Oscars 2016: Academy president acknowledges 'elephant in the room' at luncheon

Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences President Cheryl Boone Isaacs opened the academy’s annual Oscar nominees luncheon Monday by acknowledging a topic that has touched nearly every event this awards season --  the question of diversity.

“This year, we all know there’s an elephant in the room,” Boone Isaacs said to more than 150 nominees gathered at the Beverly Hilton, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Sylvester Stallone, Lady Gaga, Rachel McAdams and Alejandro G. Iñárritu. “I have asked the elephant to leave.”

Boone Isaacs, who has been the public face of some controversial rule changes the academy board of governors passed in January in an effort to make the organization more inclusive, urged the group to “relax.”

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Normally, the nominees luncheon is one of the most upbeat events of the long march of awards season, as some of Hollywood’s lesser-known craftspeople, such as production designers, sound mixers and the makers of short films, bask and mingle with A-list actors and directors, all of them sharing one happy trait -- an Oscar nomination.

But this year, much of the conversation on red carpets and in hotel ballrooms has involved the academy’s controversial selection of all-white acting nominees for the second year in a row.  On Monday morning, as nominees started to arrive at the luncheon, a tiny group holding #OscarsSoWhite signs was stationed on Santa Monica Boulevard outside the Hilton parking lot.

Inside the Hilton, many nominees said they had been soul searching about the issue. Nominees with opinions about the role of race in Hollywood face a delicate public relations balance, wanting to offend neither academy members, who will cast their votes for the Oscars between Feb. 12-23, nor fans. 

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In an interview before the luncheon, Stallone, who is nominated for supporting actor for his performance in “Creed,” said he spoke with his film’s black writer-director, Ryan Coogler, about attending the Oscars.

“You are responsible for me being here,” Stallone said he told Coogler of his invitation to the luncheon. “If you want me to go, I’ll go. If you don’t, I won’t. He said, ‘I want you to go.’ That’s the kind of guy he is. He wanted me to stand up for the film.”

Later during the luncheon, when the Oscar telecast producers talked about winners forgetting to thank their directors, Stallone, whose acknowledgment of Coogler at the Golden Globes happened off-camera, raised his hand.

Other nominees at the luncheon talked about the academy’s new rules, which include an initiative to double the number of female and minority members and an end to lifetime voting rights.

"I don't think there is one solution,” “Spotlight” director Tom McCarthy said of the academy’s efforts to reflect more diversity. “It comes down to accountability. I think Cheryl [Boone Isaacs] has done an amazing job at navigating change. I have faith in our community to lead the way to be progressive, inclusive and pushing that needle and that rock up that hill."

 “Carol” screenwriter Phyllis Nagy said she was glad to see the diversity issue arising persistently around town.

“I’m part of that conversation, as a woman and a gay person, so I’m glad people are having it,” Nagy said.

“Bridge of Spies” screenwriter Matt Charman said the responsibility for telling more stories about people from diverse backgrounds rested on the shoulders of writers like him.

“If the buck stops with the academy, it starts with us, the writers,” Charman said. “We need to do better.”

In addition to a chance to celebrate and take a class photo, the Oscar luncheon is also traditionally an event where the telecast producers appeal to the nominees to make their speeches brief.

This year’s producers, David Hill and Reginald Hudlin, unveiled a new strategy to keep the show rolling on Feb. 28 -- a text scroll that will appear under winners as they speak. They then showed a cautionary video of one of last year’s winners, documentary short producer Dana Perry, nearly getting cut off as she dedicated her award to her son who had committed suicide.

“Over the years, acceptance speeches have become a list of names, and time ran out before anything could be said from the heart,” Hill said.


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