It's been three decades since a comedy won best picture at the Academy Awards.

Annie Hall

, Woody Allen's loopy paean to his two muses, New York and Diane Keaton, took the trophy in 1978.

In 1999, the larky, literary Shakespeare in Love beat out three World War II titles (The Thin Red Line, Saving Private Ryan, Life Is Beautiful) and the Tudor Godfather picture, Elizabeth. Yes, Shakespeare in Love had laughs, but it was more romance than romp, and in iambic pentameter at that.

So, tonight a little history will be made when Little Miss Sunshine - the slapstick road pic about a 7-year-old in a beauty pageant, and the dysfunctional family that got her there - captures the Oscar. In a year of grim, violent, message movies (the tricontinental Babel, the revelatory Letters From Iwo Jima), fun, violent crimebustin' (Martin Scorsese's The Departed), and a deft portrait of a ruling elite out of touch with the masses (The Queen), a flick with jokes about skin mags, bad food, and a VW microbus that doesn't work right is going to revel in gold and glory.

Or not.

Even if I'm wrong - and if I am, then it's Crash-gone-global, also known as Babel, that'll win - Little Miss Sunshine and its directing duo, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, have had an amazing run. Since emerging in early '06 from Sundance, where Fox Searchlight bought the crowd-pleaser for $10 million, the film has racked up $60 million in box office and dominated DVD sales and rental charts. More significant, two of the largest voting groups in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences - members of the Screen Actors Guild and the Producers Guild - have already bestowed their highest honors on the loserdom laff riot.

Whatever happens on the best-picture front, the 79th Academy Awards, with host Ellen DeGeneres supplying the wisecracks, is already one for the record books. With best-acting nominations going to Will Smith (The Pursuit of Happyness) and Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland), and supporting recognition to Djimon Hounsou (Blood Diamond), Eddie Murphy and Jennifer Hudson (both for Dreamgirls), 2007 marks a high-water mark for black actors at Oscar time. (In 2002, blacks received an equal number of nominations, but Jamie Foxx had two of the five.) And Whitaker, Murphy and Hudson are all presumptive favorites to win.

It's also a big year for Mexicans: namely, Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro González Iñárritu, and Guillermo del Toro. The three Mexico City musketeers - and directors - are responsible for some of the most ambitious and haunting images of the year: Cuarón's futuristic parable Children of Men, nominated for adapted screenplay and cinematography; Iñárritu's Babel, with seven noms, including the Big One, and del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth, competing for foreign-language pic.

Throw in Penélope Cruz and Adriana Barraza, the former a lead-actress candidate for Pedro Almodóvar's Volver, the latter a supporting-actress contender for Babel. And with that, the Spanish-speaking demographic - representing a major chunk of the domestic filmgoing audience, and a huge slice of the international pie - is duly represented.

With Clint Eastwood's Japanese-language war (and very much antiwar) picture Letters From Iwo Jima, and Japanese pop star Rinko Kikuchi's supporting-actress nomination for Babel, Oscars '07 have an even broader international scope than usual. This isn't the usual Hollywood-salutes-its-own narcissist bubble bath, thank you very much.

And gracias, and arigato, too.

Speaking of thank-yous, let's hope that Whitaker, if he steps to the Kodak Theatre podium to accept the Oscar, has a speech prepared. An exceedingly affable fellow, the estimable actor is nonetheless a shy and nonverbal soul who has thus far stammered and shrugged his way painfully through SAG, Golden Globe and critics' ceremonies, muttering, stuttering and forgetting the names of his Last King of Scotland costars.

You're an actor, dude, learn some lines.

Of course, there are many worthy actors and directors who didn't get the chance to prepare an acceptance speech. When Paul Greengrass' name is announced alongside the four fellow directing nominees tonight (and, hopefully, not too late - this is, after all, a famously long-winded to-do), let's stop to mourn the ones not nominated.

Greengrass' chilling and important 9/11 drama, United 93, omitted from the best-picture category, is only one instance: Paramount and DreamWorks are still reeling from Dreamgirls' being left off the best-picture card; Clive Owen was amazing in Children of Men; Edward Norton turned in two Oscar-worthy performances last year (The Illusionist and The Painted Veil); Sergi López, as the fascist father figure in Pan's Labyrinth, was unforgettably creepy; and the two young African American stars of Akeelah and the Bee and Half Nelson - Keke Palmer and Shareeka Epps, respectively - would not have been out of place on the actress short lists.

Viewers who stay put for all five original song performances may feel like they've seen Dreamgirls, even if they haven't. Three of the five nominees hail from the fictionalized Motown Records/Supremes story: Beyoncé will perform "Listen," Hudson will wail "Love You I Do," and Keith Robinson, Anika Noni Rose, and other Dreamgirl-ers will sing "Patience." If one of these three doesn't win, well, look for total dumbstruckedness on the faces of Randy Newman and Melissa Etheridge, the others vying in the category.

Let the show begin. And let it end at a civilized hour.

For coverage of the Oscars, go to www.philly.com after tonight's telecast.EndText

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, On Movies Online, at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.