The annual Oscar Nominees Luncheon was back at the Beverly Hilton, and back just like the old days (well, 2019) before the pandemic changed everything. But if the vibe and attendance at Monday’s lunch is any indication, the Oscars themselves could be in for a very good night as the Academy seems bound and determined to bring the show back to its old self. That means a more traditional kind of Oscar experience after the surreal pandemic-affected ceremony at Union Station in 2021, and last year’s Will Smith Slap edition. We can use a little comfort food from the Oscars and I just get the feeling, with Jimmy Kimmel back as host, it might be just what the doctor ordered for the Academy’s big night.
Set to begin at 11:30 a.m. today for the reception, the ballroom at the Hilton filled up quickly with lots of mingling and networking going on, with nary a mask in sight. Clearly owning the place was Top Gun: Maverick Best Picture nominee Tom Cruise, making his first appearance at an awards event this season and literally being mobbed. And this was a guy being mobbed by some very famous people themselves as well as industry stalwarts like former DreamWorks executive and AMPAS board member Bonnie Arnold, who told me her day was made. “I just got a photo with Tom Cruise!” she happily exclaimed.
Guillermo del Toro made a beeline for the star too, as he approached Cruise, “I must talk to Tomás. I must talk to Tomás,” he said as he made his way down the steps. Cameras were clicking constantly and Cruise looked like he was having a blast, welcoming everyone who wanted a piece of his stardust. Top Gun: Maverick producer Jerry Bruckheimer was right nearby as well, basking in the glow of the luncheon which was his first ever since, believe it or not, the film’s Best Picture nomination is the first for any of his blockbuster movies.
On the contrary, Steven Spielberg has been around this block more than a few times, with The Fabelmans representing his 12th nomination for Best Picture (a record for a producer) and his ninth for directing, but you wouldn’t know it by the level of giddy enthusiasm he was showing. That is because it also represents only his first Oscar recognition for screenwriting as he and co-writer Tony Kushner are nominated in the Best Original Screenplay category. When I ran smack into him at will call where we collected our badges, Spielberg proudly showed off his badge to me, pointing out the three categories it listed for him. “This is the first time I have ever personally had three nominations for the same movie,” he said, clearly over the moon. The movie got seven nominations but inexplicably not one for Film Editing, which I told him it richly deserved if only for the scene where Spielberg’s altar-ego Sammy is editing the family film he shot only to discover his mother in a disturbing embrace with a family friend. It is all played silently, and masterfully shot and cut. Spielberg told me he learned long ago to be thankful for what you do get.
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I pointed out a famous moment in the 1976 TV special TVTV Goes To The Oscars which chronicled that particular season when Spielberg’s Jaws was a Best Picture nominee, but its director missed out on a nomination. The camera was on the then-not-nominated director as nominees were being revealed for the first time on television in his category. The name Federico Fellini for Amarcord was the first one called out and Spielberg dejectedly and instantly said, “I didn’t get it.” He knew right then it wasn’t to be for Jaws, and he says it taught him a lesson in how to roll with the punches of all this. Incidentally, he told me he actually met Fellini four years earlier when his 1971 ABC TV Movie, Duel was being released in Italy, and the master Italian filmmaker took him under his wing and gave him a five-hour tour of the iconic Cinecitta movie studio. When he was nominated over the young director, Spielberg now simply says “it was an honor” to lose that nomination to Federico Fellini.
14-time nominee Diane Warren caught up with new AMPAS CEO Bill Kramer in one corner of the Hilton. I asked her if she has also been to 14 nominee lunches. “I don’t quite remember all of them. Were they being held when I first got nominated?” she asked me, and I told her ‘yes’, so then she was sure. “If they invited me to this lunch I definitely would have come every time.”
The remarkable Malala Yousafzai was there due to being an executive producer on Joshua Seftel’s nominated Documentary Short Stranger at the Gate for the first time, and greeted lots of admirers. I asked if she had attended the lunch for her 2015 feature documentary He Named Me Malala but she didn’t. “We were shortlisted but didn’t make the final list of five nominees,” she said. This time she is going to the Oscars.
Jamie Lee Curtis, another first-time nominee, had told me during the taping last week for my Deadline video series, The Actor’s Side which will run on Wednesday, that she would be wearing the string of pearls from her godmother, Edie Wasserman, and when I caught up with her as she was exiting, indeed she was, a sentimental gesture that seemed perfect for this day. This nomination is a huge thrill Curtis says, ranking right behind her marriage to Christopher Guest and her two daughters (I spotted Annie Guest at the luncheon as well).
Curtis was the first name called for the class photo, and she got hearty applause from the crowd as she made her way up on the risers before 181 other nominees, a record turnout for this lunch, would be called to take the iconic photo, a staple of every one of these Oscar nominee lunches. Among the other acting nominees being called up by AMPAS Board member DeVon Franklin were Cate Blanchett, Michelle Yeoh, Colin Farrell, Austin Butler, Ke Huy Quan, Judd Hirsch, Brendan Gleeson, Brendan Fraser, Paul Mescal, Hong Chau, Michelle Williams, Bill Nighy, and Angela Bassett, the latter getting some of the biggest applause upon her name being called. There was also lots of enthusiasm coming from the upper left corner of the room for everything Everything Everywhere All At Once, but if you are filling out your Oscar predictions based on applause in this room, think again. It was hard to gauge just who was the most popular this year, pretty evenly spread around, although after about the 150th name, it gets a little tiring to keep clapping.
As new Academy president Janet Yang said in her welcoming speech (where she also was very stern about AMPAS’ shortcomings when it came to dealing with the Will Smith slap last year – see separate story) “You are all winners here,” she said. She also got the crowd to repeat in unison that they understand they have 45 seconds to make their Oscar acceptance speech. “How long do you have?” Yang asked. “45 SECONDS!” the packed ballroom yelled back.
Here is my first prediction for the 95th Academy Awards. Come March 12th at the Dolby Theatre, not every winner is going to do what they just promised Janet Yang they would do.
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