small number of attendees and a lot of social distance. This year, a full stage show and red carpet are planned, albeit with uneven COVID-19 protocols. Attendees are required to submit two negative tests and proof of vaccination. Those who present or perform do not need to be vaccinated, but need recent negative tests. Masks will also be in the mix for attendees sitting outside the orchestra in the Dolby and for media on the red carpet. After many attendees contracted the virus after attending the BAFTAs on March 13 in London, several nominees have been quarantined, including Branagh and Belfast co-star Ciarán Hinds. With the rates of infection and hospitalization reduced, Los Angeles County is set to lift many virus restrictions for events within April 1, five days after the Oscars.
Will Will Smith win his first Oscar?
Nominated twice before for Best Actor (for Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness), Will Smith appears a slot to win his first Academy Award. Smith’s appearance as Richard Williams, father of Venus and Serena, in King Richard has remained the most likely choice throughout the season. And the speech of the exuberant 53-year-old star must be one of the most lively of the night. However, a victory will have to come over some formidable competition – including the actor who conquered Smith’s Ali performance 20 years ago: Denzel Washington, a winner then for Training Day and a threat this time for The Tragedy of Macbeth.
Who is set to make history?
Many of the top prizes can have some important milestones. Ari Wegner, cinematographer of The Power of Dog, may become the first woman to ever win that award. Her director, Jane Campion, is also ready to make history. Campion, the first woman ever to be nominated twice for best director, will be only the third woman to win the category. It would be the first time the director’s award has ever gone to women in consecutive years, after Nomadland filmmaker Chloé Zhao won last year.
CODA’s Troy Kotsur is in line to be the first deaf male actor to win an Oscar. His much-anticipated win would make him and his CODA co-star Marlee Matlin the only deaf actors to win Academy Awards. And supporting actress, who apparently swayed Ariana DeBose for her breakthrough role in Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story, could see the first Afro-Latina and open LGBTQ actor win the category. A win for DeBose would come 60 years after Rita Moreno won for the same role, Anita, in the original 1961. This would be the third time that two actors have won for the same role, after Heath Ledger and Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker, and Marlon Brando and Robert DeNiro as Vito Corleone. But we’ll have to wait and see if DeBose’s West Side Story co-star Rachel Zegler is there to cheer her up.