Billy Crystal Billy Crystal

The pundits say history will repeat itself at the 84th Academy Awards, and they're not talking about the return (at long last!) of host Billy Crystal. The Artist is expected to become the first silent black-and-white film to win Best Picture since Wings took the prize at the very first Oscar ceremony in 1929. Or can The Help stage an upset? It has no directing nomination, and no film has won Best Picture without one since 1989's Driving Miss Daisy. But that movie was also about black-white relations in the civil rights—era South. An omen from the Oscar gods?

Beyond that, left-field surprises aren't expected (Christopher Plummer, it's all yours), but there is big suspense in the top acting categories. The best-actor buzz is extremely loud for George Clooney (The Descendants) and Jean Dujardin (The Artist), and the votes will be incredibly close. Ditto with best actress. For a while it seemed certain Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady) would end her 29-year losing streak, but the support for Viola Davis (The Help) has grown massive. Plus, Davis gives killer speeches, and don't think voters aren't swayed by that. (Sandra Bullock, anyone?)

The night's other big story? Oscar's sudden love affair with the Groundlings! The renowned L.A. comedy improv troupe has five members going for the gold. Mike & Molly's Melissa McCarthy is up for her gut-busting turn in Bridesmaids, as are Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo for the film's screenplay. Also nominated are Community star Jim Rash and Reno 911! alum Nat Faxon for cowriting The Descendants. It's highly likely the funny boys will make it all the way to the podium, since they've already won the coveted Writers Guild award.

"We all came through the Groundlings together, so it's totally surreal that our timelines matched up and we're all going to the Oscars," says Rash, noting that the alumni head count is really more like seven. "Tate Taylor [writer and director of The Help] studied with us at the Groundlings and almost got to the last level of our school program when he decided he wanted to do other things. And [Help nominee] Octavia Spencer hung out with us so much she was like our cheerleader."

The septet has not had a chance to stage a group hug since the nominations were announced. "Kristen had to miss the nominee's luncheon so the first time we will all be together since the big news will be on the red carpet, which I'm sure is going to be an out-of-body experience," says Rash. "Win or lose, our little inner circle is going have a great night!"

The 84th Academy Awards air Sunday at 8:30/7:30c on ABC.

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