The 6,028 voters have submitted their choices -- the majority voting online, although paper ballots were available on request. Ellen DeGeneres has prepared her hosting routine, which she insists will be "classy." And the awards program will honor big-screen, real-life heroes, superheroes, popular heroes and animated heroes -- past and present.
Yet the biggest suspense of the 86th annual Academy Awards will come late Sunday evening with the Oscar for Best Picture. It's become a tough, three-way competition among the stylish, crowd-pleasing '70s con-artist dramedy "American Hustle;" the outer-space survival saga "Gravity," and the historical drama "12 Years a Slave." Also in contention are "Captain Phillips," "Dallas Buyers Club," "Her," "Nebraska," "Philomena" and "The Wolf of Wall Street."
"12 Years a Slave" and "Gravity" tied for top honors at Producers Guild Awards; the PGA winner has later won the Oscar in 17 of the last 24 years, including the past six consecutive ones. So what are the odds that academy voting could result in a tie? According to a Harvard mathematician, it's 37,702-to-one.
Perhaps a better indicator is, five films dealing with adversity and race relations have won Best Picture in the past: "Gone With the Wind," "In the Heat of the Night," "Gandhi," "Driving Miss Daisy" and "Crash."
During this past year, there have been a remarkable number of other critically acclaimed films about the black experience, including "Lee Daniels' The Butler," "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" and "Fruitvale Station." Yet, it's estimated that only 2 percent of academy members are black.
MY PREDICTION for Best Picture: "12 Years a Slave"
The Best Director category is topped by Alfonso Cuaron, who spent more than four years developing the technology, both in terms of cinematography and special effects, for the visionary concept of "Gravity."
Also nominated are Steve McQueen for "12 Years a Slave," Alexander Payne for "Nebraska," David O. Russell for "American Hustle" and Martin Scorsese for "The Wolf of Wall Street." In the history of the Oscars, David O. Russell has the distinction of having his stars earn all four acting nominations two years in a row, following last year's "Silver Linings Playbook." Yet, if Alfonso Cuaron wins, he'll be the first Mexican director ever to win this coveted prize.
MY PREDICTION for Best Director: Alfonso Cuaron for "Gravity"
Matthew McConaughey is the odds-on favorite to win Best Actor. McConaughey already has won the Critics' Choice, Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globes awards. Also nominated are Christian Bale in "American Hustle," Bruce Dern in "Nebraska," Leonardo DiCaprio in "The Wolf of Wall Street" and Chiwetel Ejiofor in "12 Years a Slave."
While DiCaprio has been relentlessly campaigning with Martin Scorsese at his side, "Wolf" is, nevertheless, one of the most polarizing films of the year. And while viewers may have grown tired of good-natured McConaughey's trademark phrase -- "All right, all right, all riiggghtt!" -- no one can deny his remarkable physical transformation in this banner year, which included memorable moments in other films like "Mud" and "The Wolf of Wall Street," and his current visibility in HBO's "True Detective."
MY PREDICTION for Best Actor: Matthew McConaughey for "Dallas Buyers Club"
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
McConaughey's "Dallas Buyers Club" co-star Jared Leto is favored to win Best Supporting Actor over Barkhad Abdi in "Captain Phillips," Bradley Cooper in "American Hustle," Michael Fassbender in "12 Years a Slave" and Jonah Hill in "The Wolf of Wall Street."
MY PREDICTION for Best Supporting Actor: Jared Leto for "Dallas Buyers Club"
While Cate Blanchett seems destined to take home the Best Actress Oscar as the self-absorbed disgraced socialite in "Blue Jasmine," Mia Farrow has attempted to implicate Blanchett in a venomous vendetta against Woody Allen. Through her daughter, Dylan Farrow, Mia has challenged Blanchett and Diane Keaton to justify their decisions to work with and/or celebrate Allen, whom she continues to accuse of sexual abuse, although he was never charged with criminal wrongdoing and denies the accusations. I doubt that the academy will shun Blanchett.
In the past, the academy has drawn a firm distinction between artistic achievement and personal behavior -- the most obvious being Roman Polanski's Best Director award in 2003 for "The Pianist." Polanski fled the United States in 1977 before sentencing after pleading guilty to raping a minor.
MY PREDICTION for Best Actress: Cate Blanchett for "Blue Jasmine"
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Making her screen debut in "12 Years a Slave," Lupita Nyong'o leads the Best Supporting Actress category as the cotton-picking field slave who ignites the lust and rage of her plantation master. Also nominated are Sally Hawkins in "Blue Jasmine," Jennifer Lawrence in "American Hustle," Julia Roberts in "August: Osage County" and June Squibb in "Nebraska."
MY PREDICTION for Best Supporting Actress: Lupita Nyong'o for "12 Years a Slave"
BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
For Best Animated Feature, the nominees are "The Croods," "Despicable Me 2," "Ernest & Celestine," "Frozen" and "The Wind Rises."
MY PREDICTION for Best Animated Picture: "Frozen"
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Even before the Dylan Farrow scandal erupted, Woody Allen didn't stand much of a chance of winning Best Original Screenplay for "Blue Jasmine." He's nominated along with Eric Warren Singer/David O. Russell for "American Hustle," Craig Borten/Melissa Wallack for "Dallas Buyers Club," Bob Nelson for "Nebraska" and Spike Jonze, who won the Writers Guild prize, for "Her," which I consider one of the most insightful, touching relationship movies of the year. On the other hand, when voters look over their ballots, they may realize that "American Hustle" needs at least once accolade.
MY PREDICTION for Best Original Screenplay: Spike Jonze for "Her"
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
For Best Adapted Screenplay, the nominees are Richard Linklater/Julie Delpy/Ethan Hawke for "Before Midnight," Steve Coogan/Jeff Pope for "Philomena," John Ridley for "12 Years a Slave," Terence Winter for "The Wolf of Wall Street" and Billy Ray, who won the Writers Guild trophy, for "Captain Phillips." But consider: voters who omitted "12 Years a Slave" for Best Picture/Best Director may reward it here.
MY PREDICTION for Best Adapted Screenplay: John Ridley for "12 Years a Slave"
BEST FOREIGN FILM
Out of the 76 entries from around the world, nominees for Best Foreign Language Film are "The Broken Circle Breakdown" (Belgium), "The Great Beauty" (Italy), "The Hunt" (Denmark), "The Missing Picture" (Cambodia) and "Omar" (Palestine).
MY PREDICTION for Best Foreign Film: "The Great Beauty," which swept the European Film Awards.
Nominees for Best Documentary fall into two categories: war or art. "The Act of Killing," "The Square" and "Dirty Wars" deal with political violence and the role that the media plays in its coverage. "Cutie & The Boxer" and "20 Feet From Stardom" profile artists struggling to become famous and/or dealing with the repercussions of their quest.
MY PREDICTION for Best Documentary: "20 Feet From Stardom" (the only one that doesn't have subtitles)
BEST ORIGINAL SONG
Arousing more ethical concerns, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decided to rescind the nomination of the song "Alone Yet Not Alone," a ballad from an independent, Christian faith-based movie that grossed only $134,000. It was co-written by Bruce Broughton, a current executive committee member and former governor of 240-member music branch, who sent campaigning e-mails to 70 colleagues. His song is performed by quadriplegic Joni Eareckson Tada. With limited lung capacity, Tada, who is also an evangelical minister, had her husband, Ken, pushing on her diaphragm while she recorded the song to give her enough breath to hit the high notes. Presumably, if that e-mail had come from a publicist and not mentioned Broughton's name, the outreach would have been acceptable. According to academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs, Broughton created the appearance of an unfair advantage, particularly since the academy's official membership roster is supposed to be confidential. There have been other accusations of music branch cronyism, which left out Taylor Swift's "Sweeter Than Fiction" from "One Chance," Coldplay's "Atlas" from "Hunger Games: Catching Fire" and Lana Del Rey's "Young and Beautiful" from "The Great Gatsby."
So there are now four Best Song contenders. U2 will do "Ordinary Love" from "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom," marking the first time they've ever performed the song live. The three other contenders are Pharrell Williams' "Happy" from "Despicable Me 2," Karen O/Spike Jonze's "The Moon Song" from "Her" and Karen Anderson-Lopez/Robert Lopez's "Let It Go" from "Frozen," sung by Idina Menzel.
MY PREDICTION for Best Original Song: "Let It Go" from "Frozen"
Best Original Score
For Best Original Score, the nominees are William Butler/Owen Pallett for "Her," Alexandre Desplat for "Philomena," Thomas Newman for "Saving Mr. Banks," Steven Price for "Gravity" and John Williams for "The Book Thief." I'd go with "Gravity," as Steven Price combines electronic and acoustic instrumentation for a sonic texture that's emotionally weighted with a sense of dread.
MY PREDICTION for Best Original Score: "Gravity"
BEST MAKEUP / HAIRSTYLING
Best Makeup and Hairstyling is a fun category this year, since voters are expected to view all the nominees including "The Lone Ranger," featuring Johnny Depp's warrior-painted Tonto, and "Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa," in which Johnny Knoxville is effectively disguised as an octogenarian annoying unsuspecting bystanders in crazy stunts. Ever hopeful, Paramount sent out DVD screeners.
MY PREDICTION for Best Makeup/Hairstyling: Adruitha Lee/Robin Mathews for "Dallas Buyers Club"
Among the technical achievements:
Best Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki for "Gravity"
Best Editing: Alfonso Cuaron/Mark Sanger for "Gravity"
Best Production Design: Catherine Martin/Beverley Dunn for "The Great Gatsby"
Best Costume Design: Catherine Martin for "The Great Gatsby"
Best Sound Editing: Glenn Freemantle for "Gravity"
Best Sound Mixing: Skip Lievsay/Niv Adiri/Christopher Benstead/Chris Munro for "Gravity"
Best Visual Effects: Tim Webber/Chris Lawrence/Dave Shirk/ Neil Corbould for "Gravity"
Best Live-Action Short: "The Voorman Problem" (It's the only one without subtitles.)
Best Animated Short: "Get a Horse!" (Another win for Disney)
Best Documentary Short: "The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life"
People often ask how important it is for an actor to subtly seek Oscar recognition. Without knowing the individual votes of the 1,176 members of the Actors Branch, that's difficult to gauge, but among the most active on the publicity circuit prior to the nominations were Matthew McConaughey, Barkhd Abdi, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jonah Hill, Jared Leto, June Squibb, Amy Adams, Bruce Dern and Lupita Nyong'o. Those who declined, like Robert Redford and Kate Winslet, were conspicuously left out.
In addition, the demographics of the academy have been changing. There are 276 new members this year; at least one-third of them are women, foreign-born artists and people of various races and ethnic backgrounds, who have different aesthetic tastes and sensibilities than many in the Old Guard Hollywood. The ballot counters at PricewaterhouseCooper, who are sworn to secrecy, do report that while many conscientious voters submit their choices as soon as voting opens, even more wait until the last minute. So by the time you're reading this they're probably still tallying the totals.
The 86th annual Academy Awards will be broadcast live at 7 p.m. Sunday, March 2, on ABC television.
Before the broadcast, Susan Granger will be the co-host of the N'Oscars event, from 1 to 3 p.m. Sunday, at Oscar's Delicatessen, 159 Main St. The event, featuring discussion of this year's Academy Awards nominees, film trivia and more, benefits the Westport Cinema Initiative.
To read Susan Granger's film reviews, visit www.susangranger.com