Oscars 2014: 5 things to watch for

Posted at 5:51 PM, Mar 02, 2014
and last updated 2014-03-02 17:51:26-05

(CNN) — Ellen DeGeneres! Celebrity controversies! Endless self-congratulation!

What, you think Sunday’s Oscars are about the movies and the fashion?

Yes, there is quite a race between best picture contenders “12 Years a Slave,” “Gravity” and “American Hustle.” (There are six other nominees, but they’re not expected to make waves.)

However, the Oscars are full of unexpected moments — whether it’s a host’s divisive jokes, a winner making political points or simply awkward stage approaches. Here are five things to watch for:

1. “12 Years” and Oscar diversity.

A number of films from 2013 were rightly touted as showcasing African-Americans, including “Fruitvale Station,” “42,” “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” and “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.” Vanity Fair even highlighted the diversity on its Hollywood Issue cover.

But excepting “Mandela,” which earned a best song nomination, the only one of those films to get any Oscar love was “12 Years a Slave,” about the experience of a free man taken into slavery. Its studio, Fox Searchlight, has run ads that say “It’s time,” a simple phrase that has multiple meanings. Will the message carry the day? We’ll find out Sunday.

2. Your host, Ellen DeGeneres.

Ellen DeGeneres received kudos for her first Oscar hosting stint in 2007 — “crisp and unpretentious,” in the words of TV critic Tom Shales. Since then, she has only become more popular, with her top-rated daytime TV show and 25.2 million Twitter followers.

She’ll be nice, of course, but maybe a little pointed.

“I do think it should be classy. It’s the Academy Awards,” she told The New York Times. “(But) it has lately turned into something that’s a little more about the clothes than the performances, and I will comment on that.” And who knows? The married and openly gay DeGeneres may have something to say about the recent debate over same-sex marriage laws.

3. Patterns and record breakers.

Some Oscar nights seem to be all about momentum, with one film sweeping its way to best picture. Other Oscar nights spread the wealth. You may want to keep an eye on certain categories to see which way the wind is blowing.

Moreover, it could be a big night for a few individuals in particular. With her fourth win, best actress nominee Meryl Streep, who now has 18 nominations, could tie Katharine Hepburn as the performer with the most Oscar wins. Best supporting actress nominee Jennifer Lawrence could be the first performer to win back-to-back Oscars in different categories (best actress, and best supporting actress). And with an Oscar victory, best song nominee Robert Lopez, who co-wrote “Frozen’s” “Let It Go,” will become an EGOT — a winner of an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony. He would become just the 12th person to do so competitively.

4. Controversy!

If Cate Blanchett wins best actress for “Blue Jasmine” — as she’s widely expected to do — will she thank the film’s director, Woody Allen? She was called out in Dylan Farrow’s open letter and has been diplomatic when asked about the controversy, but didn’t mention Allen in her acceptance speech at the Santa Barbara Film Festival.

Then there’s the “In Memoriam” segment. If the Internet is essentially a gigantic outrage machine, then nothing gets people angrier than having their favorite performer left out of the academy’s annual tribute to the deceased. Who will it be this year? Harold Ramis? Sid Caesar? Sarah Jones, the crew member who was killed in a Georgia train accident? And will there be complaints over who gets the “anchor” position?

5. Sing it!

In recent years, the best song race has been little more than a footnote to the Oscar proceedings. (Two years ago, there were just two nominees — total.) But this year is shaping up to be an interesting competition.

You’ve got Lopez and his tune, sung by Idina Menzel, which hit Billboard’s Top 20. You’ve got rock heavyweights U2, who wrote and performed “Ordinary Love,” from “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.” You’ve got indie darling Karen O, who performed “The Moon Song” from “Her,” and be-hatted Pharrell Williams, the mastermind behind “Despicable Me 2’s” “Happy.” In other words, you’ve got four songs people have actually heard — and like. It’s been awhile.

You almost might want to keep an eye on space and time. Space, because the weather in Los Angeles has been rainy. The precipitation is expected to let up by Sunday afternoon, but if it doesn’t, the rainswept streets might make Ridley Scott proud. And time, because it’s the Oscars: “Two hours of sparkling entertainment spread over a four-hour show,” as Johnny Carson once said.

Of course, if it’s an entertaining show, nobody will notice — except those people who use the show’s running time as an Oscar pool tiebreaker.

Back to you, Ellen.