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Clooney and Payne Talk at Oscar Nominee Lunch, Measuring Applause

Clooney and Payne Talk at Oscar Nominee Lunch, Measuring Applause

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is an institution, like many others, trying to stay true to its mission while it transitions for the future. At one table at Monday’s Academy Nominees Luncheon sat Bill Lee, president of ABC Entertainment Group, the network that is demanding high ratings from the Award Show of Shows on February 26, which will be hosted by Billy Crystal. There’s pressure to showcase more accessible films, to pull in younger viewers, to give young actors like football scion Rooney Mara membership in the Academy so they can vote.

In his remarks, Academy president Tom Sherak praised new Academy CEO Dawn Hudson for pushing forward the new Academy Museum with the Los Angeles County Museum at the May Company location, and for boosting the coming electronic Academy ballots. But the warmth in the room was for the former Academy presidents — Sid Ganis, Arthur Hiller, Bob Rehme and Frank Pierson among them — not the female interloper, who has a long row to hoe before she’s truly accepted.

The Academy is a stolid organization that is resistant to change. But the Academy luncheon, one tried-and-true ritual for 31 years — invented by PR branch member Richard Kahn — is just fun. When you walk into the Beverly Hilton, they roll numbered balls to tell you what table you’ll be at. I landed with Governor Marvin Levy, who has handled press for Steven Spielberg (nominated as producer for “The Help”) for more than 30 years; Academy library director Linda Mehr, who supervises a collection of 40,000 posters, 80,000 scripts and 10 million photos; and Glenn Close, who quizzed costume designer Arianne Phillips, who dresses Madonna and designed “W.E.,” about whether she knocked off real costumes or designed her own. (The answer: A mix of both.)

On my way in to the hotel ballroom, a logjam of folks was lined up to walk the photo carpet, from Meryl Streep, who greeted Leonard Maltin when she arrived, to Demian Bichir and ruddy-faced Nick Nolte. Skipping the line were “Hugo” production designer Dante Ferretti (who won the Art Directors Guild period award) and red-haired costume designer Sandy Powell.

Last year’s Oscar-winning writer for “The Social Network,” Aaron Sorkin, kissed “Moneyball” producer Rachael Horovitz, who is making a film with Peter Sollet and is in talks with Robert Redford. Nearby, ebullient Harvey Weinstein (triple nominee Michel Hazanavicius’ “The Artist” is in the lead for best picture and TWC has five actor contenders: Streep, Dujardin and Berenice Bejo, Williams and Kenneth Branagh) told pregnant editor-in-chief of The Hollywood Reporter, Janice Min, that he’s going to see all five foreign-language films so that he can vote. He worked the room, chatting up his own worried-looking Dujardin, sans interpreter (sipping Moet & Chandon), plus pixie Mara (who actually broke a smile for him), Close and Octavia Spencer, among others.

There’s a palpable joy as these nominees — the best in their profession, who have kicked ass to get where they are today, whether they are A-list veteran directors like Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, hanging together in the top row, or documentary stalwart Lucy Walker, who found tsunami footage on YouTube and then had to persuade the reluctant shooter to give her the rights to show it — accept the respect and applause of their peers. And when it’s actors — from Melissa McCarthy and seated octogenarian Max Von Sydow, who many nominees greeted on their way by — the love is huge.

Poor Michelle Williams: This is the second time I’ve watched her gamely standing at the end of the alphabet in the back row of the huge annual nominees photo as 150 nominees are called up to accept their certificate. Why the pity? These stars stand in their spike high heels. When Sherak suggested that this year the Governor’s Ball was not going to be a sit-down dinner but a festive party, Close grimaced at her shoes. You could feel a groan in the house.

When Viola Davis (wearing hot pink) was called, Close was among the enthusiastic clappers. These folks do love their Clooney (standing with Close and Dujardin) and Pitt (standing with Streep and Mara). And there was real love in the room for “The Tree of Life,” as well as musician Sergio Mendes (nominated for best song for “Rio”). No shows included Christopher Plummer, Wim Wenders, Woody Allen and Terrence Malick.

Oscarcast co-producer Brian Grazer promised a classy show. Filming of the Billy Crystal intro skit is under way (along with interviews with many of the nominees) — “everyone is in the film,” he said. The Kodak Theatre stage will be dressed like an old-time movie palace to sell the theme of going out to the movies. “Seeing films in that environment is a magnifier of how you feel emotionally,” he said. “You’ll feel like you’re in a movie theater.”

After the lunch I went down to the pool to interview “The Descendants” star Clooney and writer-director Alexander Payne, in twin grey suits, who are also competing with one another for the adapted screenplay Oscar (below).  Clooney has already voted for Payne. Now that’s class.

(Check out the interactive panoramic version of the photo below at the LATimes.)

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