LOS ANGELES — It promises to be a Hollywood extravaganza. The television lights are in place. Within hours, stars in ball gowns and tuxedos will step from their limousines with million-dollar smiles.
But the 88th Academy Awards ceremony arrives on Sunday under clouds of doubt about the legitimacy of both the Oscars and the organization that grants them.
For weeks, social critics and some in the entertainment industry have denounced the acting nominations, which went entirely to white performers for a second consecutive year. Within shouting distance of the red carpet, demonstrators are expected to call for a boycott later Sunday afternoon. In the morning, the Rev. Al Sharpton gave a fiery Oscar-related sermon at the First African Methodist Episcopal Church here, promising wrath on advertisers if they continued to support a monoracial Academy Awards telecast.
In the ranks of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science, meanwhile, aging members are still coping with new rules that within months will replace them with younger, more racially diverse voters.
The controversy left some intriguing questions hanging over the ceremony in the days leading up to it. Will this year’s acid-tongued host, Chris Rock, dismantle Hollywood over the diversity issue or find a way forward? Will viewers be drawn by the controversy, and how it will be addressed by presenters and winners? Or will viewers point their remote controls elsewhere, not wishing to spend a Sunday night being lectured?
In all, it is a far cry from a time when Hollywood lived its own illusions — as in, say, 1937, when George Jessel, an ex-vaudevillian, played host to the moguls and stars who came to see “The Great Ziegfeld” honored at that year’s ceremony. Caught in a panoramic photo at the Biltmore Hotel here, Henry Fonda schmoozed with Mervyn LeRoy. A smug Cecil B. DeMille stood guard. Martha Raye thumbed her nose at the camera: Take us or leave us.
Outside the Dolby Theater, where the ceremony takes place, streets were even more tangled than usual, apparently because of extra closures and security measures for the expected arrival of Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. Mr. Biden was expected to introduce Lady Gaga’s performance of “Til It Happens to You,” an Oscar-nominated song from “The Hunting Ground,” a documentary about sexual assault.
In a politically charged year, even Mr. Biden’s appearance carried some risk: Many viewers, wary of any political bent to the show, had bitterly objected when the first lady, Michelle Obama, presented the best picture trophy to “Argo” by remote from the White House in 2013.
The diversity controversy erupted after the nominations were announced in January. Mark Ruffalo, a nominee for best supporting actor for his performance in “Spotlight,” said he might boycott the show but quickly reversed himself, explaining that he wanted to support victims of sexual abuse like those portrayed in his movie. Rooney Mara, a supporting-actress nominee for “Carol,” promised to attend. But “I hate, hate, hate that I am on that side of the whitewashing conversation,” Ms. Mara told a British newspaper, referring to a racial blowup over her having been cast as Tiger Lily in “Pan.”
Among those who actually are avoiding the ceremony are Spike Lee, the director who just three months ago was presented an honorary Oscar at the academy’s Governors Awards ceremony, and the actors Jada Pinkett Smith and her husband, Will Smith.
Self-mortification and diversity aside, Hollywood’s awards year was remarkable for its confusion, especially in the best-picture category.
Several influential Hollywood guilds, usually a reliable indicator of Oscar prospects, split their top awards among three contenders. The actors honored “Spotlight,” the producers backed “The Revenant” and the directors endorsed “The Big Short.”
By Sunday, however, “The Revenant,” which starred Leonardo DiCaprio and was directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, had emerged as the front-runner, with 12 Oscar nominations under its belt — or buckskin, as the case may be — and top honors at the Bafta awards, given by the British Academy of Film and Television.
Handicappers are facing thorny questions right up to show time. Will Mr. DiCaprio’s almost certain grasp of the best-actor award — which would be his first Oscar after four previous nominations — actually undercut the film’s chance at best picture, if voters decided that was enough and looked elsewhere to award other prizes? Will last year’s best-picture win for “Birdman,” also directed by Mr. Iñárritu, now work against him? (No director in Oscar history has ever had back-to-back best pictures, though two, John Ford and Joseph L. Mankiewicz, won successive directing awards.)
It is possible that female voters balked at “The Revenant,” a bloody frontier revenge story, complete with a bear mauling, and will break instead toward “Spotlight,” or even toward “Room,” which starred Brie Larson, a favorite for the best-actress award.
What passes for suspense on the ballot’s lower reaches are issues unlikely to keep viewers from drifting over to AMC for a peek at “The Walking Dead.” One question is whether George Miller’s “Mad Max: Fury Road,” with 10 nominations, will pick off some craft awards otherwise inclined toward “The Revenant.” Another question looms in the documentary feature category: Will “What Happened, Miss Simone?,” a lavishly campaigned-for Netflix documentary with a black subject in an overwhelmingly white year, find success at the expense of “Amy,” about the rise and fall of the singer Amy Winehouse?
Even before the ceremony begins, 20th Century Fox is a winner. In an unusual show of force, the studio and its subsidiaries have landed three nominations for best picture. They are “The Revenant,” made by New Regency Pictures and others and distributed by Fox; “The Martian,” directed by Ridley Scott with Matt Damon in the lead role; and “Brooklyn,” from the Fox Searchlight unit, with Saoirse Ronan in the lead. Fox also has international rights to “Bridge of Spies,” a best-picture nominee that was distributed in the United States by Walt Disney.
“The Big Short,” which tries to make sense of America’s last housing and mortgage bubble, was distributed by Paramount Pictures. Other front-runners come from small companies: Open Road Films distributed “Spotlight” and A24 released “Room.”
But even more than those film companies, a broadcast network, ABC, has much riding on a telecast that was clearly imperiled by the pre-Oscar controversies.
According to figures released by Kantar Media this month, ABC has raised advertising prices to between $1.9 million and $2 million for a 30-second spot, up about 11 percent from a year ago, even as last year’s Oscar audience fell 15 percent, to about 37.3 million viewers. Price increases and added commercial minutes pushed ABC’s revenue from the show to about $110 million last year, up 62 percent from a recent low of $68 million in 2009, Kantar reported.
To protect those gains against future rollbacks, ABC and the academy must get the audience back up — with the blockbuster 2014 ceremony, hosted by a pizza-dispensing Ellen DeGeneres and produced by Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, as one benchmark. That evening drew 43.7 million viewers.
On Sunday, the task falls largely to Mr. Rock, who has pushed hard in recent years to return as host (he was M.C. in 2005) only to find himself with a nearly impossible task. Some producers here likened his challenge to the time that Ms. DeGeneres hosted the Emmy Awards in the aftermath of 9/11.
“I hope he skewers everybody,” said Don Cheadle, an Oscar nominee for “Hotel Rwanda” in 2005, while attending the American Black Film Festival Honors show in Beverly Hills last Sunday.
Since he can’t please everybody, that, for Mr. Rock, may be the best hope.