A new weekly column talking up the season with bits and pieces from the awards circuit. Johnny Depp literally was surrounded by AMPAS members — and others — trying to take selfies with him at Thursday’s packed (and I mean packed) luncheon at Craig’s in honor of his Whitey Bulger film, Black MassI have been to several of these campaign affairs this season, most at this Melrose Avenue restaurant, but none of them had the turnout this one did. It was standing-room only for the likes of Ed Asner, Piper Laurie, Richard Sherman, Al Ruddy and numerous other Oscar voters.

Along with Depp, Warner Bros trotted out virtually the entire cast including Rory Cochrane, Julianne Pete Hammond badgeNicholson, Joel Edgerton and others. W. Earl Brown, who plays John Martorano in the gangster flick, told me he has killed 38 people in movies but has only died 27 times. He actually has been counting these things since his first death in the 1991 syndicated Untouchables series. “It’s my specialty,” he laughed. Director Scott Cooper, a sometimes-actor himself, really has a nose for thesps, saidtumblr_nxuq7hLMPb1rkwim7o1_500 Brown. Cooper graciously made the rounds table by table. Warner brass Greg Silverman, Sue Kroll and Veronika Kwan Vandenberg were among the execs in the house. Kroll and Silverman are clearly excited about their top Oscar prospect, which actors really seem to gravitate toward. It has grossed around $60 million domestically so far but, as Kwan Vandenberg points out, has yet to play in many international markets including France.

The Warners execs all praised their Thanksgiving release Creed, which suddenly is drumming up Supporting Actor talk for Sylvester Stallone in his latest incarnation of the Rocky Balboa character, as re-imagined by director — and fan — Ryan Coogler. Edgerton, who also is a Supporting prospect, told me he has been AWOL much of the season so far due to Virginia location shooting for the new film Loving from writer-director Jeff Nichols about an interracial couple sentenced to prison in 1958 for getting married. Interesting hot-button topic, he thinks, with echoes of today in some ways. But, as in Black Mass, Depp clearly was the star attraction at the lunch, patiently talking to everyone. “Unlike what you see in some of his screen roles, Johnny could not be a nicer person, ” Cooper told me. While I was talking to Depp, casting legend Mike Fenton came up to chat with the star. Depp reminisced about the days as a struggling actor when he would get a meeting with Fenton (and his partner Jane Feinberg, who also was at the lunch) or another casting giant, Lynn Stalmaster. “Do you remember the Back To The Future audition where you came in with a fly on your shoulder?” Fenton asked. Depp lit up, instantly recalling the fly that jumped on him in his 10-year-old car and decided to hang around. It did sound kind of weird, especially considering Depp was trying out for a mortdecai 3character named George McFly. “We sat there watching your fly, or the fly,” Fenton told him, also recalling how director Robert Zemeckis just stared at him without much enthusiasm for the co-star buzzing about. He didn’t get the role. He even ran into Crispin Glover (who did get it) there, and Crispin asked if he knew he had a fly on his shoulder. “Eventually that fly became Jeff Goldblum,” Depp joked.

Depp is getting heavy Best Actor Oscar buzz (sorry) for Black Mass. But I have to say, am I really all alone in loving Mortdecai, Depp’s box office flop from earlier this year? He really showed his gift for comedy in that, brilliantly channeling the kinds of characters in which Alec Guinness, Terry Thomas and Peter Sellers excelled in the 1950s and ’60s. If there was any justice (and I sure there won’t be), he should get a Golden Globe Comedy Best Actor nomination to go with the inevitable Drama nod he will get for creepily inhabiting Bulger.

EMILY BLUNT JUMPS OFF ‘THE TRAIN’

There are sooooooo many of these lunches that they sometimes collide. Competing nearby was a lunch at A.O.C. for The Danish Girl group including Director Tom Hooper and co-star Alicia Vikander. They have a grueling schedule of campaign events. Star Eddie Redmayne was everywhere on the circuit last year leading up to his Best Actor Oscar win, but this time he hasn’t been in town at all due to the London shooting schedule for J.K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them (another Warners movie). But that doesn’t mean he’s off the Q&A trail. Last weekend I tumblr_nxur8hxJAR1tf7goeo4_500moderated a couple of them with Hooper and producer Gail Mutrux in L.A. while Redmayne was satellited in to the guild screenings to answer questions about his transition into Lili for the movie about the first transgender case in the 1920s. “This is kind of strange,” Redmayne said as he towered over us from the big screen. Redmayne is flying into L.A. for the West Coast premiere of the movie on Saturday, the only day he could get off. They are packing in press brunches, SAG and Academy Q&As and, of course, the red carpet and afterparty before he has to hit the tarmac again. Mutrux, who has been trying to get this film made for 15 years, admitted she had 74 rejections from directors before Hooper got hold of the script in 2007. “You mean I am Number 75? You never told me that,” Hooper smiled.

On Tuesday I went to a lunch at The London Hotel honoring Sicario and Best Actress hopeful Emily Blunt. When it Emily-Blunt-seen-filming-her-latest-movie-project-Girl-on-the-Trainwas over, I ran into several AMPAS members at the valet stand who were just exiting another lunch across the lobby for Youth. Caterers must be making a killing this season. Hopefully Oscar voters aren’t getting too fat. Sally Kirkland told she thinks she has put on eight pounds. Blunt has a little more time than Redmayne to make the rounds. She told me she actually got two days off her current film, The Girl On The Train, which has been shooting in New York under the eye of Tate Taylor. She gets to play a raging drunk (and then some) in that one, so the brief time off was welcome, she said. Sounds like a pretty intense role. She was lamenting about the nightmarish logistics of trying to do a movie set on a moving train. That movie should be one of the biggies for 2016 as it is based on that huge best-selling novel and is much anticipated.

She’s terrific as an FBI agent witnessing horrors of the drug wars in Sicario, and Lionsgate is hoping it’s a performance that will lead to her first Oscar sicarionomination. Reaction among AMPAS members at this lunch seemed positive, though several of them actually were going to see the film for the first time at the London’s screening room afterward. The Youth crowd, which included director Norman Jewison, got their screening pre-lunch. Thad and Trent Luckinbill and Edward McDonnell were among the Sicario producers cheering her on from our table along with director Peter Bogdanovich, who was talking about having recently seen the complex Wall Street comedy The Big Short. “I am not a big fan of movies you have to see twice to figure out,” he said when I mentioned that I hear some people understand the complicated Street-speak a lot better on a second viewing. Hmmmmm.

JOHNNY DEPP’S NEW BEST FRIEND IS 9 YEARS OLD

Speaking of The Big Short, it opens December 11 as Paramount’s last-minute entry into this year’s Oscar race — and the studio is going all out to make sure the extremely smart, dazzling but dense Adam McKay-directed head-spinner gets seen by voters. After last Saturday night’s Governors Awards, the studio threw a post-the big shortparty at the Sunset Tower.  Governors Awards attendees including Hooper and Quentin Tarantino mixed with Big Short cast members like Christian Bale at the relaxed affair. Great idea to do this. No one ever does a party after the Gov Awards. It should be a new tradition. Paramount Chairman Brad Grey also was there. He actually had skipped the Governors Awards in favor of introducing a Chinese Theatre screening of, you guessed  it, The Big Short. It’s a movie he is very high on, even if it isn’t the most obvious commercial movie out this season (despite a big-name cast including Steve Carell, Brad Pitt and Ryan Gosling) and opens just a week before Star Wars: The Force Awakens. “These are the kind of movies worth making,” Grey told me. “You just have to take risks with different kinds of films, or why be in the business?”   He’s got another unusual entry also added to the Oscar race in Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s R-rated animated Anomalisa, which Par picked up out of the Toronto International Film Festival.

At the Governors Awards, the campaigning was rampant as usual with contenders working the Hollywood & Highland Grand Ballroom, which was full of Oscar voters. The only problem seemed to be that most of those voters also were in the hunt. “What exactly are we doing here?” laughed one Oscar winner with another movie trying to gain traction in the race. “Everyone151114a_0016 I have run into has their own movie. Are we just supposed to vote for each other?” Certainly the youngest contender in the room was 9-year-old Room star Jacob Tremblay, who had a hard time convincing me he’s not really a 40-year-old disguised as a kid. “Who have you talked to here?” I asked. Tremblay didn’t miss a beat.  “Johnny Depp! He’s my new best friend. … Oh, and Will Smith too,” he said. Some playground that Governors Awards is, eh? Speaking of Smith, he was seated right next to my table (thanks Peter Schlessel and Focus Features for including us) with Bennet Omalu, the real-life doctor he plays in Concussion. Smith was clearly having a great time. Regarding Concussion, he said it was a little daunting to have the guy you play in a movie sit there and watch it. Omalu told me he thought Smith nailed it. Jane Fonda and Grandma star Lily Tomlin were having a reunion on the side of the massive ballroom:maxresdefault They hadn’t seen each other in nearly two days. Fonda told me they had just wrapped the second season of their Netflix comedy Grace & Frankie. She said she would like to continue doing the show for many seasons. “We shot a nine-page scene that should be in a Broadway play. It was so great and poignant. Some people cried, and then it was really, really funny. I mean it just felt really good,” Fonda said during our interview the day before, where her dog also joined us for the chat. The biggest star splash at the Gov Awards seemed to be Daniel Craig, who was accompanying his wife, and Fonda’s co-star in Youth, Rachel Weisz. Everyone, including Fonda, wanted to talk to James Bond.

DINING AT THE CHATEAU MARMONT WITH GANDALF AND THE HOBBITS

Screening And Discussion For Roadside Attractions' "Mr. Holmes"Lunch isn’t the only free meal Academy members are gettting this season. At an intimate dinner thrown Wednesday night by Roadside Attractions, Miramax and “hosts”  Patrick Stewart and Elijah Wood, Mr Holmes star Ian McKellen was the honoree in Chateau Marmont’s Penthouse 64. Among the guests sitting with us at Sir Ian’s table in addition to those hosts were his he Hobbit co-star Billy Boyd, actress-Tdirector-writer Julie Delpy and Nastassja Kinski. Stewart — who stars in the X-Men movies with McKellen (X-Men director Bryan Singer was taking video of all of this on his iPhone) — made a touching and amusing toast to the 76-year-old star who plays a ninetysomething Sherlock Holmes in the hit indie film from director Bill Condon (who couldn’t attend because he went back in New York to continue working on Disney’s live-action version of the hit musical Beauty And The Beast, in which McKellen plays a clock). Stewart and McKellen also did Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land on Broadway and are taking it to London next. “I can’t believe I get to eat with not one but two Hobbits this evening,”  McKellen said, referring to Boyd and Wood.

It was a perfect night in Hollywood weather-wise and otherwise for the kind of awards-season event that makes this beat fun. French star Delpy got into a spirited conversation about the recent terrorist attacks in France. “It’s so upsetting I am going to write about this on Facebook. I feel I have to,” she said while admitting that first she has to figure out how to get on Facebook. She’s never set up an account. “I only use my computer for writing scripts,” she laughed. McKellen had a great time and was the last to leave his own party. He told me he’s excited about all the leading roles suddenly being available for actors in their 70s and 80s this year, including his own. He said he had spent the afternoon in Malibu with another Sir, Anthony Hopkins, his co-star in the new TV version of The Dresser, which I predict right now will be all over the next Emmys.

ian-remembers_sliderMcKellen was going to write his autobiography but changed his mind and sent back the advance, with which he said he could have retired for life. He had put aside nine months to write the book, but now has more free time, which means he could be here to keep Mr Holmes front and center this season. He was everywhere this week including his own brunch and a conversation with Guillermo del Toro at the Aero Theatre. But it was all capped with a one-man show he did recalling all the women he has worked with onscreen. He cooked it up last month for the Mill Valley Film Festival, where he was honored with a Life Achievement Award. He repeated the 90-minute stage tribute to the ladies last night at the Fine Arts Theatre in Beverly Hills and got a rousing standing ovation from the SRO crowd, many of them from the Academy’s acting branch. Afterward, he greeted them all in the lobby, taking so many selfies you would have thought he was, well, Johnny Depp.