Pitt, Clooney, Streep Attend Oscar Nominees Luncheon, Which Offers Hints of Voter Sentiment (Analysis)

For the past 31 years, the Academy has invited Oscar nominees to gather before Oscar night for an event at which all of them feel like winners.

The 31st annual Oscar nominees luncheon took place this afternoon in the International Ballroom of the Beverly Hilton. Hosted by the Academy's Board of Governors, the event drew an impressive 150 of this year's 188 nominees -- including A-listers like George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and Meryl Streep -- all of whom were assigned seats at one of 47 tables alongside nominees from categories other than their own as well as a few journalists, including yours truly.

(To determine where members of the press would sit, we drew lottery balls that corresponded with a table number. I wound up at table 32, along with Jean Dujardin, best actor nominee for The Artist, as well as Matthew Butler, best visual effects nominee for Transformers: Dark of the Moon; Mike Lerner, best documentary feature nominee for Hell and Back Again; Brandon Oldenburg, best animated short nominee for The Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore; Rob Friedman, the governor of the Academy's public relations branch; and Marc Dujardin, Jean's brother.)

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The event was scheduled to begin at noon, but Clooney arrived early, signed autographs for fans who had gathered near the entrance to the event, greeted the Academy staff who were working on-site, and then made his way into the ballroom, where the other nominees and their dates soon joined him for cocktails, mingling, and a salad-and-salmon lunch. The only well-known nominees who were no-shows: reclusive best director/best original screenplay nominee Woody Allen (Midnight in Paris) and best director nominee Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life); 82-year-old best supporting actor nominee Christopher Plummer (Beginners); and always-working best supporting actress nominee Jessica Chastain (The Help).

Eventually, Academy president Tom Sherak took the stage to formally welcome everyone. He addressed the nominees: "The Academy appreciates you being here. We know that awards season can be exhausting with everything that you have to do on behalf of your films. Today is not about that. Today is a day for stopping, taking a breath and taking time to recognize what a special family you belong to. My greatest hope for each of you is that, whether your name is called on Oscar night or not, you remember how rare this privilege is -- and definitely, definitely well-deserved. So, with that in mind, give yourselves a round of applause." After they did so, he joked, "Did I mention that that's the last time you'll be rooting for each other?"

Sherak then explained the seating in the room ("In this room, all the nominees are equal and all the films are equal, which is why we don't have a 'War Horse table' or a 'Descendants table'"); reiterated there are nine nominees this year for the first time in Oscar history ("Instead of saying 'We need five nominees' or 'We need 10 nominees,' we said, 'Let's have the number of nominees that the members say we should have'"); talked up the Academy's Margaret Herrick Library; and offered shoutouts to those in attendance from the Academy's staff, past presidents, current members of the Board of Governors, and Academy CEO Dawn Hudson (who, he went out of his way to mention, has spearheaded many major changes in her first year of service, such as the construction of a new Academy museum and outdoor theater in Hollywood).

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He also announced that this year's post-Oscar show Governors Ball will operate differently than in years past. "By the time you get to the Ball, you'll have done enough sitting," he began. "So, instead of a sit-down dinner this year, we will have more of a party. There will be lots of food, lots of drinks and lots of chances to walk around or lounge, and, most importantly, to mingle. It will be a way for you to experience the evening for what it truly is: a celebration of our community." He also noted that the Academy will continue a tradition started two years ago of offering winners a chance to have their names engraved into their statuettes' nameplates at the Governors Ball, as opposed to having to bring the statuette to the Academy and get it back only "six or seven months later," as a way to encourage everyone to at least swing by the Ball before venturing off to other parties. "You'll be glad to bring home an Oscar that is fully dressed," he cracked.

Then came one of the cooler moments of the afternoon: when all of the nominees are summoned to a set of bleachers to pose together for a "class photo." They were called up in groups (i.e., "people whose last names begin with S to Z"), which meant that someone like Streep wound her way to the front of the room alongside, say, best visual effects nominee Dan Taylor (Reel Steel), and that competing best actor nominees George Clooney (The Descendants) and Jean Dujardin (The Artist) wound up standing next to each other. It also made for some funny commentary from the audience -- for instance, best actress nominee Glenn Close (Albert Nobbs) was overheard saying with genuine concern, "Nobody's gonna be able to see Martin Scorsese, he's so short!") Once the group was fully assembled, even celebrities in the audience couldn't resist snapping photos, before being called off from doing so, so as not to screw up the official photographs, six or seven of which were taken.

Then, with all of the present nominees standing in place -- or, in the case of 82-year-old best supporting actor nominee Max von Sydow (Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close), sitting in place -- Academy COO Ric Robertson called each to the front, one by one, to collect their official nomination certificate, pose for a quick photograph with Sherak, and then claim their gift of an "Oscar nominee" sweatshirt.

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Journalists and publicists in the room carefully monitored the volume of the applause with which each nominee was greeted, as that has sometimes proven to be an accurate barometer of support from the entire Academy. By my ear, the loudest applause of all went to The Help's best actress nominee Viola Davis and best supporting actress nominee Octavia Spencer, both of whom were already regarded as the favorites in their respective categories. Also greeted particularly loudly: Albert Nobbs best actress nominee Glenn Close and best supporting actress nominee Janet McTeer; best actor nominee Gary Oldman (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy); best actress nominee Rooney Mara (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), best supporting actor nominees Nick Nolte (Warrior) and von Sydow, and best original song nominee Sergio Mendes (Rio).

After all of the nominees took their seats and began eating, the two producers of this year's Oscars telecast, Oscar-winning producer Brian Grazer and 13-time Emmy-winning producer Don Mischer, addressed them about Oscar night itself. "It will be great," Grazer promised. "We had some simple goals: to try to be funny -- have some comedy -- and so, with Billy [Crystal] and with a lot of our presenters, I think we'll succeed at that; to have a little class; and to be on time -- and, with your help, your partnership, we'll be on time."

Grazer added: "We do have a theme, and the theme sort of came to me when, one day ... I just thought that seeing films in a movie theater -- that socialized, electric experience of seeing in that environment -- is a magnifier; it's a magnifier to how you feel emotionally. And I knew, when I was a kid and young adult, the movies that meant so much to me, the ones that were indelible in my memory -- the scenes and the sequences, the movies themselves, and the themes -- really resonated because there was an audience there to punctuate and magnify those things emotionally. So, to that extent, what we want to do is keep that as our theme and integrate it throughout the fabric -- throughout the tapestry -- of our three-hour piece. There's a lot of different things we're doing in order to do that, but the first thing you'll notice when you get into the theater is that we're going to redesign -- redirect -- the theater so that it looks like a timeless movie theater like The Village, or The Pantages, or El Capitan, or Grauman's Chinese, so you just feel that you're in a movie theater."

Mischer chimed in: "For those of you who win, I know that it's going to be one of the most important and significant moments of your life. And we want you to know that, at that point, you become our creative partner in the show. Your speeches are a very big part of what will make the Oscars a magical night. So ... we ask that you speak from the heart, that you talk about how you feel, that you talk about what this moment means to you. ... We just hope that you will give that some thought. I know this is redundant, but be memorable and you will be remembered. No one will remember you if you pull out a piece of paper and read a long list of names."

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To drill home that point, he then introduced a short, funny video in which the actor Tom Hanks, a two-time Oscar winner and current Academy Governor, provided four helpful tips for giving a great Oscar acceptance speech, as clips of Oscar speeches of yore -- memorable (Roberto Benigni's got a lot of laughs) and not (many) -- played in the foreground:

Tip 1: Beat the Clock: "Instead of hugging everyone within a 10-row radius ... settle for a few fast high-fives as you sprint down the aisle ... you'll have 45 seconds to complete your acceptance speech. It's for your own good -- history shows the longer winners talk, the less interesting they become. When you have to be played off after your 45 seconds are up, it's embarrassing for you and everyone else."

Tip 2: One for All: "If you are part of a team of winners, appoint a single person to speak for the whole group. That person should talk for all of you, not just for themselves. The Academy will be in touch to find out who you have chosen to speak for your group."

Tip 3: Lose the List: "Our audience wants to look into your eyes as you reach this, the pinnacle of your professional career, but if you're staring at a piece of paper all they are seeing is your bald spot. ... Backstage, right after your acceptance, you'll find the Oscar.com 'thank you cam.' There, you can talk as long as you want and thank everyone. Even groups of winners will all have the opportunity to speak. Your 'thank you cam' comments will immediately be streamed and posted online. So be prepared for this second speech as well."

Top 4: Maximize the Moment: "Spontaneity takes preparation, so memorize something memorable! Crack us up, or touch our hearts; be inspiring, intriguing, or compelling. Give the audience a gem to ponder!"

Grazer then added, to great laughter: "There was a year when I was nominated for Apollo 13, and I was sitting very close to the stage, where all the nominees are seated. Sidney Poitier went up to announce the winner, and I see him rip open the envelope -- I'm completely transfixed, I'm staring at him, I can see every single thing -- I mean subatomic particles. And I'm looking at him, and I see a B-rolling off of his lip; I'm thinking he's saying 'Brian Grazer.' I jump up, and I walk to the stage -- and he says 'Braveheart!' So I think that's the last thing you want to do. ... Anyway, have a great time!"

With the orientation aspect of the luncheon over, many nominees eschewed eating in favor of mingling. The Artist's best actor nominee Dujardin, best director/best original screenplay/best film editing nominee Michel Hazanavicius, and best original score nominee Ludovic Bource all excitedly chatted with Spielberg. Others chatted with Pitt as he waited in line with everyone else to use the men's room. And, perhaps most memorably, best sound mixing nominee Greg P. Russell (Transformers: Dark of the Moon), introduced himself to one of his cinematic heroes, Streep, as a guy who has been nominated 15 times but has yet to win, to which she replied, "I've lost 15 times, too!" [Not exactly accurate -- Streep will have lost 15 times if she loses this year!] They chatted for a bit, and she reassured him, "You'll get there -- I'm pulling for you."

As the event wound down, I ran into Sherak and asked him what the highlight of his afternoon had been. He told me, "The highlight is to see all the people -- the little-nervous new ones, the ones who have been here who are not nervous -- just enjoying themselves."