Oscars 2013: Inside the Nominees Luncheon

Oscars Class Photo 2013 - H 2013

Oscars Class Photo 2013 - H 2013

The 32nd annual Oscar nominees luncheon took place Monday in the International Ballroom of the Beverly Hilton. Hosted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Board of Governors, the event drew an impressive 163 of this year's Oscar nominees -- including A-listers such as Ben Affleck (Argo), Steven Spielberg (Lincoln) and Denzel Washington (Flight) -- all of whom were assigned seats at one of several dozen tables alongside nominees from categories other than their own, as well as a few lucky journalists. They eventually posed for a "class photo" together before picking up their official Oscar nomination certificate and a gift bag that included an "Oscar Nominee" sweatshirt. 

(I was seated at table 33 along with Benh Zeitlin, best director and best adapted screenplay nominee for Beasts of the Southern WildGraham Taylor of WME Global, who reps Zeitlin; Espen Sandberg, director of best foreign language film nominee Kon-Tiki; John Bailey, the Academy's cinematography branch governor; and Robert Richardson, best cinematography nominee for Django Unchained, who no-showed.)

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Arriving guests were greeted at the bottom of the Hilton's long driveway by peaceful protestors from the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (which handed out flyers asserting "Zero Dark Thirty is a work of fiction that depicts graphic acts of torture" and "the movie's implication that the use of torture produced critical intelligence is inaccurate"), and at the top by hordes of roped-off fans seeking autographs and photographs (many guests paused on their way in to the event to greet them).

Inside the room, guests walked by the DJ booth, which was manned throughout the afternoon by none other than a headphones-clad Frank Marshall, the five-time Oscar-nominated producer and music lover. When I asked Marshall how he wound up with the job, he told me, "I couldn't get into the luncheon any other way this year!" (Not entirely true, as his wife, Kathleen Kennedy, is a best picture nominee for Lincoln.) It was fun to watch guests walk by him and light up with amazement upon recognizing him. One remarked, "Amazing! Raiders of the Lost Ark and everything!"

After a cocktail hour during which nominees got to mingle with each other over drinks, the Academy's new president, Hawk Koch, welcomed guests. He then called this year's nominated films "the best crop of movies in memory" and acknowledged the honorees from December's Academy Governors Awards (Hal Needham, George Stevens, Jr. and Jeffrey Katzenberg were in the room, but D.A. Pennebaker couldn't make it); the past Academy presidents (Walter Mirisch, Arthur Hiller, Sid Ganis and Tom Sherak were among those present); the Academy's Board of Governors (Zero Dark Thirty director Kathryn Bigelow and Lawrence of Arabia film editor Anne V. Coates being two of them who were there); and the Oscars production team (including veterans Don Mischer and Michael B. Seligman).

Koch then briefed the audience about the producers of this year's Oscars, Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, who he said came to him in a dream as the perfect choice for the gig due to their experience with live productions (on Broadway), televised productions (they exec-produce NBC's Smash) and films (they executive produced 2002's best picture winner, Chicago, and have produced numerous other films). He said that when he called them to offer them the job, they reminded him that they had produced the movie The Bucket List and divulged that producing the Oscars had long been at the top of theirs.

Meron and Zadan then took the stage and teased that the 85th Oscars ceremony, which will take place Feb. 24, is "going to be a celebration of the great work you've done, and it's also going to be a throwback to the origins of the Oscars." They said that, consistent with their musical roots, music will be a big part of the show and noted that Barbra Streisand will be performing on the show for the first time in 36 years, which elicited loud applause. They also made the annual request for brevity from winners: "We honestly need your help to keep the pacing of the show quick," Meron said. They stated that winners need to get to the stage quickly; co-nominees must designate, in advance of the show, one individual as the speaker on behalf of them all in the event that they win; and that winners will have no more than 45 seconds onstage before they are played off by the orchestra. Zadan urged, "Please speak from the heart, not from a piece of paper," and added, "Remember, you're speaking to over a billion people in over 225 countries," prompting nervous whispers from guests, who then resumed eating their salmon or table-hopping.

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After a while, a voice-over announcer introduced a video narrated by last year's best supporting actress Oscar winner Octavia Spencer, which featured clips of classic films and closed with the congratulatory message, "You are now recognized around the world as part of this history." Then, Koch stepped in front of a large set of bleachers that had been arranged to the side of the stage, and Academy COO Ric Robertson began reading the names of this year's nominees -- not in alphabetical order, as in years past, but instead in random order -- who then came up to the stage, shook Koch's hand and got in position for a group photograph.

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. For the roll call, I situated myself in the center of the room and, by my ear, the loudest applause was for the second-to-last person called, the youngest person ever nominated for a best actress Oscar, 9-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild), and the second-loudest was a tie between the last person called, best director nominee Spielberg, and best actor nominee Hugh Jackman (Les Miserables).

It's dangerous to read too much into such things, but it struck me that best picture nominee Affleck, who was denied a best director Oscar nom but whose film has swept all of the major awards thus far, received only average applause, whereas the principal people associated with Lincoln, which received the most Oscar nominations this year but has not yet won any major awards, received louder-than-average welcomes, including best supporting actor nominee Tommy Lee Jones, best supporting actress nominee Sally Field, best adapted screenplay nominee Tony Kushner, best cinematography nominee Janusz Kaminski, best film editing nominee Michael Kahn and best costume design nominee Joanna Johnston. (Best actor nominee/frontrunner Daniel Day-Lewis was unable to attend the event, as he was sick with the flu.)

Others who received noticeably loud receptions: best supporting actress nominee Amy Adams (The Master), whose nom this year is her fourth in the last seven years; best picture -- but not best director -- nominee Kathryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty); best supporting actor nominee Robert De Niro (Silver Linings Playbook); best original score composer Alexandre Desplat (Argo); the Life of Pi best visual effects nominees; best supporting actress nominee Anne Hathaway (Les Miserables), who got a kiss from Jones as she passed him on her way up the bleachers; best cinematography nominee Seamus McGarvey (Anna Karenina); and best actress nominee Naomi Watts (The Impossible).

The most memorable of the many encounters that I witnessed during the afternoon was when Wallis' mother brought the young actress, who had been chatting with her tablemate Spielberg (even though she has not yet seen E.T., she told me), over to meet Washington. He initially asked her, "What's your name? Are you up for an Oscar?" She replied "Yes, best actress," and he asked her for what. When she told him, he exclaimed, "Ohhhhhh! Your hair was all wild!" He asked her, "How's all this been for you? Do you miss school?" She replied, "Not really," prompting hearty laughter. And, after posing for some photos together, he said, "Well, very nice to meet you!"

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Other good sports included best director/best adapted screenplay nominee David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook), who high-fived several of the nominees as they passed him on their way to the stage, including Lincoln's Kaminski and Django Unchained producer Pilar Savone; best animated short nominee/The Simpsons animator David Silverman (Maggie Simpson in "The Longest Day"), who signed autographs and sketched Bart Simpson for fans for something like 20 minutes on his way out; and best documentary feature nominees Dror Moreh (The Gatekeepers) and Malik Bendjelloul (Searching for Sugar Man), who may be competing in the same category and have the same distributor promoting them, Sony Pictures Classics, but who hung out together for much of the afternoon. Moreh told me, "We like each other!"