LOS ANGELES — Nominations morning last month revealed major surprises for the Academy Awards, promising one of the most wide-open campaigns ever for Hollywood's highest honors.
Six weeks later, things have shaken out into the same old predictable Oscars.
Like almost every awards season, earlier honors have established clear favorites for the top prizes at Sunday's Oscars, where Ben Affleck's CIA thriller "Argo" is expected to take home the best-picture trophy.
"Argo" has dominated the awards picture with wins at the Golden Globes and ceremonies held by the Directors Guild of America, the Screen Actors Guild and the Producers Guild of America. The film now is poised to do what only four movies have managed before at the Oscars: win best picture without a nomination for its director.
With the top trophy and other key prizes expected to go to obvious front-runners, the Oscars will live or die on the show itself, which has a hipper flair with "Family Guy" creator Seth MacFarlane as host and a cool lineup of current and vintage stars. Among performers, presenters and other special guests are Barbra Streisand, Norah Jones, "Harry Potter" star Daniel Radcliffe, key players from "The Avengers," and Mark Wahlberg and his cuddly stuffed-bear sidekick from "Ted," voiced by its writer-director, MacFarlane.
Adele will perform her nominated title tune from the James Bond adventure "Skyfall," and the show features a salute to the 007 franchise, an appearance by Bond theme song singer Shirley Bassey, and a tribute to the resurgence of movie musicals over the last decade, which includes current best-picture contender "Les Miserables."
Oscar organizers are trying to inject more verve into a show whose awards generally play out by the numbers. While drama may be lacking in the outcome Sunday night, there was plenty of it early on in the Oscar race.
When nominations came out and Affleck was omitted of the best-director lineup, it seemed to doom the best-picture prospects for "Argo." Likewise, the best-picture chances looked slim for Kathryn Bigelow's Osama bin Laden thriller "Zero Dark Thirty" and Tom Hooper's musical "Les Miserables," since they also were snubbed for directing nominations.
Leading the field with 12 nominations, including one for director Steven Spielberg, the Civil War epic "Lincoln" suddenly looked like the best-picture favorite, almost by default. It seemed the only realistic choice among the nine nominees, given how rare it is for a film to win best picture without a directing nomination. The last time it happened — and the only time other than in the earliest years of the Oscars — was for 1989's "Driving Miss Daisy."
The other best-picture contenders that also had directing nominations — Michael Haneke's old-age love story "Amour," Ang Lee's shipwreck saga "Life of Pi," David O. Russell's oddball romance "Silver Linings Playbook" and Benh Zeitlin's low-budget bayou drama "Beasts of the Southern Wild" — were acclaimed films that all seemed like best-picture longshots.
But the crowd-pleasing "Argo," Affleck's liberally Hollywood-ized chronicle of the real-life rescue of six Americans during the Iranian hostage crisis, defied expectations by sweeping other awards despite the Oscar directing snub — or perhaps partly because of it.