With most of the major precursor awards out of the way, how are we to tell how the Oscar race is progressing -- who's pulling ahead, who's falling behind? In the absence of the usual tea leaves and goat entrails, we have to find other omens, and we can find them almost anywhere.

For instance, Vanity Fair's annual Hollywood issue, with its usual three-panel cover photo, by Annie Leibovitz, of a gaggle of glamorous current A-listers and A-list hopefuls, came out this week. And, as befits the awards year of "12 Years a Slave," "Fruitvale Station," "Lee Daniels' The Butler," and "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" -- well, one out of four, anyway -- a full six of the 12 stars are black. (Indeed, there have probably never been so many black people on Vanity Fair's cover.) Of course, on the newsstand, you'll only see the four stars in the first panel -- Chiwetel Ejiofor, Julia Roberts, Idris Elba, and George Clooney. Still, that's a striking contrast: the old guard, Roberts and Clooney, along with "12 Years" Best Actor nominee Ejiofor and "Mandela" star Elba. Not too shabby.

And then, on the foldout, in the eye-grabbing center of the spread, is "12 Years" breakout star Lupita Nyong'o, standing in a gold sheath gown that makes her look like an Oscar. Is that a prediction that she's favored to win Best Supporting Actress? Not necessarily. After all, fellow nominee Roberts is in the picture, too, and on the front cover. Then again, no one thinks Roberts has a chance of winning. And you don't see Jennifer Lawrence in the picture, do you? So it looks good for Nyong'o.

In one of the last guild awards, Hollywood screenwriters of the Writers Guild of America chose "Captain Phillips" as Best Adapted Sceenplay and "Her" as Best Original Screenplay. Does that give these movies the inside chance among the writers who vote for Academy Awards? Yes it does, though "12 Years" has a very good shot at Adapted Screenplay as well.

Emmanuel Lubezki was honored by his fellow cinematographers with the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) Award for his work on "Gravity." Does that mean he'll probably win the Oscar, too? Given the overlap among voters in that category, probably yes. Does it mean "Gravity" has a shot at other non-technical prizes? Not necessarily.

Pharrell was the first of the nominated song performers to RSVP to the Academy telecast producers. Does the fact that he'll be performing "Happy" mean he'll win the Original Song Oscar? Not necessarily ("Let It Go," from sing-along favorite "Frozen," still has the edge), but it does mean the other performers will have to step up their game to keep up with the "Despicable Me 2" nominee.

Then there are the grimmer events.

Might the current revival of the Woody Allen-Dylan Farrow mess have an averse effect on "Blue Jasmine"'s Oscar chances? (Yes, it seems perverse to think about such a horrible story in light of how it might affect someone's chances to take home a prize, but that's where we are.) After all, in her now-infamous letter to the New York Times, Farrow called out Best Actress nominee Cate Blanchett by name. Blanchett issued a diplomatic reply, hoping for resolution and healing that will probably never happen. Currently, Blanchett is all but a lock for Best Actress, and unless she's foolish enough to wade deeper into the muck of allegations and counter-allegations, there's probably nothing she can do that will harm her chances.

On the flip side, co-star Sally Hawkins is the longest of longshots for Supporting Actress, as is Allen for Best Original Screenplay, but then, those were the odds before this scandal re-emerged, too. Hollywood may re-think the question of whether there's a moral cost to working with Allen or supporting his work at awards time -- but most voters' minds probably won't be changed. After all, Roman Polanski managed to win in absentia for directing "The Pianist" a decade ago, and Hollywood A-listers continued to flock to Europe to work with him.

Finally, there was the unwelcome addition of Philip Seymour Hoffman to the In Memoriam montage. (Also, fellow Best Actor winner, Maximilian Schell, but he was 83 and not a cautionary tale.) It's hard to guess what impact the loss of an actor everyone admired, but who died so young, and in such a sordid fashion, will have on the race; perhaps none. Still, the ceremony's producers have decided that the show's theme this year will be heroes. Right now, the four acting categories seem to be locks for Nyong'o, Blanchett, and "Dallas Buyers Club" unlikely AIDS activists Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto.

Hoffman's death -- along with the slate of nominated performances this year -- reminds us that even our heroes are deeply flawed, while our villains have an almost heroic charisma. A humble recognition of our common, flawed humanity may not be what the Academy wanted to present this year, but it's what we'll get.
CATEGORIES Oscars, Awards, Columns