At today’s annual Oscar Nominees Luncheon, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences president Cheryl Boone Isaacs blissfully took care of a question that may have been on lots of minds in the room filled with contenders and voters. That would be the recent controversy over diversity in the Academy membership ranks and among this year’s nominees which, unless you have been living under a rock, includes the fact that again the Oscars have a lineup of all-white acting nominees.
As she welcomed the 150 or so nominated artists gathered in the Beverly Hilton’s International Ballroom, she gave the answer many were relieved to hear at this annual feel-good event, where everyone is a winner: “This year there is an elephant in the room,” she said . “I have asked the elephant to leave.”
That was the closest anyone got to the diversity issue, at least in an official capacity. Actually, I told Boone Isaacs later that initially when she said “elephant” I thought she may have been referring to the Republican in the room. (There’s always at least one at these big Hollywood events.) Fortunately she laughed as I was kidding — sort of.
At any rate, I have been to many of these luncheons over the years, the event a tradition started 41 years ago by then-Academy president Richard Kahn, who was in the audience today; he told me only 42 nominees attended that one, so it has grown big time. mood in the room was very upbeat as salmon was served before the annual class photo was taken and the show’s producers David Hill and Reginald Hudlin got to make their own speech urging potential winners in the room to make their 45-second acceptance speeches memorable and meaningful, rather than just reciting a list of names no one knows but them.
To that end, Hill announced a new initiative and innovation being tried for the first time this year. At the luncheon and by email, all nominees have been given a card on which to name everyone they want, need, and plan to thank. When they win, those names will then scroll at the bottom of the screen much like a ticker tape. The example shown said: “Kate Winslet wishes to thank…” followed by several names (by the way, Winslet was one of only four acting nominees not present today).
Hill explained this idea came about after they saw what happened when the music began to play off producer Dana Perry, a winner last year for the Live Action Short Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1. Unfortunately, that happened just as she began to talk about the suicide of her own son and why the film was so important to her. The producers played the clip to demonstrate what happened. Later, I pointed out to Hill that he cut off what transpired right afterward, when host Neil Patrick Harris came back out and made a tasteless joke about the decorative balls on Perry’s gown. Hill told me he left that part out on purpose — the point was to show how important it was to say something personal before the orchestra conductor gets the word to play you off. Hill revealed to me the play-off music, should they need to do this, will be “March Of The Valkyries.”
It will be interesting to see how it works, and if it feels a little too canned that presenters’ “thank yous” are scrolling by, or if it takes viewer attention away from what they are saying onstage. And if a winner gets nervous and just repeats onstage what is already scrolling by, so be it. It is an attempt to improve the quality of the speeches. Hill also told me the whole experience of producing the Oscars has been a good one, and they have assembled a diverse list of presenters, perhaps more than ever. When co-producer Hudlin mentioned they were excited to have Chris Rock as emcee, he got some unintended nervous laughter from the crowd as he said they expect the show to be “exciting, entertaining and unpredictable.” With Chris Rock onstage, you better believe it.
It was fun to see some of the first-timers as they hit this event today. Many didn’t have any idea what to expect. Best Actress nominee Brie Larson got the day off from shooting Kong: Skull Island but has to head back to the Australia location tonight after she gets the Outstanding Performer of the Year award along with fellow nominee and honoree Saoirse Ronan at a tribute I am moderating at the Santa Barbara Film Festival. Plans had to change when she couldn’t catch a plane to Australia from Santa Barbara, so she is being Skyped into the event. Just another busy day in the life of a working Oscar nominee. She told me she has so far flown in four times from Hawaii, two from Australia and two from Vietnam for awards shows or other Oscar-related things while shooting Universal’s $125 million tentpole that continues through the end of March. No rest for the weary.
Spotlight’s Supporting Actor nominee Mark Ruffalo was at the luncheon for a second year in a row after also being nominated last year for Foxcatcher. “But I don’t think I will be back for a while. I am shooting in Marvel Land for the next couple of years,” he laughed about the kind of role that doesn’t win Oscar nominations. And speaking of crazy schedules, The Big Short writers Adam McKay and Charles Randolph will be at the WGA Awards on Saturday night , and then BAFTA on Sunday (same for the Spotlight writers Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer), so the WGA has arranged to present the big movie awards (usually at the end of the evening) much earlier in the show so they can hightail it to England. I guess these are good problems to have.
Everywhere you looked in this room today there were moments, many of them revolving around Room‘s 9–year-old scene-stealer Jacob Tremblay, who made a beeline for Steven Spielberg and then went over to meet Sylvester Stallone, who was deep in conversation with the kid and then took photos with Jake punching him in the face. Room‘s nominated director Lenny Abrahamson was watching all this in awe. He said he never gets star struck, but he was when he met Stallone. “I mean I grew up with his movies,” he said.
Stallone, by the way, was the very first name called for the class photo and didn’t seem to realize he had to head to the risers. He stood there longer than all the other nominees but really seemed to be enjoying himself. Tomorrow night I will be moderating the SBIFF tribute and Montecito Award to Sly. Should be memorable.
And this was also definitely a day to remember. Heck, anytime you get to have lunch (I got the lucky draw) at Alicia Vikander’s table is definitely something to remember.