By Mary Milliken
BEVERLY HILLS, California (Reuters) - This year's Oscar nominees gathered for the ultimate Hollywood power lunch on Monday in a celebration of the old adage "it's an honor just to be nominated" three weeks before the film industry's biggest night.
The annual Oscars nominees luncheon convened more than 200 contenders pursuing an Academy Award on March 2 - from 18-time nominee Meryl Streep for best actress in "August: Osage County" to Lupita Nyong'o, who won a best supporting actress nod for her first film role ever in "12 Years a Slave."
The eclectic group of movie stars, directors and technical wizards even boasted U2 frontman Bono, who lined up for the "class picture" thanks to his best song nomination for "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom."
While no one is foolish enough to look confident of a win before Academy members begin voting on Friday, Monday's luncheon was a chance to turn on the charm by praising the Oscars, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the magic of Hollywood filmmaking.
"I'm going to celebrate no matter what," said Matthew McConaughey, the presumed frontrunner for best actor for his role as an unlikely AIDS activist in the low-budget "Dallas Buyers Club," for which he won the Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild awards.
"This is my first time nominated and if I ever get nominated again, who knows," he added. "But there will never be another first time, so I'm going to enjoy this."
Cate Blanchett, the favorite to win best actress for her role as a disgraced socialite in Woody Allen's "Blue Jasmine," said this nomination "certainly took me by surprise."
"You're part unconscious when you're working deeply, but it's always a thrill, particularly because I've been away from the film industry for so long," Blanchett said.
'INTERESTED IN CHALLENGING FILMS'
This year's Oscars nominations reflect a field crowded with high-quality films and a large number of strong performances that resulted in notable exclusions. At the luncheon, many attendees lamented that Tom Hanks was not there for his acclaimed role in the Somali piracy thriller "Captain Phillips."
For the nine films nominated in the best picture category, odds appear to be strongest for the brutal slavery drama "12 Years a Slave," space thriller "Gravity" and 1970s corruption caper "American Hustle," which have all won top prizes in the awards season and lead the Oscar nominations.
One challenge facing "12 Years a Slave," is the reputation it has earned as a film that is hard to watch. But British director Steve McQueen said he believed he was winning the battle against that notion.
"It just shows you that audiences are interested in challenging films. Audiences are interested in films that give them a perspective of their history," said McQueen.
Actor nominees made a point of praising their directors for their good fortune, like best actor nominee Leonardo DiCaprio and best supporting actor nominee Jonah Hill, co-stars in Martin Scorsese's tale of financial greed "The Wolf of Wall Street."
"Money is never a concern to work with people like Martin Scorsese," said Hill, who took a pay cut and worked for union scale wages for his role as a drug-addled swindling side-kick. "I would do whatever...I would paint his house if he asked me to."
Producers for the 86th Academy Awards gave advice on acceptance speeches at the show, hosted this year by comedian Ellen DeGeneres: deliver something heartfelt and meaningful rather than a list of people to thank and make it quick.
At the lunch, though, nominees played it cool about their chances and what a win would mean for their careers.
"Everybody regards the Oscars as the ultimate stamp of approval," said Nyong'o, the Kenyan actress nominated for her role as the hardworking slave Patsey. "I don't know. I guess, we'll see."
(Editing by Lisa Shumaker)