Hollywood readies for Academy Awards amid diversity scrutiny

LOS ANGELES -- Hollywood is bracing for an Academy Awards that more than any in recent memory, has the feel of a high-stakes showdown.

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After a second straight year of all-white acting nominees prompted industry-wide scrutiny, viewers and stars alike are hanging on the opening words of host Chris Rock. The Dolby Theatre ceremony, heavily guarded by security, stands at the centre of a swirling storm over diversity in the movies and at the Oscars, with protests planned near the red carpet and some viewers organizing a boycott of the broadcast.

The Academy Awards, normally decorous and predictable, are this year charged with enough politics and uncertainty to rival an election debate. Arrivals for the 88th annual Academy Awards are expected to begin as early as 5 p.m. EST, with the ceremony kicking off at 8:30 p.m. EST on ABC.

The night's top honour, best picture, is considered one of the most hard-to-call categories. The three major guild awards -- the Screen Actors, the Directors and the Producers -- have spread their top honours among three films seen as the front-runners: Alejandro Inarritu's frontier epic "The Revenant," Adam McKay's financial meltdown tale "The Big Short" and Tom McCarthy's newsroom drama "Spotlight."

"The Revenant," buoyed by big box office and a win at the BAFTAs, is seen as the one with the most momentum and has the best odds in Las Vegas. Its star, Leonardo DiCaprio, appears to be a shoo-in to land his first Academy Award in his fifth nomination. Back-to-back best picture wins for "Birdman" director Inarritu would be unprecedented.

But the headlines this year haven't been driven by the nominated films and performances nearly as much as the ones that weren't.

The all-white slate of acting nominees restored the hashtag "OscarsSoWhite" to prominence and led Spike Lee (an honorary Oscar winner this year) and Jada Pinkett Smith to announce that they would not attend the show. Several top African American directors -- Ryan Coogler (whose "Creed" is expected to land Sylvester Stallone a best supporting actor) and Ava DuVernay ("Selma") -- won't be at the Oscars, but will instead host a live benefit in Flint, Michigan, for the water-contaminated city.

In a quick response to the growing crisis, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, president of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, pushed ahead reforms to the academy intended to diversify its overwhelming white and male membership. But those changes (which included stripping older, out-of-work members of their voting rights) precipitated a backlash of its own. A chorus of academy members challenged the reforms. Others have cast doubt on how effective the changes will be.

In the academy turmoil, focus on diversity has spread beyond the academy -- which can only nominate films that get made -- to the studios. A report released last Monday by the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism gave a failing grade to all six major studios for their racial, ethnic and gender inclusiveness in front and behind the camera.

All the while, Rock has remained mum. The comedian, considered one of the most frank commentators on race in America, hasn't granted the usual pre-show interviews. Rock, who first hosted the Oscars in 2005, on Friday mysteriously tweeted a video of television static that he tagged "blackout." "See you Sunday," he wrote.

How the controversy will affect ratings for ABC is also one of the night's big questions. Last year's telecast, hosted by Neil Patrick Harris, slid 16 per cent to 36.6 million viewers, a six-year low. While the appeal of seeing Rock face Hollywood's diversity crisis head on should help drive curious viewers, a long night of dutiful speeches on the issue could turn away others more interested in glamour and celebrity.

The film academy has also rolled out a new wrinkle to the show. The Oscars will introduce a new "thank you" crawl for winners in an effort to trim acceptance speeches of long lists of names.

While smaller, independent films have in recent years dominated the Oscars (the last two years were topped by Fox Searchlight releases "Birdman" and "12 Years a Slave"), five of this year's eight best picture nominees come from major studios. That includes the hits "The Martian" and "Mad Max: Fury Road," but, alas, not "Star Wars: The Force Awakens." J.J. Abrams' movie, the biggest box-office smash of the decade, earned five nods in technical categories.

Security around Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue is especially heighted because Vice-President Joe Biden will be attending to give a special presentation with Lady Gaga aimed at combating sexual violence.


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