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There’s no suspense or sense of competition, just an air of cheerful camaraderie at the annual Oscar nominees’ luncheon, which was held Monday at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. The increasingly crowded awards season, with galas, q&a sessions and presentations galore, takes a toll on high-profile participants—especially actors who have to look their best and wear something different to each gathering. For them, this annual celebration of “the best of the best” is something of an oasis, where once they step inside the hotel ballroom, no TV cameras intrude and the feeling is collegial and festive.

For an observer like me, it’s a rare opportunity to chat up some of these actors and filmmakers, who are in high spirits. I had a lovely talk with Sally Field, for starters. It’s been 28 years since she last rode this merry-go-round, when she was nominated as Best Actress for Places in the Heart and went on to win her second Academy Award. She can’t believe how the process has changed and the demands increased since then, although being the trouper she is she’s happy to support a film like Lincoln.

I asked Sally’s Lincoln costar Tommy Lee Jones when he’s going to direct again—being a fan of his work behind the camera—and he replied, “Right now.” He’ll be shooting camera tests later this week for a Western called The Homesman, based on a novel by Glendon Swarthout, best remembered for the book that became John Wayne’s final film, The Shootist. Jones has written the screenplay himself and corralled Meryl Streep and Hilary Swank to costar with him.

Joaquin Phoenix looks happy and healthy, unlike the lean, fierce character he plays so well in The Master. One reason, it turns out, is that he’s eating normally again after starving himself for that picture. “Your body burns up 1,200 calories a day just breathing,” he explained, “And I was on an 800-calorie diet. I didn’t realize I would have no energy!” Midway through filming he developed a mad craving for sugar, which he satisfied one night by endlessly licking a single piece of Jolly Rancher candy. The minute he finished production he told his family he wanted cookies—lots of cookies.

Filmmaker David O. Russell told me that he’s been hearing from families of veterans who are suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder because they recognize some of the manic symptoms enacted by Bradley Cooper’s character in Silver Linings Playbook. They credit the writer-director with helping to de-stigmatize such behavior in his empathetic film. Who could ask for a more moving or meaningful response?

Not every famous face at this event is a nominee. Animation guru John Lasseter, director Michael Mann, and actor Ed Begley, Jr. were all there in their roles as members of the Academy’s Board of Governors, an imposing group that includes executives, costume designers, composers, screenwriters, and representatives of every facet of moviemaking. One of them is Kathryn Bigelow, who while overlooked for directing Zero Dark Thirty is a nominee as one of its producers. Another is legendary editor Anne V. Coates, who’s still going strong at age 87. Her credits include such varied films as Erin Brockovich, In the Line of Fire, andThe Golden Compass, but for me (and many others, I suspect) my knee-jerk reaction upon seeing her is to think, “That’s the woman who edited Lawrence of Arabia!”

Seating at the luncheon is purposefully scrambled so that movie stars sit with sound editors and animators get to meet makeup artists and cinematographers. This year saw a record turnout of 168 nominees who crammed onto bleachers in the ballroom to take their annual “class photo.” Watching these talented individuals offer congratulations back and forth as the  group assembles is often quite moving. As the crowd began to disburse, I saw Robert De Niro kiss Denzel Washington on the cheek, a beautiful gesture from one brilliant actor to another that, so far as I know, wasn’t recorded by any photographer. That’s why I feel so privileged to attend this event.

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