NEW YORK — The Academy Awards have always loved a comeback story. This year, the Oscars are attempting to star in one, too.
On Sunday, the Academy Awards will try to bounce back from a 2021 ceremony that was plagued by pandemic restrictions, a botched ending and record-low ratings. The 94th Academy Awards will return to their usual home, Los Angeles' Dolby Theatre, and be broadcast live on ABC beginning at 8 p.m. EDT. (It's also possible to stream it live on services like Hulu Live TV, YouTubeTV and on ABC.com with provider authentication.)
How much of the Oscars' downturn should be chalked up to COVID-19? How much is it the new normal? These are just some 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 the Super Bowl.
Can the Will Packer-produced awards shrug off the pandemic, reverse years of declining ratings for network TV award shows and coalesce a big-tent event for a fast evolving movie landscape? In the interminable run-up to the springtime Oscars, many in the industry have been skeptical. Which leads us to the first of five questions heading into the show.
Will the Oscars' latest makeover work?
The biggest drama heading into Sunday revolves around a broadcast that has been substantially retooled to stem the ratings slide. As if making up for several host-less years, this time there are three: Amy Schumer, Regina Hall and Wanda Sykes. Will their combined star power move the needle at all?
Facing pressure from ABC, the academy will also first present eight categories — production design, editing, sound, score, makeup and hairstyling, and the three short film awards — before the telecast begins. Clips of their wins and speeches will be edited into the show. Critics throughout the industry, though, have lined up to decry the change. The largest union representing behind-the-scenes workers, IATSE, on Monday called the decision detrimental to the “fundamental purpose” 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 could finally be the year that Judi Dench learns how to perform a “McTwist.”
Will a streamer take home best picture?
The two favorites both hail from streaming services, which have ever won best picture. The lead nominee, Jane Campion's “The Power of the Dog,” up for 12 awards, had long been the presumed frontrunner, and possibly Netflix's best chance yet to win Hollywood's top award. But after back-to-back wins with the Screen Actors Guild and the Producers Guild, Sian Heder's deaf family drama “CODA” may have the edge. The film's deep-pocketed backer, Apple TV+, has spent big 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 fewer than four nominations ("CODA" has three) took best picture. Some predictions this year have been wildly off, though, so other nominees like Kenneth Branagh's “Belfast” could still pull off an upset.
How much will COVID drag down the party?
Last year's Oscars decamped to Union Station for an intimate show with a small number of attendees and lots of social distancing. This year, a full stage show and red carpet is planned, albeit with uneven COVID-19 protocols. Attendees are required to submit two negative tests and proof of vaccination. Those presenting or performing don't have to be vaccinated but need recent negative tests. Masks will be in the mix, too, for attendees sitting outside the orchestra at the Dolby and for media on the red carpet. After numerous attendees contracted the virus after attending the March 13 BAFTAs in London, several nominees have been quarantining, including Branagh and “Belfast” co-star Ciarán Hinds. With infection and hospitalization rates way down, Los Angeles County is set to lift many virus restrictions for indoor events on 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 lock to win his first Academy Award. Smith's performance as Richard Williams, father to Venus and Serena, in “King Richard” has remained the most likely choice throughout the season. And the speech by the exuberant 53-year-old star should be one of the most lively of the night. A win, though, will have to come over some formidable competition — including the actor who bested 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's set to make history?
Many of the top awards could feature some major 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 poised to make history. Campion, the first women ever nominated twice for best director, is set to become only the third woman to win the category. It would mark the first time the directing award has ever gone to women in back-to-back years, after “Nomadland” filmmaker Chloé Zhao won last year.
Troy Kotsur of “CODA” is in line to be the first deaf male actor to win an Oscar. His widely expected win would make him and his “CODA” co-star Marlee Matlin the only deaf actors to land Academy Awards. And supporting actress, which Ariana DeBose seemingly has sewn up for her breakthrough role in Steven Spielberg's “West Side Story,” may see the first Afro-Latina and openly LGBTQ actor win in the category. A win for DeBose would come 60 years after Rita Moreno won for the same role, Anita, in the 1961 original. That would be the third time that two actors have won for playing the same role, following 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 on.