By Jill Serjeant
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Suspense and surprises mark the Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday after a rollercoaster awards season dominated by the #OscarsSoWhite controversy and no clear front-runner for the top honor of best picture.
It's the movie industry's biggest celebration, but all eyes this year will be on Oscars host Chris Rock, the outspoken black comedian who is expected to take aim at a Hollywood diversity crisis that produced an all-white acting nominee line-up for the second year running.
"I think Chris Rock will address it head on, which is exactly what the show and the Academy needs," said Variety awards editor Tim Gray.
Director Spike Lee and actor Will Smith have shunned the Academy Award ceremony, although a wider Oscar boycott largely failed to gather steam with Hollywood A-listers.
Nevertheless, the under-representation of people of color in the film and TV industry has muted the congratulatory tone of awards season and prompted pledges to bring more women and minorities into the industry and the Academy.
In a break with tradition, Rock has given no interviews or hints of what he plans to say on Sunday's show, but in a cryptic tweet on Friday he wrote "see you Sunday...#blackout #Oscars".
Civil rights leader Al Sharpton has called for protests near Hollywood's Dolby Theatre, the Oscars venue, and for Americans to "tune-out" the live telecast, the most watched non-sports TV event of the year.
Going into Sunday's ceremony, there was no consensus on which of the eight best picture nominees will take home the top prize.
"All the tea leaves are pointing in a different direction. It could be 'The Revenant', 'Spotlight,' 'The Big Short' or even 'Mad Max: Fury Road'," said Tom O'Neil, founder of awards website Goldderby.com.
With a leading 12 nominations, a Golden Globe and a BAFTA, 20th Century Fox's "The Revenant" and its ambitious tale shot in sub-zero temperatures has the epic qualities that traditionally appeal to the 6,200 voters of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
If "The Revenant," directed by Mexican Alejandro Inarritu, wins best picture, it would mark the first time in Academy Awards history that a filmmaker directed two best picture winners in a row. Inarritu's "Birdman" won the 2015 best picture Oscar.
Open Road Films' "Spotlight", which traces the journalism probe of sex abuse in the Boston Catholic Church, is also in the mix, along with Paramount's Wall Street misdeeds comedy "The Big Short," pundits say.
Warner Bros well-reviewed "Mad Max: Fury Road" has 10 nominations and could turn out to be a rare action-adventure best picture winner.
SCROLLING 'THANK YOUS'
Among the sure bets, popular Leonardo DiCaprio is seen as certain to win his first ever Oscar for his role as an 1820s fur trapper bent on revenge in "The Revenant."
"I would be really stunned if he doesn't win," said Gray.
Rising star Brie Larson, 26, is the heavy favorite to take home the best actress Oscar for her compelling depiction of an abducted young woman in indie movie "Room."
And 40 years after the first "Rocky" movie, Sylvester Stallone, 69, appears to have the sentimental edge over "Bridge of Spies" actor Mark Rylance in the supporting actor race thanks to Stallone's role as a boxing trainer in "Creed."
Oscar producers are hoping for a few less "thank yous" from the winners this year. In a bid to speed up the 3 and 1/2 hour ceremony and encourage more interesting acceptance speeches, a scrolling list will run on screens of the agents, managers, director and friends that each winner wishes to acknowledge.
(Reporting by Jill Serjeant; Editing by Mary Milliken)