Oscars return - with slap jokes and hot dog fingers on menu
The Oscars take place Sunday, with two big questions on everyone's lips: Will anyone get slapped? And can a wacky sci-fi featuring hot dog fingers and butt plugs really win best picture?
While the answer to the first question is likely no -- Academy chiefs have a "crisis team" in place after Will Smith's misadventures last year -- the overwhelming response to the latter seems to be yes.
"Everything Everywhere All at Once," which follows a Chinese immigrant laundromat owner locked in battle with an inter-dimensional supervillain who happens to also be her own daughter, could not be further from your typical Oscar winner.
In a plot almost too bizarre to describe, Michelle Yeoh's heroine Evelyn must harness the power of her alter egos living in parallel universes, which feature hot dogs as human fingers, talking rocks and sex toys used as weapons and trophies.
But the film has dominated nearly every awards show in Hollywood, with its charismatic, predominantly Asian stars -- supported by the ever-popular Jamie Lee Curtis -- becoming the feel-good story of the season.
"It's a group of very likable people behind the movie who it's impossible to not be happy for," Hollywood Reporter awards columnist Scott Feinberg told AFP.
Having won top honors from Hollywood's directors, producers, actors and writers guilds, the film -- a bona fide, word-of-mouth, $100 million-grossing audience hit too -- is expected to dominate Oscars night.
But unlike in other categories, the movie could hit a stumbling block for best picture -- the evening's top prize -- due to the special "preferential" voting system, in which members rank films from best to worst.
The system punishes divisive films, and Feinberg said "many" voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences "just don't get" the madcap appeal of "Everything Everywhere."
If any rival can benefit, it is likely "All Quiet on the Western Front," Netflix's German-language World War I movie that dominated Britain's BAFTAs.
Another potential beneficiary is "Top Gun: Maverick," the long-awaited sequel from Tom Cruise -- no less a figure than Steven Spielberg recently said the actor and his film "might have saved the entire theatrical industry" from the pandemic.
- Toss-ups -
If best picture has a clear favorite, the acting races are incredibly tight.
"I can't remember a year, at least in the time I've been doing it, where three of the four acting categories were true toss-ups," said Feinberg.
In best actress, Cate Blanchett had long been favorite to win a third Oscar for "Tar," but "Everything Everywhere" love could propel Yeoh to a historic first win by an Asian woman in the category.
Best actor is a three-horse race between Austin Butler ("Elvis), Brendan Fraser ("The Whale") and Colin Farrell ("The Banshees of Inisherin").
And supporting actress may be even closer.
Angela Bassett, the first Marvel superhero actor ever nominated with "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever," is up against Curtis and "Banshees" star Kerry Condon.
One category does appear to be locked.
Ke Huy Quan, the former child star of "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" and "The Goonies," has won every best supporting actor prize going and looks near-certain to complete a comeback story for the ages.
- 'The Slap' -
Hanging over the ceremony is the specter of "The Slap" -- the shocking moment at last year's Oscars when Smith assaulted Chris Rock on stage for cracking a joke about his wife.
At a press conference this week, Oscars executive producer Molly McNearney said: "We're going to acknowledge it, and then we're going to move on."
For Feinberg, "the Academy has made it very clear that they don't find it funny and they would rather it not be discussed. But I guess you can't pretend it didn't happen."
Organizers were criticized last year for allowing Smith to remain at the show after the attack, and even collect his best actor award.
He was later banned from Oscars events for a decade, meaning he cannot present the best actress statuette this year, as is traditional.
A "crisis team" has been set up for the first time, to immediately respond to any unexpected developments.
Asked by AFP how this would work should something untoward happen, producer Glenn Weiss said "every major event I've worked on in the last 20 years has some kind of security."
"We've done the Democratic Convention, we've done the inauguration for multiple presidents. We put on the entertainment -- the Secret Service takes care of the other side."
The focus of his team, and host Jimmy Kimmel, is strictly "to keep it entertaining and hopefully keep you guys watching," he said.
- Blockbusters -
Whether people will keep watching is arguably the biggest question of all.
Partly thanks to "The Slap," last year's ratings improved from record lows, but remained well below their late 1990s peak, as interest in awards shows wanes and doomsayers continue to predict the demise of theatergoing.
This year, organizers hope nominations for widely watched blockbusters like "Top Gun: Maverick" and "Avatar: The Way of Water" will bring viewers back.
"If the public cares about the movies, they care about the Oscars, relatively more," said Feinberg.
The year "Titanic" won 11 Oscars including best picture, in 1998, recorded the highest ever ratings, with 57 million tuning in.
"That world is gone," said Feinberg. "But if it doesn't go up from last year, then the Academy has a big problem."