HOLLYWOOD: Dark comedy “Birdman” and coming-of-age drama “Boyhood” headed into battle Sunday for the prestigious top prize at the Oscars, Hollywood’s biggest night, as the main event got under way.
Host Neil Patrick Harris launched the more than three-hour show with a song and dance routine about the movie industry itself — including a joke about the lack of any non-white actors in the four acting categories.
“Tonight we honor Hollywood’s best and whitest … sorry, brightest,” he said, earning laughs from the star-studded audience at the Dolby Theatre.
J.K. Simmons won the first award of the night — the best supporting actor prize for his role as a bullying jazz teacher in “Whiplash,” which was also nominated for best picture.
Before the show began, A-listers — and a fair bit of rain — hit the red carpet for the annual pre-show fashion parade on a sealed-off stretch of Hollywood Boulevard outside the venue.
Julianne Moore, Patricia Arquette and Eddie Redmayne are among those widely tipped to take home acting prizes during the extravaganza.
On the eve of the Oscars, “Birdman” got a fresh boost, taking best film honors at the Independent Spirit Awards as well as best actor for Michael Keaton.
But “Boyhood” took the best director Spirit Award for Richard Linklater.
The race for the biggest prize of the night Sunday — best picture — is too close to call.
“Birdman,” a fanciful yet dark tale of a washed-up superhero actor battling to revive his career on Broadway, has swept a string of awards in the run-up to the Oscars, including top prizes from the Screen Actors Guild and the Directors Guild of America.
But Linklater’s “Boyhood” — made over the course of 12 years with the same actors aging with their characters — scooped up the biggest awards at last month’s Golden Globes, as well as Britain’s BAFTAs.
Some have suggested that Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper” could sneak up on the inside as a dark horse, boosted by the film’s huge box-office success as the highest-grossing war movie of all time.
When nominations were announced last month, “Birdman” shared the most nods with Wes Anderson’s stylish crime caper “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” at nine each, followed by World War II thriller “The Imitation Game” with eight. “Boyhood” followed with six.
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” earned two Oscars in technical categories — for best costume design and make-up/hairstyling.
While the best picture race is on a knife-edge, several of the other key categories are seen as much easier to predict.
Veteran star Moore is almost universally expected to win best actress for playing a linguistics professor suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s Disease in “Still Alice.”
Arquette is the favorite for best supporting actress as the single mother raising two kids in “Boyhood.”
The best actor race is still seen as up for grabs: a two-man contest between Redmayne — as astrophysicist Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything” — and Keaton.
For best director, the frontrunners are Linklater and Mexico’s Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, the creative force behind “Birdman.”
This has led to speculation that the best picture and best director prizes could be shared, as they were last year when Mexican Alfonso Cuaron won best director for “Gravity,” while the best picture Oscar went to “12 Years a Slave.”
A star-studded cast of presenters will hand out the prizes on Sunday, including Ben Affleck, Scarlett Johansson, Nicole Kidman, Eddie Murphy, Liam Neeson, Gwyneth Paltrow, Meryl Streep and Oprah Winfrey.
Many of the nominees and stars spent the weekend at pre-Oscars parties, schmoozing to the last.
Designer Tom Ford put on a glitzy fashion show on Friday, with Reese Witherspoon and Moore among the A-listers.
“I’m excited. It’s a really fun weekend, there’s a lot of people to see, a lot of parties,” Moore told Agence France-Presse.