A year after COVID-19 forced the Academy Award ceremony to be scaled back and relocated to downtown’s Union Station, the 94th Oscars return to their traditional glittery script Sunday night — once again at the Dolby Theatre, once again in a host format, and featuring a raft of presenters and performers that organizers hope will boost the broadcast’s down-trending TV ratings.
The haunting Western psycho-drama “The Power of the Dog” enters the evening with a leading 12 nominations, including nods for best picture and best director, Jane Campion, while the sci-fi epic “Dune” brings 10 noms to the party.
Meanwhile, “CODA” — an emotional drama about the talented daughter of deaf parents deciding whether to pursue her dream of a singing-career or remain with the family fishing business — brings some major best-picture momentum, having won top honors from the Producers Guild and the Screen Actors Guild, both traditional barometers of who brings home the hardware on Oscar night.
Likewise, Will Smith (“King Richard”) and Jessica Chastain (“The Eyes of Tammy Faye”) carry some mojo for the best actor and best actress trophies, coming off wins in those categories at both the SAG Awards and the Critics Choice Awards.
And Campion, the first woman filmmaker to garner two best director nominations, after her 1994 nod for “The Piano,” would seem a front-runner in this year’s director’s category, after she won the top honor from the Directors Guild of America, another bellwether of Oscar success.
The Oscar ceremonies have been without a host for the past three years, but Sunday’s 5 p.m. telecast on ABC will feature three — Regina Hall, Amy Schumer and Wanda Sykes, each hosting an Oscar ceremony for the first time.
She’ll perform “Be Alive,” which she co-wrote for “King Richard.” Meanwhile, country music legend Reba McEntire will perform Diane Warren’s “Somehow You Do” from “Four Good Days,” and Billie Eilish and her brother Finneas will perform their song “No Time to Die,” the title track for the James Bond film of the same name.
Sebastián Yatra will perform Lin-Manuel Miranda’s song “Dos Oruguitas” from the animated hit “Encanto,” and Travis Barker and Sheila E. will also perform. In addition, this year’s show will feature the return of an orchestra.
The roster of presenters includes Jennifer Garner, Bill Murray, Samuel L. Jackson, Sean “Diddy” Combs, Jamie Lee Curtis, Woody Harrelson, John Travolta, Lupita Nyong’o, Wesley Snipes, Anthony Hopkins, Kevin Costner, Lady Gaga, Rosie Perez, Chris Rock, Rami Malek, Uma Thurman, Venus and Serena Williams, and numerous others.
This year’s feel-good ceremonies are not without controversy, however, as the broadcast’s producers, looking to streamline the show, decided that eight awards will be presented prior to the actual telecast. Those categories are documentary short subject, film editing, makeup/hairstyling, original score, production design, animated short film, live action short film and sound.
Their exclusion from the live broadcast brought criticism from the American Cinema Editors board of directors, among others — with the editors group saying, “It sends a message that some creative disciplines are more vital than others. Nothing could be further from the truth and all who make movies know this.”
Academy President David Rubin, however, said the awards will be presented on stage at the Dolby Theatre, and the presentations will be edited and included in the telecast.
The Oscars’ push for a ratings rebound drove the decision, Rubin said.
“For the audience at home, the show’s flow does not change, though it will become tighter and more electric with this new cadence, and the live broadcast should end — yes, with the best picture category — at the three-hour mark,” Rubin wrote in a letter to Academy members.
Rubin also noted that the ceremony is “a live event television show and we must prioritize the television audience to increase viewer engagement and keep the show vital, kinetic and relevant.”
As for Sunday night’s nominees, following the 12 nods for “The Power of the Dog” and the 10 for “Dune,” Kenneth Branagh’s coming-of-age tale “Belfast” and Steven Spielberg’s musical remake “West Side Story” each have seven nods, while “King Richard,” recounting the upbringing and rise to tennis stardom of Venus and Serena Williams, has six.
The films are all nominated for best picture, along with “CODA,” “Don’t Look Up,” “Drive My Car,” “Licorice Pizza” and “Nightmare Alley.”
“The Power of the Dog” also carries Academy Award nominations for Benedict Cumberbatch for best actor as well as Jesse Plemons and Kodi Smit-McPhee, both for supporting actor, and Plemons’ real-life partner, Kirsten Dunst, for supporting actress. Plemons and Dunst play husband-and-wife in the film.
Besides the best picture, acting and directing nominations, “The Power of the Dog” also has noms for cinematography, film editing, original score, production design, sound and adapted screenplay.
In addition to Campion’s nomination, vying for best director are Branagh for “Belfast,” Ryusuke Hamaguchi for “Drive My Car,” Paul Thomas Anderson for “Licorice Pizza” and Spielberg for “West Side Story.”
Joining Cumberbatch in the best actor category are Javier Bardem in “Being the Ricardos,” Andrew Garfield for “tick, tick …BOOM!,” Smith for “King Richard” and Denzel Washington in “The Tragedy of Macbeth.”
For best actress, nominees are Chastain for “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” Olivia Colman in “The Last Daughter,” Penélope Cruz in “Parallel Mothers,” Nicole Kidman in “Being the Ricardos” and Kristen Stewart in “Spencer.”
Competing for supporting actor will be Plemons and Smit-McPhee for “The Power of the Dog,” Ciarán Hinds in “Belfast,” Troy Kotsur for “CODA,” and J.K. Simmons in “Being the Ricardos.”
Joining Dunst in the supporting actress category are Jessie Buckley for “The Lost Daughter,” Adriana DeBose in “West Side Story,” Judi Dench in “Belfast” and Aunjanue Ellis in “King Richard.”
Kotsur and DeBose have swept most of the major pre-Oscar awards in the supporting categories, making them heavy favorites to take home Oscar gold.