Whether it's Sally Field getting swept up in her "you like me" speech or Jack Palance doing one-armed push-ups, every Oscar telecast has its moments.
What will be the standout wins for the 82nd annual Academy Awards, which begin at 5 tonight? How will Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin compare with other hosts? And can a ceremony that usually lasts three-plus hours actually be shorter this year?
We talked to some leading Oscars experts about what to keep an eye on as the evening unfolds and which moments could be exciting enough to keep viewers awake until best picture is announced.
Red carpet royalty: Who’ll make a splash on the most-watched entrance of the awards season? “We still don’t know if both halves of Brangelina will be there,” said Tom O’Neil, who writes the Gold Derby blog for TheEnvelope.com at the Los Angeles Times. He notes that super-couple Brad Pitt of “Inglourious Basterds” and his partner Angelina Jolie didn’t attend the Golden Globes.
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Even if America’s most famous parents of six spend the night at home, the Oscars will keep fans glued with a parade of celebrities, including some newer ones. For the teen crowd, Miley Cyrus, Zac Efron and “Twilight” stars Taylor Lautner and Kristen Stewart are set to be presenters.
“We’ll see a lot of vampires at the Oscars, I’m sure,” said O’Neil.
Hosts with the most: Most observers think co-hosts Martin and Baldwin are a smart choice. “They’re sleek and they’re funny and they know what they’re doing,” said Chris Connelly, who’s covering the Oscars for ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
Past emcee Martin is one of the best hosts ever, according to Steve Pond, who writes the Oscar blog for TheWrap.com.
“He’s extraordinarily easy to work with and low maintenance and makes things very easy for everybody. ... I find that he kind of hits the right tone and knows how to work that gig, which is a very difficult one to do.”
O’Neil sees Martin and Baldwin as ideal picks to represent what he calls old, cool Hollywood. “You really should choose establishment stars to preside over the family reunion,” he said.
Sandra versus Meryl: In the competition for best actress, Sandra Bullock, the queen of romantic comedies, is facing off against Meryl Streep, the cinematic virtuoso.
Bullock, who played a dramatic role in the box-office hit “The Blind Side,” won the Screen Actors Guild award, an important precursor to the Oscars. Plus, she has “a lot of goodwill built up over the years for always turning in solid performances and being a good Hollywood citizen,” Connelly said.
But this could be the year when Oscar once again rewards two-time winner and 16-time nominee Streep, so endearing in “Julie & Julia” as cooking icon Julia Child.
Connelly’s theory is that when Streep is in the running, “she competes against the other four performances and Meryl Streep, because we hold her performances up against the luminous performances for which she already won Oscars,” namely “Kramer vs. Kramer” and “Sophie’s Choice.”
Songs out, dance in: Oscar purists aren’t exactly thrilled that the best-song nominees won’t be performed live on stage this year. The attempt to streamline the broadcast rankles those who enjoy a tradition that has brought viewers moments like Madonna trembling her way through “Sooner or Later” from “Dick Tracy” in 1991.
Although crooners are getting short-changed, hoofers should be happy. The word is that there will be a couple of elaborate dance numbers.
Why the interest in dance? Adam Shankman, a director and former choreographer who was a dancer 20 years ago at the Oscars, is co-producing the Oscar telecast. He’s also a judge on “So You Think You Can Dance” and, according to the ABC News Web site, plans to use some dancers from the Fox show on the Oscar broadcast.
History in the making: There is encouraging diversity in a major category that’s known for lacking it.
“Usually, every year, best director is five white guys,” said Entertainment Weekly’s Dave Karger, who does the OscarWatch blog at the magazine’s Web site.
But this year, he notes, Kathryn Bigelow of “The Hurt Locker” is the fourth woman ever nominated, while Lee Daniels of “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire” is the second African-American.
There’s also the intriguing coincidence that Bigelow is the former wife of nominee James Cameron of “Avatar.”
It’s a pleasant rivalry because “James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow are friends and frequent collaborators, even since their divorce,” said Karger, who thinks Bigelow will make history by being the first female winner in the category.
Connelly also thinks Bigelow has a good chance. “This is someone who has always been acknowledged as a great filmmaker and who, in the view of Hollywood, had yet to make a great film until this year,” he said.
Emotional high points: The magic moments often happen during acceptance speeches. Karger thinks the most compelling speech could be given by Mo’Nique of “Precious.”
“I think we could see a really riveting emotional moment when she wins. And I don’t say if she wins. I say when she wins, because she will.”
Other nominees who could get a big response from the audience include Bigelow and Jeff Bridges of “Crazy Heart” for best actor. On the current awards circuit, they’re the two people who “every time they win, every time they get on stage, you can really feel the affection for them in the room,” said Pond.
And if Bridges wins, the warmth expressed will be for decades of work. “He’s enormously well-liked and there’s a sense he’s been underrated for his entire career,” said Pond.
The best picture wars: The grand prize of Hollywood’s biggest night has an interesting twist this year – 10 films are competing instead of the usual five.
Expanding the field has allowed more room for crowd-pleasing nominees like “The Blind Side” and “District 9.” But the frontrunners are narrowing down to three: “The Hurt Locker,” “Avatar” and “Inglourious Basterds.”
Some think “The Hurt Locker” is the lead horse, especially since it’s won several major awards. But “Avatar,” which is breaking box-office records and tied “The Hurt Locker” with nine nominations, is also a strong contender.
“By all means, ‘Avatar’ could end up surprising people and actually win,” said Karger. “There are even some rumbles that ‘Inglourious Basterds’ could ... upset with a win.”
Another fascinating wrinkle is the category’s switch to preferential voting, a complex system that lets voters rank the nominees from 1 to 10.
It involves counting the No. 1 votes, eliminating the movie with the lowest tally, redistributing that movie’s ballots to the films ranked second on them and then repeating the process until one film gets more than 50 percent of the vote.
“It identifies the movie that has consensus support rather than the movie that has the most passionate support,” said Pond.