Certain nominees clearly are on the Oscar fast track, but there still could be room for some surprises.

Ellen DeGeneres will return as second-time host as ABC televises the 86th Academy Awards on Sunday, March 2 … and she’ll have plenty of material to work with, thanks to contenders for the gold statue who have brought life to characters distinctive in and of themselves.

After his Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild wins for best actor in a movie drama, Matthew McConaughey has to be deemed a front-runner for his work as a modern cowboy who takes a typically self-styled approach to fighting HIV in “Dallas Buyers Club.”

That said, Leonardo DiCaprio has had a similar run on the comedy side for “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Their Oscar rivals are Christian Bale (for “American Hustle”), Bruce Dern (“Nebraska”) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (“12 Years a Slave”).

The same sort of contest has shaped up in Oscar’s best actress category. Cate Blanchett is on a victory streak for her performance in Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine,” which has been honored on the drama side in awards where there’s a genre split.

Nip-and-tuck with her is Amy Adams, who’s been the frequent pick in comedy races for “American Hustle.” Also up for best actress are three women who already own Oscars (as does Blanchett): Sandra Bullock (for “Gravity”), Judi Dench (“Philomena”) and Meryl Streep (“August: Osage County”).

In the supporting-performance competitions, Jared Leto would appear to be a lock, since his “Dallas Buyers Club” portrayal has pretty much swept up in the award season to now. Last year’s best actress winner, Jennifer Lawrence, was on that sort of course for “American Hustle” … until Lupita Nyong’o took the SAG Award for “12 Years a Slave.” Many who voted for that honor also vote for the same one in the Oscars, so if there’s an upset to be had, that could be the one.

And the best picture would seem to be guided by the best director, but famously, there have been years when those Oscars have been divided. One example is 1999, when “Shakespeare in Love” earned best picture, but Steven Spielberg was named best director for “Saving Private Ryan.” This well could be another of those years.

Alfonso Cuaron has been much-praised – and much-honored – for his very evident technical expertise on “Gravity,” which is among the nine nominees for best picture. However, “American Hustle” and “12 Years a Slave” have been the big winners there for earlier honors in comedy and drama, respectively.

Among the factors that are certain for Oscar night, Craig Zadan and Neil Meron will return as the show’s producers for the second consecutive year. On the heels of their success with December’s live, Carrie Underwood-starring NBC staging of “The Sound of Music,” the two men (who earned their own best picture Oscar for 2002′s “Chicago”) are ready to change things around Oscar-wise.

“Right after [last year's] show, there was a discussion about having us back,” Meron tells Zap2it, “but I think it was too soon to even process that idea until everything settled back to normal.”

Zadan adds, “It was a hard decision to make, because we understood that if you are honored to produce the show – which, as a producer, is the biggest honor there is — you get to do it once, at least lately. We really assumed last year would be our one shot, so we were kind of shocked when the Academy was aggressive in wanting us back, and then ABC chimed in. Truth be told, a lot of it had to do with the ratings being so strong, especially with the younger demos and with males.”

That has to be attributed, at least in part, to Zadan and Meron’s somewhat controversial selection of “Family Guy” and “Ted” mentor Seth MacFarlane as last year’s Oscar host. They say they’re entirely happy this time to have DeGeneres steering the show, which she first did in 2007.

“We’ve made sure in terms of theatrically producing the show, as we did last year, to try to satisfy all the demos in the audience,” Meron notes. “That’s not just with the host, but in terms of the type of entertainment that’s going to be presented on the show.”

While the 75th anniversary of the screen classic “The Wizard of Oz” will be celebrated, another big theme of this year’s Oscars is movie heroes. Not all of them are necessarily on the order of James Bond or Indiana Jones, particularly with such figures as Solomon Northup (“12 Years a Slave”) and the Tom Hanks-portrayed Capt. Richard Phillips factoring into the movie year that’s being honored.

On the music front, the Oscar roster is quite strong this year. Scheduled to sing are Pink, U2, Pharrell Williams, Idina Menzel, Karen O and — in her first performance at the event — Bette Midler.

“The show will be radically different from last year,” Zadan promises. “I don’t think we’ve held onto trying to re-create anything, so we know people won’t tune in and say, ‘Oh, it’s just like last year, with some changes.’

“That’s not because we didn’t like and appreciate what we did, but why repeat ourselves? Then it really makes no sense to come back. Even the kinds of movies and nominees are so different from last year.”

Photo/Video credit: ABC

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