LOS ANGELES, Feb 26 (Reuters) - The red carpet has been rolled out and the champagne is on ice for Hollywood's big night on Sunday, but the biggest question may not be who will win but how much politics will rain on the "La La Land" Oscar parade.
The movie industry's premier celebration gets underway torn between escapism and reality. The conflict is reflected in the wide range of best picture Oscar hopefuls and an awards season marked by fiery outbursts from Hollywood A-listers on immigration, civil rights and the rhetoric of U.S. President Donald Trump.
With a leading 14 nominations, romantic musical "La La Land" looks set to dance away with an armful of Academy Awards, including best picture, for its love letter to artistic ambition and Los Angeles itself.
"It's a movie that has a powerful emotional pull and the most emotional movies tend to do best at the Oscars. This one has an infectious enthusiasm and spirit that is irresistible," said Tom O'Neil, founder of awards website Goldderby.com.
If fantasy prevails, "La La Land," starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone as a struggling actress and jazz pianist, would be the first musical to win best picture at the Academy Awards since "Chicago" in 2003.
Black coming-of-age tale "Moonlight" is also expected to do well in a year that produced a record seven nominations for actors of color and film stories that ranged from overlooked African-American female math geniuses ("Hidden Figures") to interracial marriage ("Loving"), Indian street children ("Lion") and black incarceration rates in modern U.S. society ("13th").
"If anything is a dark horse winner on Sunday, it would be 'Hidden Figures'," said Variety awards writer Tim Gray.
"It's a good thing for diversity and it's doing well at the box office, and that is the really important thing," Gray said.
A SEASON OF PROTEST
Hollywood however has more on its mind than movie making. After strongly opposing the election of Trump as president, celebrities have used the spotlight at earlier award shows to denounce the Republican's hardline stances on immigration, transgender rights and the media.
Iranian Oscar-nominated director Asghar Farhadi is boycotting Sunday's ceremony because of Trump's bid to ban travelers from seven majority Muslim nations.
The directors of all five Oscar-nominated foreign language films on Friday denounced what they called a "climate of fanaticism and nationalism" in the United States and elsewhere.
Late night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel, who is hosting Sunday's Academy Awards ceremony, is not expected to go down that road.
"I don't think it will be very political," he told trade publication Variety last week of his opening monologue. But "there will be some element of that to the show."
Yet in a live show, with a worldwide audience of hundreds of millions, there is no telling what dozens of stars may say and do on the red carpet or when collecting their Oscar statuettes.
"I don't think it's going to be three hours of bashing Donald Trump. I think there will be a lot of generalities - pleas for tolerance and acceptance," said Gray.