LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Two small movies headed to a showdown for the biggest of all film prizes at the 87th Academy Awards on Sunday, in an evening ceremony likely to honor veteran actors along with feats of filmmaking.
Show business satire "Birdman" and the coming-of-age tale "Boyhood" are widely considered favorites in the battle for best picture and best director Oscars. But in one of the least predictable years in recent memory, the races were too close to call and there was room for upsets.
Rain stopped in time for the most famous of red carpets, where Hollywood's A-list celebrities and nominees arrived bedecked in black tie and glamorous gowns for a night steeped in Hollywood lore.
Among the first was Patricia Arquette, favorite to win best supporting actress for her role as a struggling single mother in "Boyhood," a film made by Richard Linklater over 12 years with the same cast.
The actress, surrounded by family and dressed in a black and white gown, evoked the message of the film: "That everyday human beings are beautiful and our lives are beautiful."
The highest honors in the film industry will be broadcast by ABC in a three-hour telecast from Hollywood's Dolby Theater, where first-time host Neil Patrick Harris will guide a show heavy on humor, magic and music from big names such as Lady Gaga.
"They gave me DVDs of the last 15 years of the show, so I have been watching a lot of them," Harris told E! television on Sunday, while keeping his show-night tricks a secret.
The Academy is trying to attract a new generation of young viewers who may not care much about the films but who could tune in for the musical acts.
In one of the most anticipated segments, rapper Common and singer John Legend will perform their Oscar-nominated song "Glory," from civil rights drama "Selma."
KEATON MAY SURPRISE
Eight pictures in total are vying for best picture, but for the months-long awards season, most of the speculation around the top honor has focused on "Birdman," which has nine nominations overall, and "Boyhood," with six nods.
In a sign of how the Oscars might be split, the Film Independent Spirit Awards for small-budget movies on Saturday crowned Alejandro G. Inarritu's "Birdman" as best feature and Linklater won best director.
Michael Keaton took best actor for his role as the washed-up former superhero actor attempting a comeback in "Birdman," raising the chances that he could steal the best actor Oscar from Eddie Redmayne, the front-runner for his portrayal of physicist Stephen Hawking in "The Theory of Everything."
Together, "Birdman" and "Boyhood" have made $62 million at the North American box office, compared with $310 million for the most commercially successful of the eight best picture nominees, Iraq war drama "American Sniper" from director Clint Eastwood.
"American Sniper," "The Grand Budapest Hotel" and "The Imitation Game" could also find favor from the 6,100 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences who vote for the Oscars.
In the documentary category, "Citizenfour" was the favorite for its story of whistleblower Edward Snowden, the former U.S. government security contractor who revealed widespread surveillance of citizens.
"This is not where we expected to ever be, it's wonderful," said "Citizenfour" director Laura Poitras on the red carpet.
The Academy has taken its knocks this year for nominating no actors of ethnic minority groups in the acting contests, and the Twitter hashtag #OscarsSoWhite went viral in response.
Civil rights groups called a boycott of the Oscars to protest the lack of diversity but canceled a planned protest for Sunday.
(Additional reporting by Piya Sinha-Roy and Eric Kelsey; Writing by Mary Milliken; Editing by Ken Wills)