No question the nominees lunch, which took place today at the Beverly Hilton, is the feel good event of a very long Oscar season — at least as far as the nominees who have made it this far are concerned. If the Governors Awards in November is a great networking opportunity for contenders, this luncheon has become a “must attend” for nominees, who get their certificates, a goodie bag and the chance to meet their fellow nominees in a collegial atmosphere where everyone’s a winner. At least until March 2. Oscar producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron made a point of telling them a billion people will be watching in more than 225 countries and that the time begins the moment they hit the microphone and they will have only 45 seconds. “But don’t be nervous,” smiled Zadan. “Just prepare”.
The luncheon is a complete democracy. Nominees are placed with others and have no idea who they will be sitting with. At Table 21, for instance — which I drew in the press lottery — were Best Actor nominee Matthew McConaughey of Dallas Buyers Club; Adam Stockhausen, a Production Design nominee for 12 Years A Slave; Christopher Rouse, Film Editing nominee for Captain Phillips (and an ACE Eddie winner Friday night in the same ballroom); and Peter Del Vecho, nominated for Animated Feature as producer of Frozen. The Academy also places a member of their Board of Governors at host each table, and at 21 it was Michael Tronick from the Film Editing branch, who was particularly interested in asking McConaughey about the nominated makeup work on Dallas Buyers which the star said had “a budget of about $250″. McConaughey said he has just returned from a European tour for openings of the film and is here until the Oscars. He has his next picture lined up for Gus Van Sant, Sea Of Trees, which he starts in the spring.
Rouse’s father is Russell Rouse, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of 1959′s Pillow Talk, so he’s no stranger to Oscars, being one of the rare father-son duos to have won Academy Awards. He won for editing The Bourne Ultimatum and also was nominated for United 93, all for director Paul Greengrass. He told me how disappointed he was that Greengrass was passed over for a Directing nomination. Later I introduced him to Academy Governor Phil Alden Robinson, who expressed shock that Greengrass and Tom Hanks were left out. It’s a tough year. I asked Rouse to describe the difference between winning and losing the Oscar. “I think it’s where they seat you,” he said. “The night I lost for United 93, our seats were near the back by the exit door. I said, ‘I don’t think we are winning this one’. The next year, when I won, they kept coming to tell me my category would be happening. I thought maybe that meant something,” he said. The actual truth is the winners are known to no one except two PricewaterhouseCoopers accountants until the envelopes are actually opened. But Rouse had good intuition. He also said he was shocked to win the ACE Eddie this year due to the competition. It was a popular win in that room.
Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs got everything rolling between the salad and the main fish course was served by noting this was easily one of the largest groups of nominees in Oscar history (203), and most seemed to be filling the risers for the kind of group photo they probably haven’t stood since high school. “What a remarkable year for film it has been,” she said. “And thanks to the excellence and artistry of everyone in this room, it’s a thrilling year. Being nominated for an Oscar puts you in a very, very elite group. Your incredible accomplishments on the screen and behind the scenes make you shining examples of our industry and touch millions of people around the world.” She then introduced six former Academy Presidents in the room and put in a big plug in for the planned 2017 opening of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. She also acknowledged two former Presidents who passed away since the 2013 Oscar Nominees Lunch: Fay Kanin and Tom Sherak. “Two great leaders in our industry. I thank Tom for being such a passionate advocate and for pushing the museum project forward. I thank Fay who served as President for four years for her dedication and as a pioneer for women. She would be very proud to know that we now have fourteen women on the Board,” she said.
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If you are a fan of movies or the Oscars, this was the room to be in, and so many were there for the first time. I was surprised to hear that Ron Yerxa, who produced Nebraska with Albert Berger, was a first-timer at the lunch. They were producers of the 2003 nominee Little Miss Sunshine but were odd guys out because that year the Academy only allowed three producers per Best Picture nominee. They decided not to come to that year’s luncheon but were happy to be here this time — and happy that rules have changed for producers.
First-time Adapted Screenplay nominee Terence Winter (The Wolf Of Wall Street) told me he has been flying back and forth between awards events here and in New York, where his HBO show Boardwalk Empire has just started work on its fifth and final season. Winter noted that he’s been told (and he could be right — can any Oscar expert out there come up with another?) that he and his wife, Rachel Winter, a nominee for co-producing Dallas Buyers Club, are the first husband and wife to be nominated in the same year for two different films. For the sake of the group photo and the luncheon, though, they were separated today. Ah, Oscar.
The Nebraska group noted that it was also nominated director Alexander Payne‘s birthday today. Nice way to celebrate. This was a first-time event for 84-year-old June Squibb (Nebraska), the oldest of the 203 nominees, and she attended with her son Harry. She told me it’s been an interesting season as she’s been talking a lot about her early career. Marlo Thomas, the CBS Sunday Morning News and others asked for photos of her role as a stripper in the original Broadway production of Gypsy with Ethel Merman in 1959. On the other end of the scale was Zachary Heinzerling, director of the documentary Cutie And The Boxer. He’s not only a first-time nominee, he’s a first-time filmmaker, having previously worked at HBO as a production assistant among other jobs there. Getting an invitation to this exclusive club is a nice way to start. He told me he was thrilled just to be here. It was also a bit of a family affair: For instance, Leonardo DiCaprio a nominee for Best Actor and as a producer for Wolf Of Wall Street, brought along his dad.
Ted Sarandos was there celebrating the first-ever Netflix Oscar nomination for the Documentary Feature The Square. Last year the service invaded the Emmys, and now it’s the Oscars. He was clearly happy. Harvey Weinstein, absolutely no stranger to this kind of thing, was searching for his table. Meanwhile Philomena Lee, the 80-year-old subject of The Weinstein Company’s sole Best Picture nominee this year, Philomena. (She was played in the film by Judi Dench, who wasn’t at the lunch) said it has been quite a ride, this Hollywood thing , and also was thrilled she got to meet Pope Francis in Rome, where the movie was shown. She sat in back with the Archbishop and prayed he didn’t think the movie was anti-Catholic. Co-star, co-writer and producer Steve Coogan said he thinks the film could make a difference. They were told the pope also going to watch the film (on an Oscar screener?), and Lee said she thinks he is taking her issues seriously. After a trip back home and then to London for the next weekend’s BAFTA Awards she is coming back to the Oscars. “Then I just hope to resume my normal life. I miss it,” she said. Lee’s definitely the secret weapon for Philomena’s campaign.
On her way into the ballroom I caught up with Gravity’s Best Actress nominee Sandra Bullock. I told her I just saw the film in IMAX on the new Chinese Theatre’s big screen, an extraordinary visceral experience. She said she hasn’t had the IMAX experience yet but wants to. How did this year’s luncheon compare to the first time, when she went on to win Best Actress for The Blind Side? “I don’t remember anything about that day. But I plan to remember everything about this one,” Bullock said, adding that she’s excited about all the featurettes now coming out showing how they got the remarkable stuff on screen in Gravity. “We couldn’t talk about it before, but now is the time,” she said. “Their work was just amazing.”
In terms of sheer star power, the real rock star in the room was — well, the rock star in the room: Bono, who’s nominated for Best Song with his U2 bandmates for “Ordinary Love”from Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom. There was a crush to get close to him at the reception, where Oscar show producers Zadan and Meron huddled with him among others (including old friends Sid and Nancy Ganis). Film critic Leonard Maltin was seated at Bono’s table. “I figured out how to meet every A-lister in the room: Sit near Bono. They all lined up to see him,” he laughed. Bono also got big applause when he was called up to the risers for the group photo.
Ed Begley Jr, an acting Governor, did the honors, nicely, of pronouncing every nominee’s name as they marched up for the big photo op. Among the first names called (which is not done alphabetically but rather strategically by table numbers) were August: Osage County Best Actress nominee Meryl Streep and American Hustle Directing and Writing nominee David O. Russell, who seemed to be animatedly talking to each other throughout the whole ceremony. I wonder if a future film teaming could have been hatched on those risers?
Media in the room always like to play the game of who got the biggest applause, but it is a slippery slope. That said, I noticed very enthusiastic clapping for McConaughey, Captain Phillips’ Barkhad Abdi and veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins, who is nominated this year for Prisoners but has never won any of his 11 times at bat. I also detected big applause when producer/financier Megan Ellison‘s name was called as a multiple Best Picture nominee for American Hustle and Her. And why not? She’s got lots of money to make movies, and this was a room where that makes her a superstar. Overall, everyone got their due. An Oscar nomination is a big deal, and this was their day.