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State of the Oscar Race, Reading the Oscar Nominees Lunch Tea Leaves (VIDEO)

State of the Oscar Race, Reading the Oscar Nominees Lunch Tea Leaves (VIDEO)

As of Friday, February 8, Academy members can vote for the Oscars, right up to February 19. Many have already received their paper ballots, and three have anonymously revealed their votes to the LA Times. All they reveal is that this year, more than most, the race is wide open and hard to call. “It’s the best collection of movies in 90 years,” says Harvey Weinstein, who is chipper, having finally turned his company fortunes around via box office hits “Django Unchained” and “Silver Linings Playbook,” even if they don’t wind up winning any Oscars.

I was hoping that reading the tea leaves at the annual Oscar Nominees Luncheon last week would help me to figure out what the hell is going on. “I can’t remember a better crop of films in every single category,” echoed Academy president Hawk Koch at the lunch. Here’s what I learned there.

Weinstein wants to position “Silver Linings” as a more serious movie. It’s a romantic comedy, right? No, comedies don’t do well at the Oscars, so it’s about mental illness! David O. Russell and his cast are all on point as they make their press rounds to Katie Couric and more. “We stigmatize mental illness,” Russell told me earnestly at the lunch. “Having that posture toward it is wrong, why treat it like that?”

Jennifer Lawrence did the circuit by the Beverly Hilton pool after the lunch, along with Jackie Weaver –and “Flight” star Denzel Washington (see my video below)–while Robert De Niro did the hand and feet ceremony at The Chinese and submitted to an Aero Tribute and Q &A.

Clearly, many actors support “Silver Linings,” even if it didn’t win the SAG ensemble prize, as it earned four acting nominations for the first time since “Reds.” And De Niro has a good shot at a supporting actor nomination in a wide open field currently led by “Lincoln” SAG-winner Tommy Lee Jones. “David is a wonderful director, and writer, a combination of that,” De Niro told me at the lunch. “When we’re moving around in a scene, he puts the camera on a steadicam or handheld, on you or on the next character that speaks, back to you, around here, throwing couple lines at you here and there. But the core material is what you’ve worked on. It’s spontaneous, that energy and controlled chaos, it helps the immediacy.”

“Argo” producer George Clooney has given Ben Affleck some campaigning tips. The tall multi-hyphenate keeps himself humble and self-deprecating in his many acceptance speeches as well as making charming and accessible conversation on his campaign rounds. This is one of the advantages of being an actor in a tough race. People adore Affleck. And he’s open about wanting to win this one. I told him that after his PGA, SAG and DGA wins, I’ve gone over to the “Argo” side for best picture. “You’re not going to change your mind and throw us out?” he challenged me.

Kathryn Bigelow exudes nothing but confidence as she enjoys her biggest box office hit to date, “Zero Dark Thirty,” and being the subject of a Time Magazine cover story. “It was sort of surreal,” she admitted, “but it was great.” The room was warm to Bigelow, writer-producer Mark Boal and star Jessica Chastain. This movie, too, has ardent supporters.

Oscar producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron are starting to reveal their plans for the Oscar show itself. “We approached Adele right at the beginning,” said Zadan, “and lined her up in case she got nominated. We’ve been collaborating with (host) Seth MacFarlane every day, working with him and his writers. We’re putting together a surprising and unique opening that is quite different. We wanted to change up stuff and make it new and contemporary and fresh. Seth has some new ideas and there are a lot of surprises, a lot!”

They’re not worried about MacFarlane’s snarky remarks at the nominations announcement. “On the show itself we’re working with Seth every day on everything he’s doing,” said Zadan. “It’s a collaboration, it’s not like he’s going out there to surprise us, we’re going to know everything he’s going to do, we will have discussed it, made decisions, we’ll be in the loop as to what he’s going to say.”

Are they aiming at the global audience or the Hollywood insiders in the room? “A lot of it is accessible,” said Zadan, “we’ve heard it, we don’t want an insidery thing. We want something accessible to everyone watching the show. There will be some inside Hollywood jokes of course about some aspects of Hollywood, there’s some really hilarious stuff.”

The Academy lunch applause meter is always revealing. Academy president Koch, in charge for just one year, is making all the tweaks and changes he can–he even tried to change the venue but was talked out of it. While the usual round tables of nominees and governors were scattered around the room–Sony’s Michael Barker hung out with “Les Miserables” director Tom Hooper, Kathryn Bigelow sat next to Robert De Niro, Fox’s Jim Gianopulos sat with Bradley Cooper– there was no alphabetical calling up of the nominees, no ritualistic handing out of the certificates of nomination.

Koch said he was pleased to be saving time at the lunch. What’s the rush? It’s about the nominees, who submitted to the usual begging to keep acceptance speeches short. “Get to the stage quickly,” exhorted Zadan. “You have 45 seconds, winning groups should select a speaker who will begin immediately and give a heartfelt funny speech. Speak from heart, not a piece of paper, you are talking to over a billion people in 225 countries.” At that the room visibly rustled with discomfort. “Piece of cake!” cracked my tablemate Mark Andrews, director of “Brave.” “Inspire billions! Be funny! Speak from the heart!”

Getting enthusiastic hands were directors Russell, Spielberg, Bigelow, Affleck, Tim Burton, and Malik Bendjelloul of “Searching for Sugar Man,” writer Tony Kushner, editor William Goldenberg and “Anna Karenina” designer Sarah Greenwood. The actors always get the biggest hands, from Denzel Washington, Tommy Lee Jones and Jackie Weaver to Naomi Watts, Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, Joaquin Phoenix and gamine Quvenzhane Wallis, who got a big laugh by sitting on the Oscar statue in the middle of the photo.

The biggest hand of the day went to director Ang Lee. Visually glorious and spiritually uplifting, “The Life of Pi” is picking up steam as it cleans up with pre-Oscar tech awards and passes the $500 million mark in global box office. It’s been tough for Fox to campaign without movie stars–but well-respected Lee and Rhythm & Hues’ CG tiger are the film’s stars.

Meanwhile Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster “Lincoln,” with the most nominations, 12, is seen as the establishment contender, as its rivals strive to portray it as boring and educationally historic. Daniel Day-Lewis, who was felled by flu and didn’t make the lunch, and Tony Kushner are seen as locks for best actor and adapted screenplay. But picture and director? Lionsgate motion picture exec Rob Friedman warned a group of us that the Oscars are still “wide open.”

Producer and tweeter Frank Marshall (@ledoctor) makes a good DJ. He was spinning discs at the Beverly Hilton on Monday as his wife Kathleen Kennedy, new CEO of Lucasfilm and producer of “Lincoln,” worked the room. She was the first one called to line up for the annual nominees photo (which also included honorary awardees this year) and Spielberg was the last.

And the Academy also abandoned the press lottery, Academy chief Dawn Hudson said, so they could put media folks with like-minded nominees. They seemed to think I’d rather talk to sound mixers and animation directors and indie producers than celebs. OK– they might be right.

“The Gatekeepers” is moving up in the documentary Oscar race. Sony Pictures’ Classics is in the happy position of having the two frontrunners in the doc category, as “Searching for Sugar Man” keeps winning awards. But their recent release, Dror Moreh’s “The Gatekeepers,” featuring interviews with the five heads of Israel’s security arm Shin Bet, is knocking audiences’ and Academy voters’ socks off. They’re getting all five doc screeners in the mail, so they can all vote this year (along with the animated and live action shorts). “All five films are magnificent,” admitted Barker at the Academy lunch.

Why are so many docs so good these days? Most agree that all fifteen of the shortlisted nominees were terrific. “There are two things going on,” Barker replied. “On a technical level documentarians like Dror and Malik are making docs for movie theaters, that work in theaters best, and also work on TV and DVD. These five docs are made to be seen in movie theaters, which elevates them. And due to current events and global politics, documentaries are becoming so much more important to the public.”

Indeed. “The Gatekeepers” seems to be having an impact in Israel. “We got the Oscar nomination on the Thursday, then we opened in a few arthouse cinemas,” said Moreh. “We’re now in 15, the numbers are amazing, but more important, a major commentator after the election was asked the reasons why Netanyahu fell from what was predicted, and he gave as his number one reason: ‘The Gatekeepers.'”

Those super-high heels hurt. After the lunch, Helen Hunt (“The Sessions”) stood leaning against the Hilton ballroom door as she waited to get word that her car was ready outside. She has flip flops in the car, she admitted, that she can slip on the second she’s out of the public eye.

Our report on the Oscar Luncheon nominees meeting the press is here:

The global Oscar telecast is Sunday, February 24.

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