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Inside the Academy Nominees Luncheon, from Pharrell’s Hat to the Applause Meter

Inside the Academy Nominees Luncheon, from Pharrell's Hat to the Applause Meter

I had a blast at the annual Academy Nominees luncheon at the Beverly Hilton, as I always do. Each year, Academy governors and brass and the Oscar nominees (after meeting the press in the interview room) mill about during a long cocktail hour, socializing and congratulating each other. 

Many of them have come to know each other on the awards promo circuit, such as my Santa Barbara writer panelists, who greeted each other like old friends, as did WGA winners Spike Jonze (“Her”) and Billy Ray (“Captain Phillips”) and directors Alfonso Cuaron (“Gravity”) and Alexander Payne (“Nebraska”). I thanked “Nebraska” writer Bob Nelson for being so funny on my panel. June Squibb suggested he was the kind of person who is comfortable being himself and doesn’t care what people think. “I’m 57,” he responded.

“If Chivo tells you to get in the light box you get in the box” Sandra Bullock said to a circle of admirers, just before Illumination Entertainment chief Chris Meledandri, who harbors high hopes for Pharrell Williams’ smash hit single “Happy” from “Despicable Me 2”  beating “Frozen” song  “Let it Go” on Oscar night, brought Williams (complete with high hat) over to meet her. But Bono (“Mandela”) and Karen O. (“Her) are also in the Best Song hunt.

Danish director Thomas Vinterberg (“The Hunt”), who has wrapped Thomas Hardy’s “Far from the Madding Crowd” starring Carey Mulligan (my video with him here) was nervous about attending his first Oscar lunch, as was his main rival, Italian director Paolo Sorrentino (“The Great Beauty”), as a group of us debated whether Oscar voters would vote every category without seeing all five foreign films, docs and doc shorts as well as five animation and five live action shorts, which the Academy just sent out. They’re on the honor system.

“20 Feet from Stardom” director Morgan Neville is prepping another music doc on cellist Yoyo Ma, who is an even bigger star in China and abroad than he is here, he said. Governor Robin Swicord (“Little Women”) escorted young author Sam Wasson (the well-reviewed Bob Fosse biography) who has sold his first screenplay.  

Two Academy governors, Lionsgate’s Rob Friedman and director Michael Mann, and I discussed whether the directors branch not nominating Paul Greengrass or the actors not anointing Tom Hanks meant that “Captain Phillips” was out of the Best Picture running. This is a year, they agreed, like “Driving Miss Daisy” or “Crash” or “Chariots of Fire,” when there are so many close competitors that anything can happen. I’ve always thought “Captain Phillips” was a strong stealth candidate, well-liked– especially by Academy steakeaters– for its craft as well as its acting. 

Barkhad Abdi did land a supporting actor nod–and is moving to Los Angeles, he said, to look for another acting job.

Waiting for Marty

The round tables are arranged in the Hilton ballroom so that one member of the press and one Academy governor (at table 30, production designer Rick Carter plays host) sit with a range of nominees, in our case, K.K. Barrett, production designer of “Her,” and “Omar” director Hany Abu-Assad. When Martin Scorsese and Rick Yorn finally arrive, I’m delighted when the director sits next to me. We asked Barrett what the K.K. stands for: “Keith Keith.” 

I had the best time of anyone in the room, talking about why “The Wolf of Wall Street” had to be made independently– so a studio wouldn’t hover over every bad word–how Leonardo DiCaprio brought in Red Granite to finance it, and Catholic-raised Scorsese’s spiritual films, from “Kundun,” “The Last Temptation of Christ” and HBO doc “George Harrison: Living in the Material World” to the upcoming “Silence,” starring Liam Neeson and Ken Watanabe, which the director just scouted Taiwan locations, for a planned fall shoot. 

Scorsese is infectiously enthusiastic about all the projects he’s involved with, from HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” to an upcoming Mick Jagger series about the 70s rock scene, also on HBO, which he hopes that Jagger will appear in occasionally. The Rolling Stone concert film “Shine a Light” is just one of the many docs Scorsese has done; he’s also planning a doc on the New York Review of Books. Cinematographer John Bailey came over to talk about restored “Zatoichi” films and the difference between digital and film preservation. That’s another Scorsese cause, via his Film Foundation. How does he find the time?

Academy president Cheryl Boone-Isaacs takes the mic to celebrate the ongoing diversification of the Academy’s ranks and the presence of 14 women on the Board of Governors. Producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron are honoring heroes at the Oscars. “The show is successful if the pacing is brisk,” says Zadan to the room, to state the obvious.

It’s time to take a picture of the class of 2013. “Despicable Me 2″‘s Meledandri is the first to be called up by announcer Ed Begley, Jr. to the back row of the risers; “12 Years a Slave” supporting actress frontrunner Lupita Nyong’o gets big applause, as do Pharrell Williams and Bono and Meryl Streep and David O. Russell, who have a blast in the last row. Jared Leto gives a hand to June Squibb, who shared a Santa Barbara panel with him. Cate Blanchett takes off her high heels to scamper up the risers. Amy Adams sports a very 70s scarlet pant suit. Scruffy Bruce Dern, who also charmed Santa Barbara audiences, has a newspaper sticking out of his jacket pocket.

The applause meter reveals how much the Academy Awards is like a popularity contest. Stars have huge built-in fans and always get the most response, from Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill to Christian Bale and Amy Adams. But so do respected directors Cuaron, Payne, Scorsese, and McQueen, and beloved industry veterans like cinematographer Roger Deakins (“Prisoners”), nominated 11 times, and composer Thomas Newman (“Saving Mr. Banks”), nominated for 12 Oscars, neither of whom have ever won. 

Among those who get a healthy round from the room are Sorrentino, Neville, Jonze and his billionaire backer Megan Ellison, who also financed “American Hustle” when Sony passed. There’s noticeable warmth for “12 Years a Slave,” “Gravity,” “Her,” and “Philomena,” as writer-star Steve Coogan gets strong claps. After the photo is taken, everyone gets back to more networking. Blanchett talks to writing nominee Ethan Hawke. Streep talks girl power with Boone-Isaacs. John Lasseter greets Bono.

After the lunch many nominees and press reconnoiter by the Hilton pool for more interviews. The wonderful waiters at Circa 55 find me a small kitchen with frosted glass sliding doors for a private audience with DiCaprio, whose security man whisks him in through the kitchen; DiCaprio helps me move a small table and chairs into the light. We shake hands and I head to another room off the lobby bar for a sit-down with Cuaron. Stay tuned for those videos.

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