Oscars 2014: Hollywood preps for its big (and hopefully dry) night

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After a blustery few days of torrential downpours, Hollywood appears ready for smooth sailing at the Academy Awards. Organizers might even be able to remove the canopy that has covered the red carpet arrival area in recent days.

The 86th annual Oscar ceremony kicks off Sunday night from the Dolby Theatre in the heart of Hollywood. Unlike the stormy hosting of Seth MacFarlane last year, this Oscar show with host Ellen DeGeneres has a deliberately safe vibe of cheery song-and-dance.

The nimble and amiable DeGeneres is expected to return the broadcast to more traditional territory. Many of the night's biggest categories, too, seem to hold little chance for surprise.

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The well-established favorites include Matthew McConaughey, Cate Blanchett, Lupita Nyong'o and Jared Leto. Each comes into Oscar Sunday having won a parade of awards over the last few months, including honors at Saturday's Spirit Awards.

The night's biggest question mark won't come until the very end. The historical drama "12 Years a Slave," the 3-D space spectacle "Gravity" and the con-artist caper "American Hustle" are vying for best picture in the night's closest contest.

"Gravity" is expected to lead the ceremony in total awards, cleaning up in technical categories like visual effects and cinematography. Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón is considered a lock for best director for seamlessly marshalling new digital technology to render the lost-in-space drama. He would be the first Latino to win the category.

While the global hit easily topped the other eight best-picture nominees at the box office, the lower budget, less widely seen "12 Years a Slave" is believed to have a narrow edge for the academy's top honor.

Though voters last year chose entertainment over history lesson (Ben Affleck's "Argo" over Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln"), many see Steve McQueen's brutal adaptation of Solomon Northup's memoir as a landmark film difficult to watch but impossible to overlook.

ABC, which is telecasting the ceremony at 5:30 p.m., hopes the drama of the best-picture race will be enough to entice viewers. The show last year drew an audience of 40.3 million, up from 39.3 million the year before when the silent-film ode "The Artist" won best picture.

Many streets surrounding the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood & Highland are closed to traffic, as is the Metro stop beneath that venue.

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