By Andrew Marszal
The Oscars returned to Hollywood on Sunday, where dramas “CODA,” “The Power of the Dog” and “Belfast” are expected to vie for best picture, after sci-fi epic “Dune” earned a clutch of early wins.
Tinseltown’s biggest night began with a performance by pop megastar Beyonce, and touched on politics with a moment of silence over the Ukraine crisis.
The gala’s top prize — best picture — is expected to be a close race.
Until recently it appeared that dark, psychological Western “The Power of the Dog” would earn Netflix its much-coveted first best picture statuette.
But the race has been flung wide open in recent weeks.
“CODA” — an uplifting drama from Apple+ TV about an eccentric deaf family — has surged in popularity.
Troy Kotsur, who plays the father of a teenage girl who can hear and wants to pursue a career in music, dedicated his win for best supporting actor to the deaf and disabled communities.
“This is our moment,” he said, noting that the film has been popular worldwide and “reached all the way to the White House.” The cast recently met with President Joe Biden.
Either film would be a historic first best picture win for a streaming service, though Kenneth Branagh’s childhood-inspired “Belfast” also cannot be ruled out, and he triumphed for best original screenplay.
In other early prizes, Ariana DeBose won best supporting actress for playing Anita in “West Side Story,” and Disney’s “Encanto” was named best animated feature.
DeBose, who first made her name on Broadway, celebrated her historic win for “an openly queer woman of color, an Afro-Latina.”
Yvett Merino, producer of Colombia-set “Encanto,” said she was “so proud to be a part of a film that put beautiful, diverse characters in front and center.”
Japan’s “Drive My Car” was named best international film.
‘A gay night’
Beyonce began the televised broadcast with her nominated tune from tennis biopic “King Richard,” from the Compton courts where Serena and Venus Williams trained as girls.
In another musical highlight, viral sensation “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” was performed live, with Megan Thee Stallion adding an Oscars-themed verse to the “Encanto” hit song.
Hosts Wanda Sykes, Amy Schumer and Regina Hall kicked off proceedings inside the Dolby Theatre — where the Oscars returned after a year away due to the pandemic — with an opening skit that poked fun at everything from sexism in Hollywood to Florida’s “Don’t say gay” bill.
“This year, the Academy hired three women to host because it’s cheaper than hiring one man,” said Schumer.
Sykes added: “We’re going to have a great night tonight. And for you people in Florida, we’re going to have a gay night.”
Eight less starry categories were pre-taped in the hour before the broadcast, and edited in later — a controversial move that angered many including “Dune” director Denis Villeneuve.
But his film won four of the early awards — best sound, score, editing and production design — as well as visual effects and cinematography in the televised show.
“It’s 2 am in Amsterdam, and my daughter Zoe woke me up to go to the hotel bar. Wow!!” tweeted composer Hans Zimmer.
In a year when big-budget blockbusters finally hit reopened movie theaters and rival streamers amped up their libraries with star-packed new films, the acting categories are being contested by some of the biggest names in the business.
Will Smith is the strong favorite for best actor for his turn as the father of Venus and Serena in “King Richard.”
“After years of Hollywood ignoring women’s stories, this year we finally got a movie about the incredible Williams sisters’… dad,” joked Schumer.
Industry insiders say the best actress race is likely to be extremely close, with Jessica Chastain’s portrayal of a real-life televangelist in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” favorite to strike Oscars gold.
The movie won for best makeup and hairstyling, while “Cruella” won for costume design.
Jane Campion is well-placed to become only the third woman to win best director, for “The Power of the Dog.”
A-listers who passed strict Covid-19 testing protocols arrived on the red carpet on a sunny Los Angeles day in their finest gowns and tuxedos once again.
Some, including Oscar-winning actress Youn Yuh-jung, nominated songwriter Diane Warren and actress Jamie Lee Curtis wore blue ribbons reading #WithRefugees, showing support for those who have fled Ukraine and other conflict zones.
The show held a moment’s silence for Ukraine, while presenter Mila Kunis — who was born in the country — said “recent global events have left many of us feeling gutted.”
“Yet when you witness the strength and dignity of those facing such devastation, it’s impossible not to be moved by their resilience” and “strength to keep fighting through unimaginable darkness,” she said.
Television network ABC is hoping for a major boost in ratings for the broadcast.
The 2021 gala was watched by a paltry 10 million viewers — a 56 percent decline from 2020, which was already a record low.
Efforts to win back viewers include a new “fan favorite” prize voted for by the public — introduced after popular blockbusters such as “Spider Man: No Way Home” and Bond flick “No Time To Die” received only a handful of nominations.