(Updates with early arrivals)
By Jill Serjeant
LOS ANGELES, Feb 26 (Reuters) - Shivering weather greeted celebrities on the Oscars red carpet on Sunday but cloudy skies and the threat of rain failed to dampen spirits ahead of the movie industry's biggest night.
French best actress contender Isabelle Huppert, "Hacksaw Ridge" star Andrew Garfield, and "Loving" supporting actress nominee Ruth Negga were among the early arrivals in Hollywood, where temperatures were some 15 degrees Fahrenheit (8 degrees Celsius) below normal for late February.
In pre-show drama, pregnant lead actress contender Natalie Portman bowed out of the ceremony because of her advanced condition, and Meryl Streep on Saturday accused Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld of spoiling her Oscars by falsely accusing her of being paid to wear a gown on the red carpet..
The Academy Awards get 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.
Several celebrities, including Negga and best original song nominee Lin-Manuel Miranda, wore blue ribbons on Sunday in support of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) rights advocacy group.
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 jazz pianist and a struggling actress, 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.
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 the 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.
(Additional reporting by Piya Sinha-Roy, Nichola Groom and Lisa Richwine; Editing by Mary Milliken and Sandra Maler)