LOS ANGELES Hollywood's biggest stars streamed onto the world's most famous red carpet on Sunday ahead of an Academy Awards ceremony marked by suspense over the likely best picture winner and how host Chris Rock will address the #OscarsSoWhite controversy that has dominated awards season.
Sweden's Alicia Vikander, a best supporting actress nominee for "The Danish Girl," best actress contender Saoirse Ronan, "Star Wars" newcomer Daisy Ridley, Whoopi Goldberg, and nine-year-old "Room" star Jacob Tremblay were among the early arrivals for the movie industry's biggest night.
All eyes this year will be on Rock, the outspoken black comedian who is expected in his opening monologue to take aim at a Hollywood diversity crisis that produced an all-white acting nominee line-up for the second year running.
"I think Chris Rock will address it head on, which is exactly what the show and the Academy needs," said Variety awards editor Tim Gray.
A few blocks away from the glamour of Hollywood's Dolby Theatre, about 40 people gathered to make the case for more diversity in a rally organized by civil rights leader Al Sharpton. He also called for Americans to "tune-out" the live telecast, the most watched non-sports TV event of the year.
Director Spike Lee and actor Will Smith have shunned the Academy Award ceremony, although a wider Oscar boycott largely failed to gather steam with Hollywood A-listers.
Lee, who received an honorary Oscar in November, instead attended a New York Knicks basketball game on Sunday and sported a black tuxedo.
"The big thing is it's almost 100 percent white men who decide what gets made and what doesn't get made," Lee said. "That's where the problem is at."
The under-representation of people of color in the film and TV industry has muted the congratulatory tone and prompted pledges to bring more women and minorities into the industry and the Academy.
"It's all of our responsibility to make sure that diversity does happen," Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs told ABC TV on the red carpet. "We are going to continue to take action and not just speak."
BEST PICTURE TOSS-UP
Going into Sunday's ceremony, there was no consensus on which of the eight best picture nominees will take home the top prize.
"All the tea leaves are pointing in a different direction. It could be 'The Revenant', 'Spotlight,' 'The Big Short' or even 'Mad Max: Fury Road'," said Tom O'Neil, founder of awards website Goldderby.com.
With a leading 12 nominations, a Golden Globe and a BAFTA, 20th Century Fox's "The Revenant" with its ambitious tale shot in sub-zero temperatures has the epic qualities that traditionally appeal to the 6,200 voters of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
If "The Revenant," directed by Mexican Alejandro Inarritu, wins best picture, it would mark the first time in Academy Awards history that a filmmaker directed two best picture winners in a row. Inarritu's "Birdman" won the 2015 best picture Oscar.
Open Road Films' "Spotlight", which traces the journalism probe of sex abuse in the Boston Catholic Church, is also in the mix, along with Paramount's Wall Street misdeeds comedy "The Big Short," pundits say.
Warner Bros well-reviewed "Mad Max: Fury Road" has 10 nominations and could turn out to be a rare action-adventure best picture winner.
Among the sure bets, popular Leonardo DiCaprio is seen as certain to win his first ever Oscar for his role as an 1820s fur trapper bent on revenge in "The Revenant."
Rising star Brie Larson, 26, is the heavy favorite to take home the best actress Oscar for her compelling depiction of an abducted young woman in indie movie "Room."
And 40 years after the first "Rocky" movie, Sylvester Stallone, 69, appears to have the sentimental edge over "Bridge of Spies" actor Mark Rylance in the supporting actor race thanks to Stallone's role as a boxing trainer in "Creed."
Oscar producers are hoping for fewer "thank yous" from the winners this year. In a bid to speed up the 3-1/2 hour ceremony and encourage more interesting acceptance speeches, a scrolling list will run on screens of the agents, managers, director and friends that each winner wishes to acknowledge.
(Additional reporting by Daina Beth Solomon in Los Angeles and Larry Fine in New York City; Editing by Mary Milliken and Cynthia Osterman)
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