Oscars have feel of high-stakes showdown

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

The Dolby Theatre ceremony, heavily guarded by security, stands at the center of a swirling storm over diversity in the movies and at the Oscars, with the protests planned near the red carpet and some viewers organizing a boycott of the broadcast.

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.

Chris Rock, clad in a white tuxedo, kicked off the 88th Academy Awards – “the White People’s Choice Awards,” he called them – in a rip-roaring opening monologue that confronted head-on the uproar over the lack of diversity of this year’s nominees.

“Is Hollywood racist? You’re damn right it’s racist,” said Rock, who then took a measurement of the problem. “Hollywood is sorority racist. It’s like: We like you Wanda, but you’re not a Kappa.”

Rock immediately launched into the topic Sunday. “If they nominated a host, I wouldn’t even get this job,” he said.

Rock had stayed quiet before the ceremony as the diversity controversy raged over the second straight year of all-white acting nominees, leaving Hollywood and viewers eagerly waiting his one-liners. Rock, drawing largely hearty laughs at the Dolby Theatre, didn’t disappoint.

Aside from pleading for more opportunity for black actors, Rock also sought to add perspective to the turmoil, which included a protest outside the Dolby on Sunday led by the Rev. Al Sharpton. Rock said this year didn’t differ much from Oscar history, but black people in earlier decades were “too busy being raped and lynched to worry about who won best cinematographer.”

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 honor, 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 honors 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.

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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