“This is better than any All-Star Game I was ever in,” said Kobe Bryant, a first-time Oscar nominee (for the animated short Dear Basketball), as he dropped by my table at the annual Oscar Nominees Luncheon today to say hello to Netflix’s Ted Sarandos. In a room full of heavyweights from Streep to Spielberg, Kobe was perhaps the one who turned the most heads, and when Laura Dern announced his name to come up and join in the class photo of this year’s Oscar-nominated crop, he got perhaps the biggest applause of any of the nominees who headed to those risers.
Dern made a point of prefacing it by saying, “I am a Los Angeles native,” emphasizing why she was so excited to announce his name. Best Actor nominee Timothee Chalamet came by to take a selfie with the Lakers great. It pretty much went that way for Bryant all afternoon. Smartly, Academy officials seated him in front to the right of the giant Oscar statuette in the official photo. Otherwise, he might have covered many of the other nominees.
As usual, the lunch was a feel-good affair that has no losers, only winners, very good turnout (estimated at more than 175 of the 205 members of Oscar’s Class of 2017). Academy President John Bailey kept his opening remarks in line with the spirit of the event, describing the history behind what this select group now finds itself a part of. But he also briefly mentioned the elephant in the room in terms of the sexual harassment scandals that have rocked the industry over the past year, saying “the fossilized bedrock of many of Hollywood’s worst abuses are being jack-hammered into oblivion.”
The Academy in fact recently put forth their own document of expected rules of conduct for members and famously expelled Harvey Weinstein in October. He noted it is a time of great change and told me afterwards that, despite the celebratory nature of this occasion, he knew he had to say something in his remarks. You can likely expect to hear more on the March 4 Oscar show itself, to be sure. “Basically, this is a time for women to be heard,” he told me.
Oscar producers Michael De Luca and Jennifer Todd, returning for a second year in a row after last year’s infamous envelope debacle for which obviously the Academy’s accounting firm Price Waterhouse was completely to blame, have big plans for the 90th-anniversary show with Jimmy Kimmel as host, but kept those plans to themselves while letting comedian Patton Oswalt deliver some tips to nominees who might get the opportunity to make that fabled 45-second Oscar speech. Considering what has been happening in the industry, this was his best piece of advice: “This is a little tricky area, but maybe think twice before you mention your agents and managers. I don’t know if you have been paying attention to what has been going on in Hollywood this past year, but maybe you won’t want to have to explain to your grandkids why you thanked someone that Dateline just did a four-part series on.” Very funny bit from Oswalt that got big laughs.
Perhaps the most ubititous nominee at the lunch was one who wasn’t actually even there. Best Documentary Feature nominee J.R. for Faces Places carried around a cardboard cutout of his co-nominee, 89-year-old Agnes Varda (actually there were two cutouts of her) and put her in the class photo right next to Greta Gerwig and Meryl Streep. (By the way, Bailey specifically pointed out Streep and Spielberg for their numerous nominations — 21 for Streep, 17 for Spielberg — and opined that they were likely just as excited as they were the first time. I decided to ask Streep if that was true, and she simply turned to me and uttered three words that defined her spirited attitude toward it all: “I’m still young.”)
Streep was among the nominees getting the loudest applause (next to Bryant) when her name was called. Others were the likes of Sam Rockwell, Guillermo del Toro, Laurie Metcalf, but notably cinematographer Rachel Morrison (Mudbound), who became the first female nominee ever in that category. She also shot the upcoming blockbuster Black Panther, which I overheard Disney’s Bob Iger raving about in no uncertain terms as he talked to nominee Octavia Spencer and Academy CEO Dawn Hudson. He praised the work of director Ryan Coogler, as did Get Out Best Actor nominee Daniel Kaluuya when I asked him about also being in that film.
Sarandos was whooping it up for Morrison and every other Netflix nominee, proud that the streaming service had broken through in a big way with eight nominations this year, including four for Mudbound. We also talked about last night’s Super Bowl launch of J.J. Abrams’ The Cloverfield Paradox which (despite negative reviews) he says he is very proud of. It was only in December that the service bought the movie from original planned distributor Paramount and had just six weeks to spring this surprise. He said that included dubbing it into languages all over the world where Netflix is seen, and billboards magically popped up all over town today for the previously top secret project.
“I called J.J. this morning to tell him the billboards rose with the sun this morning,” Sarandos laughed (there is one directly across from Deadline’s offices). I also asked about Deadline’s exclusive earlier today that Ryan Murphy’s new series, The Politician, is a two-season guaranteed go at Netflix starring Tony winner Ben Platt along with Gwyneth Paltrow and Barbra Streisand in her first series role ever. He confirmed also that plans include Streisand to direct some episodes as well. He says the relationship with the Oscar-winning legend began when Netflix bought her current concert special. He said Murphy has always wanted to work with her and it all started to come together when they met at the Golden Globes less than a month ago.
Sarandos is understandably also high on the currently shooting The Irishman directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci, another project Netflix inherited from Paramount and a potential game-changer for the streamer even though he says the release pattern will be in line with what they always do for big feature projects — meaning day and date.
All the Foreign Language-nominated directors were in attendance today, as well as all the Best Director nominees. Dunkirk’s Christopher Nolan told me he thinks the event has gotten bigger since he was last invited as a Picture and Screenplay nominee for Inception. Get Out‘s Jordan Peele is still reeling over the fact that he keeps turning up at the Beverly Hilton ballroom for these almost daily awards-season ceremonies. “Every time the reality hits me that this is really happening,” said on the way to picking up his three — count ’em, three — nomination certificates.
A Fantastic Woman’s Sebastian Lelio and star Daniela Vega though probably put in the most miles to come to lunch. They arrived via a quick trip to Japan, then London, then Madrid, where they picked up the Goya Award (the Spanish Oscars) on Saturday night and then straight here. “I am not sure what city or time I am in right now, but this is certainly a great place to be, isn’t it?” Vega said, smiling. Definitely true.
I can pretty much guarantee that all these nominees, from multi-timers like Streep to first timers like The Shape Of Water cinematographer Dan Laustsen, would agree with that sentiment. This luncheon is always one of the highlights of the season.