Smith cheerleader for Oscar nominees

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His nomination plaque may call it "best performance by an actor in a leading role," but Will Smith's real job on Monday at the annual Academy Awards nominees luncheon was that of head cheerleader.

Smith's vociferous enthusiasm -- which was complete with finger-in-mouth whistles and thunderous clapping -- echoed around the International Ballroom at the Beverly Hilton after the traditional class picture was shot and each of the 141 nominees in attendance was called up on stage to receive their plaque and smile for a photo with Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences president Sid Ganis.

"Gui-ller-mo! Gui-ller-mo!" Smith bellowed when "Pan's Labyrinth" director Guillermo del Toro was called up. "Ale-jandro!" he hollered when "Babel" director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's name came up. Smith, who earned his second Oscar nom this year for "The Pursuit of Happyness," had multiple whistles for acting nominees Helen Mirren, Jennifer Hudson, Penelope Cruz, Abigail Breslin, Djimon Hounsou, Eddie Murphy and Alan Arkin, just as he did for his fellow nominees in the lead actor category, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Forest Whitaker and Peter O'Toole.

Smith's infectious excitement embodied the spirit of the annual gathering of those who do indeed know what an honor it is just to be nominated. In keeping with what Ganis called the "relentlessly democratic" approach to the seating plan of the event, Smith and his wife, actress Jada Pinkett Smith, were seated at a table along the side of the room, in a spot that would be considered somewhere north of Siberia at any other industry event.

But Smith, resplendent in a cognac-colored suit, and Pinkett Smith, who could've stopped traffic in her form-fitting fire-engine red dress, were not complaining.

"It's like a grade-school graduation," Smith said as he watched the bleachers set up for the class picture slowly thin out as nominees were called up in reverse alphabetical order. "It's a good time."

AMPAS officials noted that this year's gathering was by far the highest turnout of nominees in the 26-year history of the luncheon. The SRO crowd did not detract from the luncheon's traditional low-key, even homey atmosphere of industry insiders and filmdom leading lights.

Ganis urged attendees to "take a little time to reflect on what a singular accomplishment it is to be nominated for an Academy Award" and "bask in the company of your fellow nominees" in advance of the big night at the Kodak Theatre on Feb. 25.

Laura Ziskin, producer of this year's Oscar telecast, brought some special effects to liven up her de rigueur speech calling on winners to keep their remarks brief -- 45 seconds brief. She punctuated her point by holding up a piece of notepaper that burst into flame, and then she cued a clip reel illustrating "the do's and don'ts of Oscar speechifying." (Rule No. 1: Don't rattle off a list of names from a piece of notepaper.)

Ziskin took a jab at the New York Times by claiming that one of the newspaper's TV critics, Caryn James, had already panned the Oscar telecast in a blog posting as being full of boring speeches.

"Oh how I'd love to make a critic eat her words," Ziskin told the crowd.

To help ease the strain on winners with large families and entourages, Ziskin said that AMPAS this year is adding a "Thank You Cam" backstage that will be each winner's first stop after they leave the stage. Winners will be able to record "anything they couldn't fit into 45 seconds," and that footage will be posted for viewing at www.oscar.com as quickly as possible and be archived on the site for several months, Ziskin said.
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