By Jill Serjeant
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Terrifying clown or ageing mobsters? Nostalgia for Tinseltown or the muddy trenches of a century-old war?
Hollywood hands out its highest honors on Sunday at an Oscars ceremony that could see a number of historic firsts and an all-white actor winner podium that has revived the #OscarsSoWhite debate.
Brad Pitt, Elton John, Charlize Theron, Leonardo DiCaprio, Scarlett Johansson and Martin Scorsese are among the A-List nominees, alongside the little-known cast of Korean-language drama "Parasite," which threatens to steal the thunder from Hollywood's biggest names.
All eyes are on the coveted best picture prize, which awards watchers believe is a three-way race between independent social satire "Parasite," British director Sam Mendes' immersive World War One movie "1917" from Universal Pictures <CMSCA.O>, and Quentin Tarantino's love letter to show business, "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood," from Sony Pictures <6758.T>.
"The smart bet is definitely '1917,' but I do not rule out the possibility of something else winning, whether that be 'Parasite' or 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,' or 'Jojo Rabbit'," Scott Feinberg, awards columnist for The Hollywood Reporter, said ahead of the show.
"Parasite," from best director nominee Bong Joon Ho, looks certain to win the newly named best international film category and is seeking to enter the history books as the first film in a foreign language to win a best picture Oscar.
Dark comic book movie "Joker" from Warner Bros <T.N>, which has a leading 11 nominations, Netflix <NFLX.O> divorce drama "Marriage Story" and the streaming service's mob epic "The Irishman," race-car drama "Ford v Ferrari" from 20th Century Studios <DIS.N>, and novel adaptation "Little Women" from Sony Pictures, round out the competition for the top prize.
The winners are chosen by the 8,000 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and the show has no host for a second year.
Netflix boosted its Hollywood credentials by getting a leading 24 nominations this year, including for drama "The Two Popes," animated movie "Klaus," and documentary "American Factory." Yet the coveted best picture Oscar may elude it yet again on Sunday, awards watchers say.
A poor year for diversity, with Cynthia Erivo the only actor of color in the race and an all-male director field, has revived the #OscarsSoWhite debate of four years ago.
Erivo, who played slavery-era freedom fighter Harriet Tubman in "Harriet," is likely to lose out in the best actor race to Renee Zellweger, who has swept up awards this season for her performance as an ageing Judy Garland in "Judy."
"She gave an amazing performance," said Variety chief film critic Owen Gleiberman. "My jaw was just on the floor."
Pitt has stormed back as a leading Hollywood man after a period out of the public eye during his bitter divorce from Angelina Jolie, and is seen as a shoo-in for the supporting actor Oscar for his laid-back stuntman role in "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood."
Joaquin Phoenix is the favorite to win his first Oscar for a disturbing performance as a loner clown who turns to violence in "Joker," while Scarlett Johansson is nominated for her roles in both "Jojo Rabbit" and "Marriage Story." No actor has won two Oscars on the same night
The Academy Awards will be televised live from Hollywood on ABC television, starting at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT (0100 GMT on Monday)
(Reporting by Jill Serjeant; editing by Jonathan Oatis)