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Things I Learned at the Oscar Nominee Mixer

Things I Learned at the Oscar Nominee Mixer

I pulled into the Beverly Hilton for the annual Academy Nominees lunch alongside Quentin Tarantino (pictured with Academy president Tom Sherak). At the press table, an Academy staffer asked me turn the handle to spit out a ball telling me where I’d be sitting.

I landed number three: each table mixes a press person with an ex-Academy president or governor–in our case, Walter Mirisch, producer of 100 movies, including Hawaii, Fiddler on the Roof, The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape–and a smattering of nominees. Table three included The Hurt Locker producer Greg Shapiro, who fears that with just ten movies under his belt, he will never catch up with Mirisch, and The Cove producer Fisher Stevens, who flew in from New York.

There’s a giddy sense of joy at this event. The nominees are happy to cheer each other on. Women press themselves on Morgan Freeman, who keeps moving. That’s how stars survive–they smile, and continue to push forward. Diminutive Carey Mulligan has gone very blonde. (Typically, Mo’Nique is a no-show.) Director Ed Zwick, an Academy governor, says that he approached cinematographer Eduardo Serra at one of these luncheons and ended up working with him on three movies.

Oscar show co-producer Bill Mechanic, an ardent film buff, promises that clips from the ten best picture nominees will not take too much time, and poo-poos recent calls to reform the show a la The Super Bowl. “The show can be edgy and still be about film,” he said. The Oscar show will start off with a short film interviewing such Oscar-winners as Diablo Cody, Renee Zellweger and Davis Guggenheim about what it meant to win. Mechanic confers with Tarantino, screwdriver in hand, about how they should handle his presentation bit with Pedro Almodovar. “Just give us something to work with,” says Tarantino.

I introduce Tarantino to Avatar VFX master Joe Letteri, who sounds unsure of any movement on an Avatar sequel. (It’s probably like giving birth, he doesn’t want to remember the pain.) With Tintin and The Hobbit, he’s got plenty to do for the moment. Tarantino compares my contentious Moviefone blog dueler Jack Mathews to Bosley Crowther. Anna Wydra, the co-writer of the excellent documentary short Rabbit a la Berlin, tells Tarantino that Pulp Fiction inspired her to become a filmmaker.

Jason Reitman talks about me in an interview with Roger Ebert, he alerts me. Like the good log-roller I am, I tell him how much I enjoy his tweets, which are never dull. Here’s his tweet from the lunch: “Last time I was in the Oscar class portrait my dad took a photo. This time we stood next to each other.”

Summit chief Rob Friedman explains why he decided to release The Hurt Locker on DVD January 12. Basically, the movie did as well as it could in initial release over the summer, did not perform strongly in December rerelease and they went early with the DVD. In my view, had they held off, they could have ridden their nominations and eventual wins to a higher theatrical gross. Clearly, Friedman was not counting his chickens, and did not expect nine Oscar nominations. The movie is in 100 theaters, where it’s not scoring off the charts because it’s available on DVD. (On the other hand, given how poorly Precious has performed in the post-nomination break, maybe Friedman is right.) Summit opens its Rob Pattinson tragic romance Remember Me March 12 on 2000 screens; it’s playing well for women.

After milling about, everyone sits down for salad. Gabourey Sidibe is at the table to the left, Colin Firth and The Hurt Locker writer Mark Boal are on the right. Meryl Streep is sitting in the back. “Here in this room, all nominees are equal,” Sherak reminds at the start of his remarks. “Welcome to our seminar on the preferential voting system. This is the first time since 1943 there have been ten best picture nominations.” It’s also rare, he said, to have five animated features and five documentary shorts. When Oscar winners attend the Governor’s Ball, for the first time this year they can get their engraved nameplate attached on site. The Academy is etching 197 of them in advance to cover every potential winner. And no, Sherak informed the crowd, “non-winners can’t get the plates. We will recycle them.”

Sherak directs the 121 nominees to gather for a huge group portrait. The Vanishing co-stars Jeff Bridges and Sandra Bullock talk animatedly throughout (later, when I flip-cam Bullock by the hotel pool, she says she hopes nobody heard what Bridges was saying). George Clooney turns his charm on James Cameron in the back row, and the room applauds each one as they go in alphabetical order (working backwards from composer Hans Zimmer) to accept their nomination certificate. All 14 actors, from Gabourey Sidibe, Vera Farmiga and Jeremy Renner to Clooney, Freeman and Streep, nab bigger applause than anyone else–except for Tarantino, Kathryn Bigelow and T-Bone Burnett. For what it’s worth. UPDATE: The Wrap has a slide show and the LAT has a mesmerizing digital panorama. They’re applauding Zimmer.

Co-producers Mechanic and Adam Shankman (who make an odd match of serious producer and ebullient choreographer-director) deliver the usual warnings about keeping the evening’s 24 acceptance speeches entertaining and short (45 seconds). They can thank everyone and their mother with the backstage thank you cam. “We’re dedicated to giving you one hell of a kick-ass night,” says Shankman, admitting that the joy of winning an Oscar is “a feeling I’ll never know.” Examples of great acceptance speeches: Steven Soderbergh, John Patrick Shanley, Bob Fosse, Penelope Cruz, Denzel Washington and Kevin Spacey. The all-time greatest? Stanley Donen, who sang “I’m in Heaven” and danced a great soft shoe.

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