LOS ANGELES: Oscar host Neil Patrick Harris wasted no time kicking off a stormy 87th Academy Awards and conceding the ceremony's much-discussed lack of diversity.
"Tonight we honor Hollywood's best and whitest — I mean brightest," Harris said before the star-studded Dolby Theatre crowd on Sunday. All of this year's acting nominees are white, which led some to push for a boycott of the broadcast.
The night's first Oscar went to J.K. Simmons, a career character actor widely acclaimed for one of his biggest parts: a drill sergeant of a jazz instructor in the indie "Whiplash." Simmons fittingly accepted his supporting acting Oscar with some straightforward advice, urging: "Call your mom. Call your dad."
Backstage, Simmons, known to many from various bit parts or his insurance commercials, recalled a long road as a professional actor that began decades ago in regional theater in Montana.
"Maybe more people saw me tonight than see me in the commercials," said Simmons.
Two of the night's early awards went to Wes Anderson's "The Grand Budapest Hotel": costume design, and makeup and styling. The European caper — released back around last year's Academy Awards — could be the night's unlikely leader in trophies, rewarding the hand-made craft of Anderson's latest confection.
The black-and-white Polish film "Ida" took best foreign language film, marking the first such win for Poland despite a rich cinema history. Director Pawel Pawlikowski charmed the audience with a bemused acceptance speech that ran drastically over his allotted time.
Pawlikowski remarked on having made a quiet film of contemplation about withdrawing from the world, "and here we are at the epicenter of noise and attention. It's fantastic. Life is full of surprises."
Harris' opening quickly segued into a song-and-dance routine that celebrated a love for movies, complete with a villain to his sunny outlook in Jack Black. The comedian jumped on stage to counter that Hollywood wasn't so fabulous making movies "opening with lots of zeroes, all we get is superheroes."
"After 'Fifty Shades of Grey,'" Black added, referring to the weekend's top box office draw, "they'll all have leather whips."
Harris, a frequent Tony Awards host, struck a chipper tone, while slyly mocking the Oscars. The $160,000 gift bags for attendees, he said, came with "an armored car ride to safety when the revolution comes." The performance by Andy Samberg's Lonely Island of the Oscar-nominated song "Everything Is Awesome" from "The Lego Movie," let some live out their Oscar dreams, handing out golden Lego statuettes to Oprah Winfrey and Steve Carell.
Hard showers fell on the red carpet as guests arrived at the ceremony, as workers dispensed pink towels for soggy celebrities. One former Oscar nominee, Viola Davis, said on her way into the ceremony that Hollywood's diversity problems run deeper than the Oscars.
"You have to greenlight more stories that include people of color," said Davis, asked about how to improve diversity in Hollywood. "You can't get nominated for anything you're not in."
With a co-leading nine nominations, Alejandro Inarritu's backstage comedy "Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)" flies in with the strongest wind at its back. It topped the acting, directing and producing guild awards, which are often strong predictors of what the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences will vote for.
"Birdman" also won best feature at Saturday's Independent Film Spirit Awards, further boosting its momentum. At the pre-Oscars beachside bash, star Michael Keaton, who won best actor, proclaimed the film "bold cinema" and "a game changer," a judgment shared by many in Hollywood who no doubt recognize something in Keaton's character's out-of-control ego.
But the coronation of "Birdman" is far from assured. Many believe the landmark of Richard Linklater's 12-years-in-the-making "Boyhood" will ultimately prove irresistible to academy members. Best director also appears to be a toss-up between Inarritu and Linklater.
Best actor could also be a nail-biter, going to the young British star Eddie Redmayne for his technically nuanced performance as Stephen Hawking in "The Theory of Everything," or to Keaton for his career-topper in "Birdman," as an actor trying to flee his superhero past.
But whether suspense will be enough to pull viewers to the telecast on ABC remains to be seen. Harris will hope to continue the recent ratings upswing for the Oscars, which last year drew 43 million viewers, making it the most-watched entertainment telecast in a decade.
This year's crop of nominees, however, is notably light on box-office smashes. Clint Eastwood's "American Sniper" (six nominations including best picture) is the only best-picture candidate to gross more than $100 million domestically. (A runaway hit, it recently surpassed $300 million.)
Increasingly, ratings are driven by moments that spark social media frenzy, like when John Travolta famously mispronounced the name of singer Idina Menzel as "Adele Dazeem" at last year's show. Sunday night, he gets a chance for redemption.