Stranded in space, or shackled in the Deep South?
Late Sunday night, or possibly early Monday if the producers of the 86th Academy Awards lose their grip on the proceedings, the best-picture Oscar will be handed out. And it's a good bet that the winner will be 12 Years a Slave, the harrowing true story of a free black man - played by British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor - abducted and sold into slavery. For an independent film that delves into the darkest corners of American history, and the American psyche, it has done quite nicely: $129 million in worldwide grosses and counting.
Unless, that is, the winner is Gravity, the global box-office smash ($705 million) starring Sandra Bullock as an astronaut spinning in circles around Earth.
12 Years a Slave has nine nominations. Gravity has 10. Pundits, prognosticators, oddsmakers, and veteran smartypants agree that the race for best picture is between these two.
Of course, they could all be wrong. When the votes of the 6,028 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are announced, maybe American Hustle - David O. Russell's freewheeling riff on the disco-era Abscam scandals, and a movie to drive hairstylists wild with rapture - could sneak in there. It, too, has 10 nominations, including all four acting categories - which Russell pulled off just last year, with Silver Linings Playbook.
Another category with a big consensus: director. Alfonso Cuarón, who toiled for years developing impossible-to-explain technologies to make the 3D Gravity, is considered the front-runner, followed by Steve McQueen, the British-born director of 12 Years a Slave.
Either win would be historic: Cuarón is Mexican, and his win would represent a first for Latino filmmakers. McQueen is black, and if he gets the Oscar, that would be a first as well. If 12 Years a Slave wins best picture, McQueen will be the first black producer to accept the award - after five nominations (including one for Philadelphia's Lee Daniels, for Precious).
Speaking of historic, this year marks the 50th anniversary of Sidney Poitier's best-actor Academy Award, for Lilies of the Field - the first for an African American (Hattie McDaniels was the first black performer of either sex to win an Oscar, in 1939 for her supporting role in Gone With the Wind). Poitier, now 87, is scheduled to be a presenter at the Dolby Theatre Sunday night.
After Poitier, it would be 38 years before an African-American would win again for best actor: Denzel Washington, for his performance as the rogue cop in Training Day. Jamie Foxx (Ray) and Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland) have since grabbed the gold trophy, and Halle Berry has a best-actress Oscar (for Monster's Ball).
There are three black actors nominated this year, not one of them an American: Ejiofor in the leading role ranks for his searing portrayal of the kidnapped Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave; Barkhad Abdi, a Somali native who has lived in Minnesota since he was 14 and who made his acting debut as the gun-wielding pirate in Captain Phillips, is nominated for supporting actor; and Lupita Nyong'o, born in Mexico and raised in Kenya, whence her father hails, is in the supporting actress group, for her work as the cotton-picking Patsey, lorded over by a psychotic plantation owner (Michael Fassbender, also a supporting actor nominee), in 12 Years a Slave.
Nyong'o is the odds-on favorite, but there's a lot of love for Jennifer Lawrence, too. Last year she won best actress for the Philly-shot Silver Linings. If Lawrence wins supporting actress for Hustle - she's an off-the-deep-end housewife, a hurricane of highrise hair and low-cut, late-'70s fashion - she'll have scored two coups. At 23, she'd be the youngest woman to own a pair of Academy Awards, and she would be only the sixth person to have landed back-to-back Oscar wins, joining the company of Luise Rainer, Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Jason Robards, and Tom Hanks.
On the local front, screenwriter Craig Borten, who grew up in Plymouth Meeting and spent 20 years trying to get Dallas Buyers Club made, is nominated in the original screenplay field. Spike Jonze's Her and Russell's American Hustle scripts are viewed as front-runners, but, again, it's not over until the fat lady - or the teleprompter-reading, envelope-ripping celebrity presenters - sing.
And on the subject of Dallas Buyers Club, Matthew McConaughey is considered a lock for best actor for his performance as a rodeo redneck who, diagnosed with HIV, becomes an improbable champion of AIDS research and treatment. McConaughey, who shed nearly 40 pounds to play the real-life Ron Woodroof, already has won the Golden Globe and the Screen Actors Guild awards.
Cate Blanchett, doing Woody Allen's version of Blanche DuBois in Blue Jasmine, is believed to have the best actress Oscar in the bag. But foregone conclusions can sometimes go awry, in which case, don't discount Judi Dench for the title role in Philomena, which the Weinstein Company has been campaigning for like they had super-PAC backing.
There are nine films (out of a possible 10) vying for best picture this year, including the love-it-or-hate-it Martin Scorsese/Leonard DiCaprio debauchfest, The Wolf of Wall Street. In what was considered an exceptionally rich and rewarding moviegoing year, that leaves many films, and filmmakers, out of the action Sunday night. So here's a quick tip of the cap to some of the elbowed-aside, overlooked, and underappreciated titles and talents of 2013: Robert Redford's solo outing All Is Lost (Gravity in the Indian Ocean); Enough Said, with a bittersweet swan-song performance from James Gandolfini; Fruitvale Station, starring Michael B. Jordan as Oscar Grant, the young black man shot and killed by a transit officer in 2009; Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen brothers' melancholy ramble through the early '60s Greenwich Village folk-music scene; Short Term 12, a low-budget, big-hearted indie about troubled teens and the young woman (Brie Larson) who counsels them; Sarah Polley's doubly deft documentary investigation into family secrets, Stories We Tell; and Blue Is the Warmest Color, which, because of release date rules, was ineligible to be put forward by France for foreign language consideration. They all deserve Oscar love, and they're not getting it.
The 86th Academy Awards, hosted by Ellen Degeneres (her second time - she presided in 2007) will be telecast on ABC, beginning at 8:30 p.m. The red carpet coverage begins at 7 p.m. Who are you wearing?
Keep up with all the Oscars action Sunday night - Dan Rubin's "The Talk," video from the red carpet, tweets from all over - starting at 6 o'clock on www.inquirer.com.