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“Each and every one of us knows that there are some empty chairs in this room, which makes all of us activists,” Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, said Monday as she welcomed guests to the Academy’s 36th annual Oscar Nominees Luncheon at the Beverly Hilton — among them, Fences best actor nominee Denzel Washington, La La Land best actress nominee Emma Stone, Moana best original song nominee Lin-Manuel Miranda, Manchester by the Sea best picture nominee Matt Damon, Hacksaw Ridge best director nominee Mel Gibson and Trolls best original song nominee Justin Timberlake.
Boone Isaacs clearly was referencing, among others, Asghar Farhadi, the Iranian director of best foreign-language film nominee The Salesman, who has said he will boycott the Oscars ceremony on Feb. 26 because of President Donald Trump‘s travel ban, which he regards as “unjust.” (The ban currently is on hold because of a temporary restraining order issued by U.S. District Court Judge James Robert in Seattle.) While Boone Isaacs did not mention Trump by name, she said, “Art has no borders.” She continued, “Strong societies don’t censor art, they celebrate it,” and added, “Borders cannot be allowed to stop any of us,” drawing a big round of applause.
The Academy president also acknowledged the efforts that the organization has made in the name of diversity and inclusion. “Wow, what a difference a year makes,” she said, a reference to the fact that this year there are many more Oscar nominees of color, particularly in the acting categories, which had been branded #OscarsSoWhite during the past two years. “Real progress has been made — progress that I am confident will continue in the future,” she asserted. “When we reach out to be inclusive, we set an important example. We become agents of change.”
Boone Isaacs also introduced key players associated with the Academy (four past presidents, current CEO Dawn Hudson and 45 members of the board of governors) and the team behind the Oscars telecast (including Disney chief Bob Iger, ABC chief Ben Sherwood and this year’s Oscars show producers Jennifer Todd and Michael De Luca), and touted this year’s first-time host Jimmy Kimmel: “Having Jimmy as host is like going into the Super Bowl with Tom Brady,” she cracked.
Todd and De Luca then introduced a short film offering guidance to the nominees about what not to do if they get the chance to give an acceptance speech. It ostensibly was narrated by 1930s Oscar nominee “Gloria Concave” — who, it turns out, was played by Saturday Night Live‘s Kate McKinnon. “Concave” had the audience in stitches as she cautioned against speaking for longer than 45 seconds, thanking a list of people, cursing and the like, referring back to her own past experiences.
A grand tradition at the Oscar Nominees Luncheon is that the nominees sit at different tables so that no nominee from the same film or category is at any one table, which can result in some interesting groupings. Among them: Academy governor Steven Spielberg, Moonlight director/adapted screenplay nominee Barry Jenkins and Fences supporting actress Viola Davis were all at one table, to which Washington paid a visit; Timberlake, Moonlight supporting actor nominee Mahershala Ali and Netflix chief Ted Sarandos were at another; Academy governor Rory Kennedy, Elle lead actress nominee Isabelle Huppert, Toni Erdmann foreign-language film nominee Maren Ade, La La Land film editing nominee Tom Cross and Sony Classics co-chief Michael Barker sat at another; Gibson and Lion supporting actor nominee Dev Patel; La La Land lead actor Ryan Gosling and Life, Animated documentary feature nominee Roger Ross Williams were all table-mates; Hidden Figures best picture nominee Pharrell Williams broke bread with Manchester by the Sea best supporting actress nominee Michelle Williams; and Academy governors Michael Giacchino and Jim Gianopulos, La La Land best original score and best original song (twice) nominee Justin Hurwitz (who was thrilled to meet Giacchino) and Moonlight best supporting actress nominee Naomie Harris held down another table.
Also present were three people who have been to a lot of Oscar Nominees Luncheons ahead of an equal number of disappointing Oscar nights: Passengers best original score nominee Thomas Newman (on his 14th nom), 13 Hours best sound mixing nominee Greg P. Russell (on his 17th nom) and one of my tablemates, Hacksaw Ridge best sound mixing nominee Kevin O’Connell (on his 21st nom). They seemed just as thrilled to be there as did first-timers like Patel and Manchester by the Sea best supporting actor nominee Lucas Hedges.
As always, the luncheon culminated with a “class photo” of the nominees packed in together on a giant set of bleachers. Newly elected Academy governor Laura Dern called the roll and, as always, journalists tried to gauge the levels of applause that greeted each nominee, hoping for some hint of how things may play out on Feb. 26. My sense? The loudest ovation went to supporting acting frontrunners Ali and Davis, with Stone, Patel, Jenkins, Miranda and Timberlake close behind. Does that actually mean anything? We’ll find out in about 20 days.
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