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What to know about Sunday's Oscars

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Oscar fans, the clock is ticking. If you have not already seen best picture nominees like "Everything Everywhere All At Once"...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE")

STEPHANIE HSU: (As Joy Wang) The universe is so much bigger than you realize.

CHANG: ...Or "The Fabelmans," about Steven Spielberg's early life...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE FABELMANS")

PAUL DANO: (As Burt Fabelman) You start making movies, that will break your mother's heart.

GABRIEL LABELLE: (As Sammy Fabelman) I don't know what to do anymore.

MICHELLE WILLIAMS: (As Mitzi Fabelman) You do what your heart says you have to.

CHANG: ...Or the social satire "Triangle Of Sadness"...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TRIANGLE OF SADNESS")

ZLATKO BURIC: (As Dimitry) A Russian capitalist and an American communist.

WOODY HARRELSON: (As Captain) On a $250 million luxury yacht.

CHANG: ...Or any of the other seven best picture contenders, well, you have 48 hours to binge watch the ones you have missed. Happily, Hollywood is making that quite easy because all the major nominees are already streaming. Critic Bob Mondello is here to talk about what we're likely to see on Sunday's Oscar telecast. Hey, Bob.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: Hey. So, I mean, last year had loads of firsts - right? - like, from the first deaf best actor, Troy Kotsur, to the first openly queer woman of color to win an acting Oscar, Ariana Debose. But what about this year? Are you expecting any firsts?

MONDELLO: Well, there have already been a couple of firsts. I mean, there are more Asian performers for nominated than in any year in Oscar history.

CHANG: Woo-hoo.

MONDELLO: I agree - three of them from "Everything Everywhere All At Once." And then Angela Bassett is the first actor ever nominated from a Marvel movie. And that's after two decades and 31 films for "Wakanda Forever."

CHANG: Wow.

MONDELLO: So this is going to be a history setting one no matter what.

CHANG: OK. So already quite exciting. But I also understand that there's a controversy this year, right? Like, a surprise best actress nomination for Andrea Riseborough in "To Leslie," which is this movie that almost no one had ever heard of. Can you just catch us up on what this controversy was?

MONDELLO: Sure. The the film is about an alcoholic West Texas lottery winner who blows through her winnings very quickly.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TO LESLIE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) What do you plan to do with 190,000 smackeroons (ph)?

ANDREA RISEBOROUGH: (As Leslie) I don't know, maybe buy a house, buy something nice for my boy, you know, just have a better life.

MONDELLO: And she is absolutely terrific, as is the film, even if it's only made about $31,000 at the box office. It was released in a very small way. But its filmmakers have famous friends, including Jennifer Aniston and Cate Blanchett, and they promoted Riseborough to their friends. And in weighted voting, it doesn't take a whole lot of votes to put someone into the top five. So she ended up with a nomination. Now, you can see this in several ways. One is that a grassroots campaign beat the studio publicity machines, which is yay, indies, right?

CHANG: Yeah.

MONDELLO: But another is that having well-connected friends is the sort of privilege that doesn't extend to everybody...

CHANG: Yeah, exactly.

MONDELLO: ...In particular to two Black actresses who also did terrific work this year and were considered shoo-ins for the nominations but didn't get them - Danielle Deadwyler in "Till" and Viola Davis in "The Woman King." The Academy did an investigation and decided that its rules had been bent, not broken, so they didn't change the lineup. But there is awkwardness.

CHANG: Yeah, total awkwardness. Can you go back to "Till" and "The Woman King"? Like, what do you see in those performances that seem Oscar worthy to you?

MONDELLO: Oh, Danielle Deadwyler is giving what I think you'd call the classic Oscar performance. It's a complicated portrait of a real person, Emmett Till's mother, in wrenching circumstances. She's terrific in the part. And Viola Davis is just way outside what I think of as her comfort zone, playing a fierce African warrior. I mean, she does physical roles all the time. But this is right after her nomination as a blues singer in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" and her win as a homemaker in "Fences." So it's a big swing.

CHANG: How about any other overlooked performances or overlooked movies?

MONDELLO: "Nope" - by which I mean Jordan Peele's sci-fi flick, "Nope."

CHANG: (Laughter).

MONDELLO: Completely shut out.

CHANG: Well, you were talking earlier about indie films and how they struggle to cut through, but they've actually been doing better at the Oscars lately than studio movies, right? Like, the last three best picture winners were "CODA," "Nomadland" and "Parasite." Of course, they were collectively seen by very few people. And I'm wondering, is that kind of a problem for the academy?

MONDELLO: For viewership, yes, it's a problem because the art of those movies has been fantastic, but the interest level in them has been not so much, right? And the theory is that when popular films get nominated, more people watch the Oscars. For instance, when the first "Avatar" was competing in 2010, viewership climbed to about 50 million people, even though it lost to "The Hurt Locker." Last year, with no blockbusters nominated because there weren't any blockbusters, it was down to less than a third of that. So if you're in the academy, you think it's great that "Avatar" and "Top Gun" and "Elvis" and "Everything Everywhere All At Once" are in the running because together those four films have taken in almost $4 billion worldwide, which suggests that people will have a rooting interest in best picture.

CHANG: That is NPR's Bob Mondello. Thank you so much, Bob.

MONDELLO: It is always a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF LADY WRAY SONG, "SWEET LADY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.