“Wow, what a difference a year makes.” Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences exuded clear satisfaction as she addressed attendees at the 89th Academy Awards luncheon Monday afternoon at the Beverly Hilton. Isaacs opened her remarks by recognizing this year’s far-more-inclusive ballot after the Academy was sharply criticized — or more aptly, publicly shamed — two years in a row for the infamous #OscarsSoWhite controversies. “Simply put, real progress has been made,” Isaacs said, crediting the Academy’s active role in expanding membership by recruiting 683 new voters.
You didn’t have to look any further than table 18 — our position at the Hilton’s International Ballroom — to see the difference. Seated to our left was Raoul Peck, the director of the acclaimed James Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro, and one of four black filmmakers in the running for a Best Documentary Oscar. To our right was Moonlight editor Joi McMillon, who made history last month by becoming the first African-American woman nominated for Best Editing.
Both first-time nominees cheerfully recalled where they were the morning they found out they were Oscar nominees. For Peck, it was actually afternoon. He was in Germany wrapping up work on his next doc, Young Karl Max (a film that, like I Am Not Your Negro, he worked on for the past 10 years). “Somebody saw it on Twitter, but you can’t trust what you see on Twitter, so I didn’t believe it right away,” the director admitted. McMillon was in Utah for the Sundance Film Festival, where her second feature, the Brett Gelman-Michael Cera drama Lemon, was premiering. “I was going to go to a screening that morning but one of my producers was like, ‘You just got an Oscar nomination, we’re going out for drinks!'” McMillon laughed.
Related: Photos — See All the Contenders Come Together for the 2017 Oscar Nominees Lunch
The stat that’s gotten the most notice: Seven of the 20 acting nominees are people of color. “I’m just thrilled, so absolutely thrilled,” Octavia Spencer, who won an Oscar five years ago for The Help, told us about her nod for Hidden Figures, though she was clearly over the moon for the success of the film as a whole. The inspirational drama about black women who played a pivotal role in the space race has become a major box-office hit, grossing over $115 million and showing no signs of slowing down anytime soon.
Naomie Harris, a Best Supporting Actress contender for Moonlight, told us the luncheon marked the first time she felt “relaxed” about her newfound status as an Academy Award nominee. Prior to being seated for the Chilean sea bass and couscous meal, she said, she was eager to hear the “pep talk” the Oscar class receives every year at the event.
Isaacs certainly delivered some motivation, drawing big cheers when, without naming names, she cited the ballroom’s “empty chairs” and bemoaned the effect the Trump administration’s controversial travel ban would have on nominees like Asghar Farhadi, the Iranian director of Best Foreign Film nominee The Salesman, who has said he will boycott the ceremony in response. “Strong communities celebrate the arts, not censor them,” the Academy president proclaimed to applause.
For more “practical” advice for the nominees, Oscar producers Michael De Luca and Jennifer Todd unveiled a hilarious prerecorded segment featuring Saturday Night Live and Ghostbusters comedian Kate McKinnon as fictional 1930s star of the silver screen Gloria Concave, who offered up tips for the winners’ 45-second acceptance speeches. The tips were basic (i.e., “be prepared,” “be speedy” [to the stage], and “be paperless”) and were driven home with faux footage of Concave’s disastrous speeches. (Ever wonder why more winners don’t curse? At the Oscars Nominee Luncheon they’re warned they’ll be fined.)
Before and even during the lunch, the star-studded event resembled a Mutual Admiration Society. Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea), sporting a buzzcut for his new off-Broadway play Yen, was psyched to greet his Best Supporting Actor rival Dev Patel (Lion). McMillon and her guest fretted over who they should approach next, Patel or Pharrell Williams (a producer on Best Picture nominee Hidden Figures), easily the winner for Most Underdressed, sporting a bright green baseball cap, NASA sweatshirt, and jeans. Screenwriter Jared Bush, who told us he hoped for a tie between his films Moana and Zootopia in the Best Animated Feature category, stopped Natalie Portman on her way to her table. And La La Land director Damien Chazelle, who admitted to us it felt like he was practically living at the Hilton (he just won a Director’s Guild Award at the hotel, which also hosted the Golden Globes and Producer’s Guild Awards), fawned over a lesser-known industry titan: the Coen brothers’ go-to production designer Jess Gonchor, a nominee for Hail, Caesar!
And then of course there’s the visual that the Oscar Nominees Luncheon is best known for: the annual “Oscars class photo.” What you don’t see in the widely circulated photograph (top of page) that two years running personified #OscarsSoWhite is the lengthy assemblage ritual that leads up to it, as each nominee is called to the stage by name, this year by a very game Laura Dern.
It must have taken about a half-hour for the 150-plus nominees to assemble, and without pecking order. Ryan Gosling (Best Actor, La La Land) was followed by Dan Krauss, director of the Best Documentary Short Subject nominee Extremis; Justin Timberlake (Best Original Song, Trolls) was followed by one of the sound editors on Sully. By the end of it, you had to feel a little bad for the likes of Kenneth Lonergan (Best Director and Best Original Screenplay, Manchester by the Sea) and John Musker (Best Animated Feature, Moana), called early to the top row of the risers. (Spencer, Manchester producer Matt Damon, and La La Land Best Actress nom Emma Stone, meanwhile, all kept a pregnant Portman company while she was seated on the bottom row.)
It is inspiring to see the Academy honor every one of the nominees, no matter where they sit above or the below the line on their films. Not every round of applause is created equally, though, and it was Barry Jenkins (Best Director, Moonlight), Viggo Mortensen (Best Actor, Captain Fantastic), Denzel Washington (Best Actor, Fences), Viola Davis (Best Supporting Actress, Fences), and Lin-Manuel Miranda (Best Original Song, Moana) who drew the loudest cheers. As far as Oscar handicapping goes for Feb. 26, read into that as you may.
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