Oscars 2020: A two-way race, sure bet actors and other key storylines going into the big night

The searing war drama "1917" and the twisted social thriller "Parasite" look like front-runners. But anything could happen.
Image: Kang-Ho Song in "Parasite;" Renee Zellweger in "Judy;" and George McKay in "1917."
Kang-Ho Song in "Parasite;" Renee Zellweger in "Judy;" and George McKay in "1917."Chelsea Stahl / NBC News

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By Daniel Arkin

The red carpet is rolling out early this year. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is holding the 92nd edition of the Oscars on Sunday (8 p.m. ET on ABC) after more than a decade of hosting the ceremony closer to March. But aside from that calendar shift, this year's Oscars race has been greeted by all the usual horse-race prognosticating and cultural chatter, from debates over the violence of "Joker" to consternation over the absence of female directing nominees. Here's a look at some of the top storylines heading into the host-free ceremony.

Two-way race?

What began as a relatively wide-open battle for best picture steadily turned into what many Oscars pundits consider a one-on-one fight between "1917," an intense portrait of the horrors of World War I, and "Parasite," a genre-bending tale of class warfare.

The top films each go into the night with hefty accolades that could prove to be bellwethers:

"1917," with its technical virtuosity and historical gravitas, is the more conventional Oscar contender. And yet the darkly comic "Parasite" taps into timely concerns about global economic inequality. "Parasite" also gives the academy a chance to make history: Bong’s film would become the first foreign-language film to win top honors at the Oscars.

But there is still a possibility that one of three other movies vying for best picture emerges as a consensus choice. Martin Scorsese's sweeping mob saga "The Irishman," Todd Phillips' edgy supervillain origin story "Joker" and Quentin Tarantino's nostalgic buddy comedy "Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood" all ride into the ceremony with at least 10 nods apiece.

James Mangold's "Ford v Ferrari," Taika Waititi's "Jojo Rabbit," Greta Gerwig's "Little Women" and Noah Baumbach's "Marriage Story" round out the list of best picture nominees.

Little suspense among actors

Joaquin Phoenix ("Joker"), Renée Zellweger ("Judy"), Brad Pitt ("Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood") and Laura Dern ("Marriage Story") might as well start fine-tuning their acceptance speeches.

The four performers are widely considered locks in their respective categories after cleaning up at other industry ceremonies and critics’ association events, including the Golden Globes. The sense of inevitability deprives the acting races of giddy suspense and could potentially sap the telecast of surprises that sometimes make for must-see TV.

"They’re locked and loaded," said Tom O’Neil, a veteran awards analyst of the website Gold Derby. "Phoenix and Zellweger, especially. They both give the ‘most’ performance — the biggest, the splashiest, the most bombastic — and Oscar voters often go for that style."

The acting competitions at major award shows have been fairly predictable in recent years. But unexpected wins — Adrien Brody ("The Pianist") beating out Jack Nicholson and Daniel Day-Lewis in 2003, Roberto Benigni ("Life Is Beautiful") toppling Tom Hanks and Edward Norton in 1999 — have led to some of the most rewatchable moments in the annals of the Academy Awards.

O’Neil believes the performer with the best shot of staging an upset is Scarlett Johansson for her supporting turn as an anti-fascist single mother in "Jojo Rabbit," saying he "wouldn’t rule her out." Johansson is a double nominee this year, having also been recognized for her lead role in "Marriage Story."

Headline-grabbing moments

The academy is ditching a host for the second year in a row, apparently deciding last year’s format — Kevin Hart stepped aside after some of his old homophobic tweets resurfaced — worked just fine. The absence of an emcee means viewers will not be treated to a topical monologue, but that is not to say the ceremony itself will lack headline-grabbing moments. If previous editions are any guide, this year’s Oscars could feature buzzy one-liners and nods to real-world issues.

It’s possible a presenter will bring up the lack of gender equity in the best director category, just like Natalie Portman at the 2017 Golden Globes, when she pointedly introduced the "all-male nominees." Maybe another star will allude to the turmoil at the academy behind the Grammy Awards, nod to ex-mogul Harvey Weinstein’s sexual assault trial in New York, or joke about President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial.

It’s not inconceivable a winner will use their acceptance speech to push for action around major issues, such as climate change, or the 2020 presidential election. Patricia Arquette provides a model of how to carve out time for activism at awards shows, having decried the potential for war with Iran at this year’s Golden Globes and rallied for transgender equality at last fall’s Emmy Awards.