One of the best events of the year, the annual Oscar Nominees Luncheon ran nearly three hours today at the Beverly Hilton. But it looked to me that no one wanted to leave when it ended. The mingling factor here, both during cocktail hour and when it was done, was epidemic. Next to the AFI Awards Luncheon, this is the one event surrounding the awards-season circus that actually is civilized and where everyone is a winner. More than 150 nominees from sound editors to superstars were democratically spread throughout the Hilton’s large ballroom as the Oscar show’s marketing slogan — “Imagine What’s Possible” — for the February 22 ABC broadcast was flashed on large screens over the stage. You have to think that that these contenders believe anything is possible, and just in case, they’d better start working on those 45-second acceptance speeches. And the importance of an appearance here can’t be underestimated, especially with final online voting beginning at the end of the week. In fact, I am told that those who requested paper ballots started receiving them today.
Just before Academy Governor Ed Begley Jr. came on to read the roll call of nominees, Oscar show producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron — running their third Oscarcast in a row — made the usual pitch that, for the sake of the show, they need to keep it short (and hopefully unforgettable). Meron began by offering a quote: “‘I never make a movie for awards consideration. I will use the hope of getting an Academy Award a) to honor the people who worked so hard, and b) it’s the greatest Good Housekeeping Seal in the world. It’s the greatest brand. It’s as good as Louis Vuitton, Dior. It’s the Super Bowl.’ So I thought that was kind of appropriate for the day and that was said by Harvey Weinstein. He says some good things every once in a while,” Meron good-naturedly mentioned. Zadan, on the other hand, got right to the point. “As for the show, we are there to honor each and every one of you, but the telecast itself is successful if the pacing of the evening feels brisk,” he told the crowd. “I don’t want to make you nervous, but our audience is nearly a billion people in 225 countries and territories.” At that point, one of my table mates, Academy Governor and Foxcatcher makeup and hairstyling nominee Bill Corso, said, “But no pressure!” Zadan pointed to last year’s show, where he said the speeches were all memorable and they didn’t have to play anyone off with the orchestra, a rarity among most kudos ceremonies. “The speeches that are remembered beyond Oscar night are those that are personal, funny and heartfelt. The words should be spoken from your heart and not from a list written on a piece of paper. The viewers are hoping that you inspire and touch them in some way,” he continued before re-emphasizing the need for brevity.
In an unusual move for one of these lunches, the Oscar show host himself, Neil Patrick Harris, hopped a plane from New York to be there today and said a few words. “The host of the telecast isn’t usually a part of this special get-together, so it is quite an honor for me to be here. Hosting the Oscars has been a dream come true, and I know getting to be an Oscar nominee must be a dream come true for all of you — even you, 12-time nominee Roger Deakins, who is so nonplussed he didn’t show up today,” he joked. Harris then tried to hypnotize the crowd by teasing that on Oscar night, “everything will be hilarious. Everything will be hilarious. EVERYTHING will be hilarious. F*cking HILARIOUS,” he said to big laughs.
84-year old Clint Eastwood, a four-time winner and nominee this year as Producer of American Sniper, was the first name Begley called to stand on the risers for the annual class photo. He got big applause, and if you play the game of applause meter — as is so often done to gauge sentiment of the many Academy voters in the room — other big whoops went up for acting nominees Steve Carell, Julianne Moore, Bradley Cooper, J.K Simmons, Eddie Redmayne and Michael Keaton. One of the biggest ovations may have been for Oprah Winfrey, a Best Picture nominee for Selma. Oprah tends to be the star of any room she’s in. Best Song nominee Danielle Brisebois (Begin Again’s “Lost Stars”) got to stand next to her on the top riser for the photo. “For me a rite of passage was getting married, having a baby and now meeting Oprah,” she told me later. That was similar to what Whiplash writer-director Damien Chazelle told me after he stood on the other side of Oprah. “I’m paraphrasing and not saying this with anywhere near her eloquence, but she said: ‘Enjoy this moment. Getting to this room is what it is all about,'” he recalled. For a guy who a year ago was taking his little movie to Sundance, this continues to be a surreal ride.
Directing nominee Bennett Miller (Foxcatcher) shared some of fellow nominee Edward Norton’s gallows humor when he quoted the Birdman nominee as saying, “And this is what we all looked like just before the risers collapsed.” Norton first was mistakenly introduced as a Best Supporting Actor nominee for The Grand Budapest Hotel. Begley Jr. later corrected it as Birdman, and blamed the mistake on the index card he was given. Cooper was seated next to Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs, who eloquently welcomed everyone and touted the achievements of the Academy outside of the Oscar show. Cooper had just flown in from New York after a Sunday performance of his smash Broadway hit The Elephant Man, for which he is sure to be in the running for a Tony Award in addition to his Best Actor Oscar nom for American Sniper. When I caught up with him, I pointed out this is his third year in a row at this luncheon as he is that rare actor who has received back-to-back-to-back acting nominations. “I know. And the first time was also the first time Craig and Neil produced the show, so it’s great symmetry,” he said. He is, of course, thrilled with the huge reception for American Sniper, beyond anything he imagined, and is just happy it has focused conversation around the plight of veterans. He said they are closing The Elephant Man a day early in NYC so he can come out for the Oscars. He’s looking forward to taking Elephant Man next to London for a run from May through early August.
All the lead acting contenders, with the exception of Benedict Cumberbatch who was working, attended including Carell, who was thrilled to be there for the first time, and Eddie Redmayne, who told me he was having a hell of a day. In addition to the lunch, he did Conan O’Brien’s show, walked the red carpet for the Jupiter Ascending premiere,and accepted an award for his film, The Theory Of Everything, from the AARP. No rest for the weary, but after today it’s back to England and starting work on Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl until he comes back for the Oscars. Keaton told me he was just happy to be there and that he loved the Santa Barbara Film Festival tribute he got Saturday night. I will be hosting an SBIFF to Carell on Friday night. Should be fun.
Composer Hans Zimmer was having a great time. As a 10-time Oscar nominee (and winner for The Lion King), he has been to more than his fair share of these luncheons. But this time he says he’s just soaking it all up like a tourist, taking pictures and escorting his daughter Zooey. His kids have impacted his music scores a lot, Zimmer told me, but the nomination this year for Interstellar is perhaps the most personal. He says it started with director Christopher Nolan sending the composer simply a letter from a father to his son. Zimmer knew nothing about the movie but composed music based on that letter that became a key theme. He did it for his son Jake, a scientist.
It’s fun to walk around the Hilton and see everyone from every art and craft the Academy nominates given equal star treatment in this room. The tone was set at the nomination announcement, when all 24 categories and their nominees were announced live on television for the first time. Some complain that the Academy should just make the Oscar show about the high-profile actors and directors, but it would betraying what the organization is really all about. And especially what this day was all about. Congratulations, all. See you on the red carpet.