Jennifer Lawrence ("Silver Linings Playbook") was long considered the front-runner for Best Actress. She fits several of the academy's biases -- she's young and rising, she's box office gold (both "Playbook" and "The Hunger Games" were box office successes) and she's a critical darling. Past examples of her type include Gwyneth Paltrow, Julia Roberts and Reese Witherspoon.
But there's also a tendency for the academy to offer "lifetime achievement awards," giving Oscars to veteran performers who have been overlooked in the past. (See Jessica Tandy and Geraldine Page.) If that's the way things are going, and O'Neil is seeing movement in that direction, expect 85-year-old Emmanuelle Riva to take home the golden statue.
"There's been a real surge among academy members. She suddenly has the cool factor," O'Neil said.
After wins for Lawrence and Jessica Chastain ("Zero Dark Thirty") at the various industry get-togethers, Riva suddenly burst from the pack with a win at the BAFTAs, the British Oscars. Her exposure wasn't hurt when the Hollywood Reporter put together a 2,000-word profile on the famed French actress, perhaps best known in the United States for Alain Resnais' inscrutable 1959 classic "Hiroshima, Mon Amour" and the "Blue" chapter of Krzysztof Kieslowski's "Three Colors" trilogy.
On the other side of the age spectrum is "Beasts of the Southern Wild's" Quvenzhane Wallis, who was just 6 when she filmed the little indie. (She's 9 now and still the youngest best actress nominee ever.) Though some commentators have raised questions about whether a 6-year-old can actually act -- or is, essentially, just being herself -- there's no question the academy loves honoring youngsters: usually with just a nomination, but sometimes more. Just ask Tatum O'Neal and Anna Paquin.
A first for James Bond?
Similarly, though Anne Hathaway ("Les Miserables") has been close to a lock for Best Supporting Actress, there's an outside chance that Sally Field ("Lincoln") could take the prize. It's her first nomination since she won Best Actress for 1984's "Places in the Heart," which prompted her famous "You like me! Right now, you like me!" speech.
But the race hardest to predict is probably Best Supporting Actor. All five nominees have won before; all five have arguments in their favor.
The sentimental favorite is probably Robert De Niro, who's made more heartfelt guest appearances on behalf of "Silver Linings Playbook" than he has for any number of his other recent films. Besides, as "Playbook's" studio head (and always shrewd Oscar campaigner) Harvey Weinstein told CNN, "Bob De Niro hasn't won an Oscar in 32 years." (Yes, it's true: "Raging Bull" was De Niro's last win.)
But don't count out Alan Arkin ("Argo"), Tommy Lee Jones ("Lincoln"), Christoph Waltz ("Django Unchained") or even Philip Seymour Hoffman ("The Master"). Arkin is "Argo's" only acting nomination; the film's bandwagon could carry him to victory. And Jones, Hoffman and Waltz have all won trophies during this awards season.
Davis' money is on Waltz. The actor won both a BAFTA and Golden Globe for his performance as a 19th-century bounty hunter, and he's seen as more appreciative than Jones or Hoffman, neither of whom gave speeches when they won their honors, said Davis.
Other awards, the ones that pay off in everybody's Oscar pool, are also up for grabs. Will best film editing go to "Argo," the taut minimalism of "Zero Dark Thirty" or the careful rhythms of "Life of Pi"? Will animated feature honor the Pixar masters behind "Brave" or the off-center, long-gestating Tim Burton project "Frankenweenie?" Will Adele's James Bond theme "Skyfall" win best song, or will it go to this year's host, Seth MacFarlane, for his "Everybody Needs a Best Friend"?
Don't rule out MacFarlane; his co-writer is Walter Murphy, who once turned Beethoven's Fifth Symphony into a No. 1 pop hit. On the other hand, no James Bond theme -- not "Goldfinger," not "Live and Let Die," not "Nobody Does It Better," not even anything by Matt Munro, A-ha or Madonna -- has ever won an Oscar, so 007 is overdue.
The uncertainty will make for some surprise winners, both in the Dolby Theatre (formerly the Kodak) and in wagering living rooms across America.
"I've spoken to several academy members, and they're all over the place, too," said Davis.
It's no wonder that the nominees have been modest and circumspect about their chances, nobody more so than Affleck. Though he's a producer of "Argo," which means he'll get to accept a Best Picture trophy if the film wins, he's attracted far more attention for being ignored for Best Director than he ever would have for being nominated.
"I just feel so incredibly honored to be nominated as a producer for this movie, to be here at the big party," he told reporters at the Oscar luncheon in early February. "I don't get into worrying too much about who got what and who didn't get what. I mean, I've had many, many, many, many, many, many years watching from home."
But despite some observers already instructing Affleck to prepare yet another list of thank-yous, don't assume "Argo" the movie will reign as triumphant as its risk-taking characters, said Davis. Sure, it's good. But Best Picture? That's something else entirely.
"I'm hearing a little bit, that when 'Argo' started winning everything, some people started scratching their heads," he said. "'Really? That's what I'm supposed to be picking?'"
The 85th Academy Awards are scheduled for Sunday on ABC. The show will air from the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles.