Hollywood's drive for diversity could lead to all four acting prizes, as well as the best director trophy, going to people of color for the first time
* Nine of 20 acting nominations are for people of color
* 'Mank' has leading 10 nominations
* Show moved to Los Angeles rail station
By Jill Serjeant
LOS ANGELES, April 25 (Reuters) - Hollywood stars started arriving for the Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday on what could be a historic night packed with surprises, not just around the winners but the event itself.
"Sound of Metal" first-time nominee Paul Raci was among the first to walk a scaled-down red carpet outside the Mission Revival-style Union Station in Los Angeles, which is being used for the first time because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Raci, who plays a mentor to a deaf drummer, used sign language on Sunday as he spoke to reporters and said he hoped the film had called attention to the deaf community.
"Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" actor Colman Domingo sported a neon pink suit, while songwriter Diane Warren chose a white pantsuit with a sparkling turtleneck.
"I'm here at the Oscars," Warren said. "A more subdued Oscars, but we're still at the Oscars."
Social distancing and travel restrictions forced a complete rethink of the ceremony, which will be attended by just a few hundred nominees and presenters, including Brad Pitt and Harrison Ford, and held both outdoors and indoors. Other nominees will join by satellite from international venues.
After strict testing and quarantine protocols, most celebrities were not wearing masks on the first major live red carpet after months of award shows on Zoom.
"We just want the whole thing, right out of the gate, to announce itself as being different," Steven Soderbergh, one of a trio of producers, said ahead of Sunday's show.
Hollywood's drive for diversity over the past five years could lead to all four acting prizes, as well as the best director trophy, going to people of color for the first time in the 93-year history of the highest honors in the movie business.
Few of the winners seem to be locked down after an extended awards season, but "Nomadland" - China native Chloe Zhao's slow- burn quasi-documentary about the traveling community of American van dwellers - is seen as the front-runner for taking home best picture.
If Zhao, 39, wins best director, she will be only the second woman and the first Asian woman to clinch the Academy Award in that field.
"The Trial of the Chicago 7," which is set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War protests, is seen as the strongest challenger to "Nomadland" for best picture, awards experts say.
"It is probably the most traditional Oscar movie. It's got a lot of big colorful performances and historical relevance," said Alison Willmore, film critic at New York magazine.
The other best picture nominees are 1930s Hollywood drama "Mank," which led with 10 nominations; revenge tale "Promising Young Woman," Korean immigrant family story "Minari," civil rights biopic "Judas and the Black Messiah," dementia tale "The Father" and "Sound of Metal" - about a deaf drummer.
The winners are chosen in a secret ballot by the 9,000 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
The race for lead actress is wide open, with Frances McDormand ("Nomadland"), Carey Mulligan ("Promising Young Woman"), Viola Davis ("Ma Rainey's Black Bottom"), Vanessa Kirby ("Pieces of a Woman") and Andra Day (The United States vs. Billie Holiday") competing for the prize.
"The best actress race is fascinating. We've had a different winner in every televised awards show," said Pete Hammond, awards columnist at Deadline Hollywood.
The late "Black Panther" star Chadwick Boseman, 43, appears to be in line for his first Oscar, for his final film role in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom." But Britain's Anthony Hopkins, who plays a man struggling with dementia in "The Father," could be rewarded, while Riz Ahmed's deaf punk drummer in "Sound of Metal" is seen as another possible best actor winner. (Reporting by Jill Serjeant; Editing by Dan Grebler and Jonathan Oatis)