Oscars Primer: What You Need to Know Before Tonight's Ceremony

What sort of an evening should we expect? Who are the likely Oscar winners? And could history be made?
Courtesy of Swarovski

The 89th Academy Awards will take place Sunday night in Hollywood, bringing a close to six months of cut-throat competition. What sort of an evening should we expect? Who are the likely Oscar winners? And could history be made?

Ratings for the show have been on the decline in recent years, so ABC, which just extended its deal to broadcast the Oscars through 2028, leaned on the Academy to invite the network's own Jimmy Kimmel to host for the first time. But with only a couple of big box-office hits among the major nominees — Hidden Figures and La La Land, specifically — it may be a challenge to attract viewership regardless of how well the late-night star performs early in the show. Another wild-card factor: Will statements condemning President Donald Trump, which are widely expected, cause more people to tune in (as word of them hits social media) or tune out (since some prefer a politics-free zone)?

If you want to play a drinking game tonight that will quickly get you drunk, take a shot every time someone says "Trump," "La La Land" or "diversity."

La La Land, the original musical that garnered a record-tying 14 nominations last month (only All About Eve and Titanic have had as many), is the heavy favorite to win best picture and a haul of other awards. The most it could take home is 13 (since two of its original songs are competing against each other), but I think nine or 10 is more realistic (since it's also vulnerable in the lead actor, original screenplay, costume design and sound editing categories). Ben-Hur, Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King share the record for most wins, with 11. (Here are my picks for what/who will win in all categories, alongside THR chief film critic Todd McCarthy's picks for what/who should win in most of them.)

Diversity — or the Academy's preferred word, "inclusion" — surely will come up, as well. In the run-up to the last two Oscars ceremonies, the Academy was dogged by the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, after its actors branch failed to include any people of color among the 20 acting nominees in back-to-back years. Over the past year, however, the Academy invited a record number of new members — among them an unprecedented number of people of color, women and non-Americans — and wound up with seven acting nominees who are people of color and three best picture-nominated films centered around black protagonists. Some suggest this is cause-and-effect, while others argue that these same nominees would have been chosen over the same competition in either of the last two years. Regardless, the topic surely will come up.

A remarkable thing about this year's nominees is how long many of them have known each other and worked together. La La Land's writer/director Damien Chazelle and composer/songwriter Justin Hurwitz met during their freshman year at Harvard and began collaborating on their first film shortly thereafter. Moonlight's writer/director Barry Jenkins, producer Adele Romanski, cinematographer James Laxton and film editor Nat Sanders have been working together since their days at Florida State University. Manchester by the Sea's producer Matt Damon and lead actor Casey Affleck rode the bus together to elementary school, and first worked with writer/director Kenneth Lonergan 15 years ago on the London stage, while Lonergan and supporting actor Matthew Broderick (who is not nominated) have been best friends since high school. The list goes on. (Twenty-two of the current crop of nominees were guests on THR's "Awards Chatter" podcast, and if you listen to their episodes you can learn all about their lives, careers and nominated work.)

History could be made Sunday night in several races. If La La Land wins best picture, it will be only the second film to earn that distinction without previously having received a best ensemble SAG Award nom, 21 years after the first (Braveheart). If Chazelle wins best director, he will break an 85-year-old record to become, at 32, that category's youngest winner ever (he would be 221 days younger than Skippy's Norman Taurog); if Jenkins wins it, he will be its first black winner in that category. If Fences' Denzel Washington wins best actor, he will become only the third person to direct himself or herself to an acting Oscar (the previous two being Hamlet's Laurence Olivier and Life Is Beautiful's Roberto Benigni), and only the fourth male (after Walter Brennan, Jack Nicholson and Daniel Day-Lewis) and first person of color to receive three acting awards; if Affleck wins, he will snap, at 13 years, a long streak of SAG predicting this category (they honored Washington). If Florence Foster Jenkins' Meryl Strep wins best actress, she will tie Katharine Hepburn's record for most acting Oscars won by a male or female (four). If Moana's Lin-Manuel Miranda wins best original song for "How Far I'll Go," he will become, at 37, only the 13th EGOT holder, and the youngest person ever to attain that milestone. And if Hacksaw Ridge wins for best sound mixing, Kevin O'Connell, who currently holds the record for most mentions without a win, will be a winner for the first time on his 21st nomination.

I will be inside the theater live-tweeting fun facts, shocking stats and what they didn't show you on TV, so follow along at Twitter.com/ScottFeinberg, and enjoy Hollywood's biggest night of the year!

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