LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The 87th Academy Awards kicked off on Sunday with a humorous nod toward the lack of diversity among nominees for Hollywood's highest honors and the night's first recognition of a veteran actor.
As predicted, J.K. Simmons won the best supporting actor Oscar, the first of his career, for his role as a monstrous music teacher in the independent film "Whiplash."
"Call your mom, call your dad, if you're lucky enough to have a parent or two alive on this planet, call them," said Simmons upon accepting the golden statuette after a decades-long career as a character actor.
The night's top award - best picture - is a contest between two small movies, show business satire "Birdman" and the coming-of-age tale "Boyhood." But in one of the least predictable years in recent memory, the race was too close to call and there was room for upsets.
First-time host Neil Patrick Harris opened the three-hour telecast with a jab at the Academy's failure to nominate any actors of ethnic minority groups in the acting races, which prompted the Twitter hashtag #OscarsSoWhite.
"Tonight we honor Hollywood's best and whitest, I mean brightest," Harris said before setting off on a song-filled journey through Oscar and motion picture history.
For the biggest televised event outside the sports world, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is aiming to attract young viewers who may not care much about the films but who could tune in for the musical acts like Lady Gaga and Adam Levine.
'ASK HER MORE'
The famous red carpet - the preamble to Hollywood's biggest night brought shimmering silvers and bright reds on an unusually dreary, rainy evening. Best actress nominees Julianne Moore, Felicity Jones and Rosamund Pike donned dresses with sparkle and shine.
Moore is heavily favored to win for her portrayal of a woman with Alzheimer's in "Still Alice," another of the veteran actors likely to receive a first Oscar.
"I have been in this business a long time," Moore said on the red carpet. "It doesn't always happen."
But the red carpet was also a place for actresses, such as nominee Reese Witherspoon, to make a case for talking about more than what they were wearing by joining the "Ask Her More" campaign. The hashtag #AskHerMore was trending on Twitter.
"The dresses are beautiful. We love the artists who make all these clothes, but this is a group of women...we are so happy to be here to talk about the work that we've done," Witherspoon said. "It's hard being a woman in Hollywood or any industry."
Eight films are vying for best picture, but for the months-long awards season, most of the speculation around the top honor has focused on Alejandro G. Inarritu's "Birdman," which has nine nominations overall, and Richard Linkalater's "Boyhood," with six nods.
The directors did their best on the red carpet to play down any rivalry, with Inarritu calling the supposed competition "so silly" and Linklater saying he loved "Birdman."
"It's a real tribute for two films that aren't traditional stories, crazy stories," said Linklater, who made movie history by filming the story over 12 years with the same actors.
"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 a too-close-to-call race, Michael Keaton, who plays a washed-up former superhero actor attempting a comeback in "Birdman," could steal the best actor Oscar from Eddie Redmayne, the front-runner for his portrayal of physicist Stephen Hawking in "The Theory of Everything."
(Additional reporting by Piya Sinha-Roy, Eric Kelsey, Alex Doubzinskis and Tim Reid; Writing by Mary Milliken; Editing by Ken Wills)