(Reuters) - In true Hollywood fashion, the Academy Awards on Sunday promised a cliffhanger finale to the tight race for best picture Oscar between favorites "12 Years a Slave" and "Gravity" and a big gamble on rain and the red carpet.
After three days of heavy downpours soaked parts of the red carpet along Hollywood Boulevard, workers removed the plastic tenting and unwrapped the golden Oscar statues hours before hundreds of movie stars in designer dresses and tuxedos begin arriving for Hollywood's biggest night.
And while it was still drizzling outside the Dolby Theatre as TV crews from around the world went live from Hollywood, organizers were confident that the most glamorous of red carpet shows would go off without a hitch. They did, however, keep a bunch of umbrellas on hand.
The 86th annual Academy Awards will be hosted by comedian and day-time talk show host Ellen DeGeneres, who producers are banking on to deliver an entertaining yet tasteful three-hour show after critics widely panned last year's ceremony and host Seth MacFarlane's provocative humor.
This year's Oscars celebrate what is widely regarded as one of the most high quality years in film and performances in recent memory. The president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, called it the best line-up "in the last decade or so."
That means that awards are likely to be scattered widely as the 6,000-plus members of the Academy seek to reward as many films as possible with the famed golden statuettes.
While British director Steve McQueen's brutal slavery drama "12 Years a Slave" is the presumed frontrunner for best picture, Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron's groundbreaking space thriller "Gravity" lurks just behind. And there could be an upset for the night's top honors.
"I feel more comfortable putting my chips on '12 Years a Slave' just because there is more historical basis for doing so," said Scott Feinberg, awards analyst at The Hollywood Reporter. "But at the same time there is no denying that there is great enthusiasm for other movies."
Among those is 1970s crime caper "American Hustle" from director David O. Russell, which scored 10 nominations. For the second year in a row, Russell has achieved the rare feat of having his actors nominated in all four acting categories. Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street," a tale of financial greed and excess, has also been a hit with audiences and critics.
A total of nine films are competing for best picture, including Somali piracy thriller "Captain Phillips," the adoption drama "Philomena," the heartland comedy "Nebraska," the computer-age romance "Her," and the AIDS activist biopic "Dallas Buyers Club."
AN HISTORIC CHOICE?
But the Academy could also make history this year if it chooses "12 Years a Slave" for best picture. It would be the first time that the top film honor goes to a movie by a black director in the 86 years of the Oscars.
On Saturday, the real-life story of free man turned plantation slave Solomon Northup gained more momentum by sweeping the Independent Spirit Awards, a show that recognizes movies made on small budgets. It scored five wins out of seven nominations, including best feature film.
The Spirit Awards also bestowed honors on the frontrunners for all four acting races for the Oscars, which may yield few surprises on Sunday.
Cate Blanchett won best actress at the Spirit Awards for her portrayal of the disgraced socialite in Woody Allen's "Blue Jasmine." Matthew McConaughey took best actor for his role as the unlikely AIDS activist in "Dallas Buyers Club," for which he lost some 50 pounds (23 kg) and his co-star Jared Leto won best supporting actor.
Also on Saturday, newcomer Lupita Nyong'o won best supporting actress for her role as hardworking slave Patsey in "12 Years a Slave" but she faces a challenge at the Oscars from Jennifer Lawrence as the loopy housewife in "American Hustle."
Sunday's show caps an unusually long awards season extended by weeks by the Winter Olympics and fatigue was evident.
"Yeah, I'm a little bit tired today," Blanchett said on Saturday, adding "but I'm full of adrenaline, whatever happens, it's a very exciting place to be."
The Oscars show will feature homages to movie heroes and "The Wizard of Oz" on its 75th anniversary. U2 and Pharrell Williams will be among the performers for best original song.
Among the presenters will be Hollywood power couple Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt as well as Sidney Poitier on the 50th anniversary of his best actor win for "Lilies of the Field," the first Oscar in that category for an African American.
The show will be broadcast live on ABC television starting at 5:30 PST/8:30 EST and to 225 countries around the world.