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Oscars Promise Suspense, Maybe Some Surprises

An Oscar statue is uncovered outside the Dolby Theater during preparations leading up to the 87th Academy Awards in Hollywood, California, Feb. 21, 2015.

Hollywood's awards season reaches its apogee on Sunday at the 87th Academy Awards, where "Birdman" and "Boyhood" are locked in a battle for best picture and veteran actors are likely to grasp their first golden Oscar

The film industry's biggest night will serve up its share of suspense as three top honors - best picture, best director and best actor - are proving hard to predict, even for the most seasoned experts.

Best Picture Nominees

  • American Sniper (Warner Bros) [Produced by Clint Eastwood, Robert Lorenz, Andrew Lazar, Bradley Cooper and Peter Morgan]
  • Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (Fox Searchlight) [Produced by Alejandro G. Inarritu, John Lesher and James W. Skotchdopole]
  • Boyhood (IFC Films) [Produced by Richard LInklater and Cathleen Sutherland]
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel (Fox Searchlight) [Produced by Wes Anderson, Scott Rudin, Steven Rales and Jeremy Dawson]
  • Selma (Paramount) [Produced by Christian Colson, Oprah Winfrey, Dede gardner and Jeremy Kleiner]
  • The Theory of Everything (Focus Features) [Produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Lisa bruce and Anthony McCarten]
  • Whiplash (Sony Pictures Classics) [Produced by Jason Blum, Helen Estabrook and David Lancaster]

But those nail-biters will come at the tail end of the three-hour ABC telecast from Hollywood's Dolby Theatre, where first-time host Neil Patrick Harris will guide a show heavy on humor, magic and music from big names like Lady Gaga.

Hours before Hollywood's A-list celebrities were due to walkthe famous red carpet, a plastic tent remained in place for possible rain showers.

News crews from around the world, in tuxedos and gowns, set up for a telecast that will be seen by hundreds of millions of people in 225 countries and territories.

Meryl Streep will be vying for an Oscar for a record 19th time, in the best supporting actress category. But most, including several of the favorites, are first-time contenders.

​"It's been a long journey up to here," said Pawel Pawlikowski, director of "Ida," Poland's nominee for best foreign-language film. "Of course, it would be nice to win as well, but I'm not going to collapse if we don't."

WATCH: Penelope Poulou's review of "Birdman"

​In a sign of how the Oscars might be split, the Film Independent Spirit Awards for small-budget movies on Saturday crowned Alejandro G. Inarritu's show business satire "Birdman" as best feature and its star Michael Keaton took best male lead.

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Richard Linklater won best director for his coming-of-age tale "Boyhood," made over 12 years with the same actors.

While both Linklater and Inarritu have been nominated for Oscars before, they have never won.

Together, "Birdman" and "Boyhood" have made $62 million at the North American box office, compared to $310 million for the most commercially successful of the eight best picture nominees, Iraq war drama "American Sniper" from director Clint Eastwood.

Criticism of Academy

The dearth of blockbuster movies at this year's Oscars could diminish the number of people who tune in to watch the biggest non-sports televised event in the United States.

This image released by Ellen DeGeneres shows actors front row from left, Jared Leto, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Ellen DeGeneres, Bradley Cooper, Peter Nyong’o Jr., and, second row, from left, Channing Tatum, Julia Roberts, Kevin Spacey, Brad Pitt, L
This image released by Ellen DeGeneres shows actors front row from left, Jared Leto, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Ellen DeGeneres, Bradley Cooper, Peter Nyong’o Jr., and, second row, from left, Channing Tatum, Julia Roberts, Kevin Spacey, Brad Pitt, L

Last year with host Ellen DeGeneres and her selfie that broke Twitter, the Oscars pulled in its largest audience in 14 years of 43.7 million viewers.

Forty percent of American adults plan to tune in to the awards telecast, according to the annual Reuters/Ipsos Oscars poll. Forty-five percent said they most enjoy seeing who wins.

The Oscars are determined by 6,100 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, a body that has taken its knocks this year for nominating no actors of color in the acting races.

Civil rights groups have called a boycott of the Oscars to protest the lack of diversity and will demonstrate before the ceremony.

But experts believe the Academy, where actors are the largest voting bloc, will reward performers with long careers with their first Oscars.

WATCH: Penelope Poulou's review of "The Theory of Everything"

​Eddie Redmayne is frontrunner for best actor for his portrayal of physicist Stephen Hawking in "The Theory of Everything." But there might be an upset from Keaton, whose "Birdman" role had him working in very long takes.

"I had no idea how precise we had to be, and how difficult, but you know there's no other way to do it, it's the only way you could make this movie," Keaton said after winning his Spirit Award Saturday.

Julianne Moore, nominated five times in her career, should win her first best actress for her role as a woman with early onset Alzheimer's in "Still Alice."

WATCH: Penelope Poulou's review of "Still Alice"