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By Bryan Alexander
USA TODAY

Have your tissue box at the ready on Sunday night: Odds are the Academy Awards will be brimming again with their hallmark emotional story lines.

Just last year, first-time nominee Octavia Spencer ofThe Helpand 82-year-old Christopher Plummer ofBeginnersachieved Hollywood endings in their Oscar journeys, and Meryl Streep ofThe Iron Ladycollapsed in joy backstage after winning her first statuette since 1982.

"Often the backstory of a nominee and the quest for Oscar gold is as important as what's on the screen," says Tom O'Neil, editor of the Oscar website GoldDerby.com. "It has to be more than a movie."

So whose teary tales of redemption and obstacles overcome are likely to flow from the podium of the 85th Academy Awards (ABC, 7 p.m. ET/4 PT)? Keep your eyes on these candidates:

* A gentler bull.Robert De Niro might not seem like the type to be a sentimental favorite for best supporting actor. But his role as Bradley Cooper's explosive, OCD-afflicted and ultimately loving father inSilver Linings Playbookhas the actor poised to win his first Oscar since 1981 (Raging Bull).

The normally stoic De Niro is allowing the world to see his softer side away from the big screen as well. In a recent TV interview with Katie Couric, he got so caught up in talking about the highly personal role that she had to hand him a tissue.

De Niro, who has been nominated seven times and won twice, has "gone from being left out of the Oscar cold to possibly being invited into the pantheon of great actors with three Oscars," says O'Neil.

* Sound of revival.The curious case of Detroit-based folksinger Sixto Rodriguez, who disappeared from public view for more than two decades, made for the fascinatingSearching for Sugar Man,nominated for best documentary.

Rodriguez's 1970 albumCold Fact,which contained the songSugar Man,bombed most everywhere, but unbeknownst to him it became an enduring hit in culturally insular South Africa. In the late 1990s, two South African fans, believing he was dead, sought and found Rodriguez living hand-to-mouth in a frigid Detroit apartment and informed him of his star status. That led to a joyous series of concerts in South Africa, and now a career resurgence: He's on a world tour and says he's writing new material.

The documentary has already won four awards, including Critics Choice, and is favored to win on Oscar night.

"Both this story and what has happened since just goes to show that the truth can be unbelievable," says Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul.

* In from the cold.Greg P. Russell might toil behind the scenes as a sound engineer, but he's part of one of Oscar's most notorious streaks: Since 1990 he's been nominated 16 times (including this year, for his work onSkyfall) but has never won. (Russell's former sound partner Kevin O'Connell holds the record for the longest active shutout streak - 20 nominations without a win.)

Russell's work onSkyfall, with new partner Scott Millan, could change his fate Sunday. The James Bond film is full of long-overdue nominees: composer Thomas Newman, 0-10 so far, is up for best original score; and Roger Deakins, 0-9, is up for best cinematography.

* Late-career love.The best-actress category has several timely stories, includingSilver Linings Playbook's Jennifer Lawrence, who at 22 is the youngest person to be nominated twice in the category; and Quvenzhané Wallis ofBeasts of the Southern Wild, who at 9 is the youngest-ever best-actress nominee.

ButAmouractress Emmanuelle Riva is surging among the Oscar pundits (Jessica Chastain and Naomi Watts are the other nominees) after her big BAFTA win earlier this month. And Riva became the oldest Oscar-nominated actress ever at 85, replacing Jessica Tandy, who was nominated at age 80 (and won forDriving Miss Daisyin 1990).

The French-speaking Riva, making her first trip to L.A., will attend the Oscars on Sunday, which happens to be her 86th birthday. She summed up her emotions when she received her nomination: "I feel like I am in a fairy tale."

* Career rescue.After bombs like 2003'sGigliand distracting personal issues (Bennifer anyone?), former golden boy Ben Affleck, now 40, has had to work his way back onto Hollywood's A-team. He did just that in 2012 by directing, producing and starring in the critically acclaimedArgo,based on the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis.

But while the film got seven Oscar nominations, including best picture, Affleck was stunningly passed over for best director. He stayed classy asArgobegan winning a slew of other awards, and his chances of stepping onto the Oscar stage as a victorious producer of the best picture have surged.

"There's been this groundswell of support," says Dave Karger, chief correspondent for the movie websiteFandango.com. "And this all marks how he's someone who has really turned his career around and just really surprised everyone."

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