“Even for someone who is averse to having fun, this was definitely a special thing to be at,” O.J.: Made in America Documentary Feature nominee Ezra Edelman told me after today’s annual Oscar Nominees Luncheon. That would be the prevailing sentiment at this hot-ticket lunch where entrance is guaranteed with an Oscar nomination. More than 165 nominees took the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences up on its offer, and a blast was had by all at this warmest and most congenial of all Oscar-season events.
There are no losers in this room, only winners excited to talk to one another and swap stories. Arrival producer Shawn Levy, earning his first nomination for Best Picture, was so determined to be there that he told me he basically moved heaven and earth to carve a few hours away from the Season 2 set of his Netflix show Stranger Things so he could be in this room, only to return immediately to the set afterward. He didn’t want to miss it. He and Netflix honcho Ted Sarandos were glad-handing each other over news that their 30 second Super Bowl spot announcing the second season Halloween airdate for Stranger Things was the biggest performer in social media. Netflix’s 13th Documentary Feature nominee Ava DuVernay ultimately was unable to get from her Santa Clarita location shoot of A Wrinkle in Time, even though the production was trying to helicopter her in.
That’s how much these nominees want to be in that Beverly Hilton ballroom, though first-time Best Actress nominee Isabelle Huppert told me she’s been in that room a lot this season. ”I remember exactly where I was sitting when I won the Golden Globe here,” the French actress said. “And then I was sitting over there on the other side on Saturday at the DGA awards, and now I am down here in front today. All in the same room!” She quickly was catching on that the Beverly Hilton’s International Ballroom is the place it all happens when you are in the swing of the season.
Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs welcomed everyone before lunch was served, and in a sly reference to the organization’s #OscarSoWhite headaches of the past couple of years, she seemed to be breathing a sigh of relief. ”This is a global community filled with storytellers domestic and international, one that is becoming more inclusive and diverse with each passing day,” she told the crowd. “I am so proud to be part of that and to see all the new faces among this year’s nominees. Wow! What a difference a year makes!”
There indeed was a record number of nominees of color who got the Golden Ticket to the Oscars, and that made this year’s luncheon an especially happy occasion for the Academy. There was, of course, an elephant in the room: the GOP brand, aka Donald Trump. Although Boone Isaacs never mentioned the presidnet’s name or his attempted (now currently overruled) travel ban, her words were strong and not minced. ”When we expand our membership, when we reach out to be inclusive, we set a shining example,” she said. “When our storytellers tackle issues of importance from religious intolerance to racism to sexism, when we bring to the screen stories from around the world, we become agents of change. And when we speak out against those who try to put up barriers, we reinforce this important truth, that all artists around the world are connected by a powerful bond, one that speaks to our creativity and common humanity. Each and every one of us knows there are some empty chairs in this room, which has made Academy artists activists. There is a struggle globally today over artistic freedom that feels more urgent than any time since the 1950s. Art has no borders, art has no language and doesn’t belong to a single faith. The power of art is that it transcends all these things, and strong societies don’t censor art, they celebrate it. America should always be not a barrier, but a beacon. We stand up in support of artists around the world, we stand up to those who would try to limit our freedom of expression, and we stand up for this fundamental principle that all creative artists around the world are connected by that unbreakable bond and more powerful and permanent than nationality and politics. And just as our work does not stop at borders, borders cannot be allowed to stop any of us.” That statement drew strong applause throughout the room. Incidentally, notably absent was Foreign Language film nominee Asghar Farhadi (The Salesman), who has said Trump’s travel ban from Iran was insulting and that he would not be attending. Now that a judge has lifted it, it should be interesting to see if he changes his mind before Oscar Night. The other nominated Foreign Language filmmakers were all in attendance.
Oscar show producers Michael De Luca and Jennifer Todd told me they decided that rather than do the traditional thing producers do in giving a primer to the gathered nominees on what to expect and how to behave on Oscar Night, they decided to put together a film that would do it for them. They did offer a little guidance before introducing it. ”[Audiences] want to hear about your film, about what the movies mean to you, about your personal journey that may inspire them. They want a message of hope and aspirations — delivered in 45 seconds or less!,” De Luca half -joked. Todd then said they had enlisted the advice of an Oscar legend, which cued a scratchy-looking black-and-white film called The 1938 Oscar Nominees Luncheon. It actually was a very funny SNL-like piece featuring Kate McKinnon as the so-called legendary and multiple-Oscar-winning actress Gloria Concave, who utters bon mots like, ”I am as soft as the lenses I demand for all my singles.” Concave then proceeds to give tips on how to get through the many Oscar-winning moments she herself has had since the silent era turned into talkies. Hopefully the Academy puts it on its site and YouTube. It was hilarious, and De Luca told me later they were hoping to show the kind of fun, light tone they are also setting for the Oscar show, which Jimmy Kimmel will host on February 26.
While that show won’t possibly be as fun for nervous nominees as this easygoing luncheon was, it is a good sign. The producers made no mention of expectations that the Oscars could turn very political this year, and as De Luca told me Thursday night at the Fifty Shades Darker premiere, they have no intention of trying to stifle anybody who has something they want to say apart from Gloria Concave’s useful advice.
Everywhere you looked in the room, nominees were running around talking to one another, even taking selfies. At my table, Manchester by the Sea nominee Michelle Williams went off to corner to take one with our tablemate, Moana Best Song nominee Lin-Manuel Miranda. She was thrilled and told Miranda she has tickets to see Hamilton with her daughter for the first time next week. Miranda, having a great time, ran into fellow Best Song nominees and Broadway babies Justin Paul and Benj Pasek (La La Land) and praised their songs from the film he told them he finally just saw last week. Miranda has been in London shooting Disney’s new Mary Poppins film and just finished his first big production dance number last week. Disney head Bob Iger stopped by to see him and chat. Miranda then sheepishly told his mother Luz, who he brought to the lunch, ”He’s my boss!” Luz said that growing up in the Heights, they would always let Lin-Manuel stay up to watch the Oscars, even as a little kid.” I told him even then that when, not if, he was nominated for an Oscar, I would be going with him and I am,” she said excitedly. With that, Miranda took Mom over to meet Denzel Washington.
Williams kept asking me to give her odds on who I thought would win and tried to entice me into $5 bets per category. She thinks there will be some upsets but, of course, is hoping for the best for Manchester. Another Williams, Pharrell ,who is nominated for producing Hidden Figures, also was at the table. Those tables are democratically designed and not engineered by the Academy to necessarily give the biggest names the best seats in the house. In fact we were right near the kitchen in the back — and Justin Timberlake next to us. Also right near us was Academy Governor Steven Spielberg, who told me that though the luck of the draw he got to sit next to Moonlight director-writer Barry Jenkins, which seemed to be as exciting for him as it was for Jenkins. Their tablemates included Viola Davis.
And speaking of Moonlight, Best Actor nominee Viggo Mortensen (Captain Fantastic) could not praise that film enough when I caught up with him. I told him at the valet stand later that on my unscientific but pretty accurate applause meter, he got the biggest round of applause and whoops and hollers when he was called up to join fellow nominees for the annual class photo. Miranda wondered what that might mean, and I said nothing necessarily except there are a lot of Academy voters in the room. Among them were several former Academy presidents including 95-year-old Walter Mirisch, who told me he has been to every single one of these nominee lunches, which actually started after his tenure. He gives full credit to another former President, Richard Kahn, who came up with it, and it is one that has stuck. I think everyone in the room today would agree it was a swell idea.