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‘Boyhood’ takes early lead in Oscars battle

Coming-of-age drama “Boyhood” moved a step ahead in its battle with dark comedy “Birdman” for top prizes at the Oscars on Sunday, as Hollywood’s biggest night reached its halfway point.

Patricia Arquette took best supporting actress for her role as the single mother in Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood,” which was made over 12 years with the same group of actors.

The contest for the top prize of the night, best picture, is widely seen as a two-horse race between “Birdman” and “Boyhood.”

Many of the other top prizes, including best actor and best director, are still up for grabs.

So far, stylish crime caper “The Grand Budapest Hotel” won three awards — all in technical categories — jazz drama “Whiplash” had two prizes, and “American Sniper” had one.

Disney’s “Big Hero 6” was named best animated feature.

Host Neil Patrick Harris launched the three-and-a-half hour show with a song and dance routine about the movie industry itself — including a joke about the lack of any non-white actors in the four acting categories.

“Tonight we honor Hollywood’s best and whitest … sorry, brightest,” he said, earning laughs from the star-studded audience at the Dolby Theatre.

Arquette used her moment of Oscars glory to make an impassioned plea for wage equality “once and for all” — earning vociferous praise from Meryl Streep, who jumped out of her seat in excitement.

J.K. Simmons won the first award of the night — the best supporting actor prize for his role as a bullying jazz teacher in “Whiplash,” which was also nominated for best picture.

In a series of technical categories, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” took honors for best costume design and best makeup and hairstyling, while “Whiplash” took sound mixing.

American Sniper,” which some have predicted could be a dark horse for best picture, won the best sound editing prize.

TWO-FILM SHOWDOWN

On the eve of the Oscars, “Birdman” got a fresh boost, taking best film honors at the Independent Spirit Awards as well as best actor for Michael Keaton.

But “Boyhood” took the best director Spirit Award for Richard Linklater.

The race for the biggest prize of the night Sunday — best picture — was too close to call.

Birdman,” a fanciful yet dark tale of a washed-up superhero actor battling to revive his career on Broadway, has swept a string of awards in the run-up to the Oscars, including top prizes from the Screen Actors Guild and the Directors Guild of America.

But Linklater’s “Boyhood” scooped up the biggest awards at last month’s Golden Globes, as well as Britain’s BAFTAs.

When nominations were announced last month, “Birdman” shared the most nods with “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” at nine each, followed by World War II thriller “The Imitation Game” with eight. “Boyhood” followed with six.

While the best picture race is on a knife-edge, one of the top categories left was seen as much easier to predict.

Veteran star Julianne Moore is almost universally expected to win best actress for playing a linguistics professor suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s Disease in “Still Alice.”

The best actor race is still seen as up for grabs: a two-man contest between Eddie Redmayne — as astrophysicist Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything” — and Keaton.

For best director, the frontrunners are Linklater and Mexico’s Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, the creative force behind “Birdman.”

This has led to speculation that the best picture and best director prizes could be shared, as they were last year when Mexican Alfonso Cuaron won best director for “Gravity,” while the best picture Oscar went to “12 Years a Slave.”

A star-studded cast of presenters will hand out the prizes on Sunday, including Ben Affleck, Scarlett Johansson, Nicole Kidman, Eddie Murphy, Liam Neeson, Gwyneth Paltrow, Meryl Streep and Oprah Winfrey.