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Inside the Academy Nominees Lunch, from Clint Eastwood to Emma Stone

Inside the Academy Nominees Lunch, from Clint Eastwood to Emma Stone

While most of the press corps fire questions at the Oscar nominees one by one in the interview room at the Beverly Hilton (our coverage here), a few of us Oscar watchers get to go inside the lunch. As we walk into the hotel, there’s a lottery selecting which table we get to sit at–the nominees, Academy governors and seven former presidents as well as a few luminaries are scattered around the room, such as Academy CEO Dawn Hudson and Disney’s master Academy Museum fundraiser Robert Iger. (AMPAS president Cheryl Boone Isaacs reminded that the museum is set to open in 2017.)

Last year I scored a spot next to the late-arriving Martin Scorsese (hog heaven); this year I’m charmed by the delightful “Birdman” star Emma Stone, who has been clocking many hours on cross-continental flights while she stars as Sally Bowles in “Cabaret” on Broadway. She and fellow Broadway Baby, Bradley Cooper (“The Elephant Man”) returned to New York on the same flight Tuesday morning.

Cooper is surging in the Oscar race, as both producing and acting nominee of “American Sniper,” competing against Golden Globes winners Michael Keaton (“Birdman”) and Eddie Redmayne (“The Theory of Everything”), who also won the SAG Award. Three way races can yield surprises, such as 29-year-old Adrien Brody’s youngest-ever win for late arrival “The Pianist” in 2003 against Daniel Day Lewis (“Gangs of New York”) and Jack Nicholson (“About Schmidt”). 

Controversy is only fueling his Iraq war movie, Clint Eastwood told me. “Michael Moore is selling tickets to ‘American Sniper.'” Eastwood hated it when the “Fahrenheit 9/11” director Moore accosted in his home Charlton Heston, who it turned out was suffering from Alzheimer’s. But Eastwood doesn’t remember threatening to kill him. Eastwood was the first one up to the riser for the annual group photo (to serious applause), but at age 84, had to stand as all the nominees came up. Robert Duvall got a chair, something that Eastwood likely wanted to avoid. “My hands hurt,” he admitted afterwards. Marion Cotillard (“Two Days, One Night”) lost the lottery for actress having to stand the longest in spike heels. 

The actors always get major applause, from Cooper and Stone to Keaton (to my ears he got the most), the popular J.K. Simmons and Oprah Winfrey, who attended the event as the producer of Best Picture nominee “Selma.” When I asked her how she felt about what “Selma” did or didn’t get, Winfrey said, “I go toward the light.” Getting a Best Picture nomination is something to be happy about, she said. My bet: the movie will win Best Song for Common and John Legend.

Another Best Song nominee for a movie that deserved more attention at the box office was “Beyond the Lights,” whose director Gina Prince Bythewood and songwriter Diane Warren are hoping the romance starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Nate Parker, which was muffed by Relativity, will grab more viewers when it hits DVD and VOD.

Key no-shows at the lunch were directors AG Inarritu (“Birdman”), who is shooting “The Revenant” in Canada with Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” director Wes Anderson, and Benedict Cumberbatch (“The Imitation Game”).

I introduced Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones to Netflix Content czar Ted Sarandos (documentary “Virunga”). “Netflix is going to take over the movie business,” I said. “Netflix is going to save the movie business,” corrected Jones, who it turns out beat out Rooney Mara and Tatiana Maslany for a leading role in Disney and Lucasfilm’s “Star Wars” standalone movie from director Gareth Edwards and writer Chris Weitz.

Sarandos, who just picked up world rights to documentary “Hot Girls Wanted” at Sundance, was huddling with director Bennett Miller (“Foxcatcher”) on a possible Megan Ellison-funded project. “I don’t want to be left out,” Sarandos told Miller, who later hugged “Wild” star Reese Witherspoon on the riser before the group photo. Looking abashed, 30-year-old “Whiplash” writer-director Damien Chazelle stood next to Winfrey. This year host Neil Patrick Harris flew in from New York and posed with the gang–until announcer Ed Begley Jr. made him leave. “Everything will be fucking hilarious” Harris told the crowd, mispronouncing 12 time honoree Roger Deakins’ name. He’ll do better Oscar night.

Redmayne was amused by the “Jupiter Ascending” photo of his well-sculpted abs that hit the internet this week. “I worked out for six months to do the movie,” he said, “and they never showed it.” He couldn’t see the screening Monday afternoon because he had to do Conan. (He may be better off skipping the silly Wachowski space opera, which could do his Oscar campaign more harm than good.) 

My table mate Emma Stone helped me to edit my iPhoto of Patricia Arquette (“Boyhood”) and Charlie Siskel (“Finding Vivian Maier”). “I feel like a bunch of gold coins have landed in my lap,” Arquette said about how she’s rolling with her award season bounty. “She’s going to use that,” warned Siskel, the nephew of the late critic Gene Siskel. 

Among the foreign filmmakers on hand, Pawel Pawlikowksi (Poland’s frontrunner “Ida”) and Damian Szifron (Argentina’s popular comedy “Wild Tales”) are both returning to their home countries to write and direct follow-ups, despite plenty of pressure from Hollywood. So is “Leviathan” Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev, who explained that the  29 Russian filmmakers (expanded from a smaller group, which helped him) who selected his film for Oscar submission are very different from the nationalists who are protesting the film. Yes, the Minister of Culture spouts the party line that Russian films should present the country in a positive light, he said, but he wouldn’t specify that Russia’s president Vladimir Putin, who has close ties to the film industry, was behind that directive. (He is.)

Talking to various documentarians at the event (attendees included Siskel, Rory Kennedy of “Last Days in Vietnam,” Laura Poitras of “Citizenfour,” Juliano Salgado of “The Salt of the Earth” and “Virunga”‘s Orlando von Einsiedel) I gathered that branch members working with a preferential ballot understood that if they voted for “Keep On Keepin’ On” it might win. Steve James’ “Life Itself” might have been ranked second on many ballots. “That’s not a snub,” reminded one filmmaker.

Oscar show producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron begged Oscar winners to keep their speeches short—-45 seconds –in front of whole world. “Select a designated speaker,” they said. “Start right away!” The duo were pleased that their push to announce all 24 categories came true: “Every Oscar branch received their due.”


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