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Oscars controversy takes a backseat at celebratory nominees luncheon

Lin-Manuel Miranda, center, and his father, right, at the 94th Academy Awards Nominees Luncheon at Fairmont Century Plaza.
Lin-Manuel Miranda, center, and his father, right, at the 94th Academy Awards Nominees Luncheon at the Fairmont Century Plaza.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
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It’s still a thrill to be nominated — even if your Oscar isn’t being presented during the live ceremony.

And at the annual Oscar nominees luncheon Monday, no one I spoke with in this Fairmont Century Plaza ballroom voiced any complaints, other than a handful of men lamenting that their coats fit a bit snugly after hanging in the closet for the last two years.

Hollywood’s big dogs are barking about changes to the Oscars, including best picture nominees Steven Spielberg, Jane Campion and Denis Villeneuve.

March 9, 2022

“We’ve said our piece,” said Ben Proudfoot, director of the joyous Oscar-nominated documentary short “The Queen of Basketball.” “Now it’s time to have fun.”

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Fun was evident in every corner of the ballroom during the lengthy lunch, which clocked in at just about the three-hour running time that the ceremony’s producers are aiming for this year‘s telecast. There was a general sense of happiness — and relief — to be returning to in-person hugs and geeking out after the pandemic canceled the much-treasured event last year.

Billie Eilish and Finneas arrive at the luncheon
Songwriting siblings Billie Eilish and Finneas arrive at the luncheon. They nominated for the latest James Bond theme song, “No Time To Die.”
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)
Kodi Smit-McPhee earned his first Oscar nomination at 25 years old for "The Power of the Dog"
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

“Licorice Pizza” filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson warmly embraced actor Andrew Garfield, telling him he’d seen “Spider Man: No Way Home” four times. “Spencer” actress Kristen Stewart lost her mind meeting “CODA” writer-director Siân Heder. When “CODA” actor Troy Kotsur’s name was announced, nearly everyone in the room waved their hands, signing applause for the Deaf actor.

No one wanted the gathering to stop, with most of the nominees loitering in the hotel ballroom and lobby long after the luncheon ended. We were approaching cocktail hour, and the room still hadn’t cleared out.

“I’m one of those people who think the Oscars are too short,” said director Phil Lord, nominated for producing the animated feature “The Mitchells vs. the Machines.” “And this event is always such a pleasure. There’s no pressure, no stress. Everyone can relax ... for the afternoon anyway.”

From left: Troy Kotsur, Kristen Stewart, Marlee Matlin and Daniel Durant.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Bradley Cooper and Denzel Washington
Bradley Cooper, nominated for producing “Nightmare Alley,” and Denzel Washington, a lead actor finalist for “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” chat during the Oscar nominees’ luncheon.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
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At the Oscar luncheon, nominees are seated randomly, A-list actors next to sound designers, top-line directors alongside makeup and hairstylists. The idea at work: Film is a collaborative medium, and the event reflects that with artists and craftspeople mixing together.

That egalitarian principle has been put to the test this year after the film academy announced last month that eight awards — the three short categories, film editing, original score, production design, sound and makeup and hairstyling — would be presented before the live Oscars telecast and then edited into the ceremony. The decision has prompted a backlash from the guilds and industry organizations representing those groups.

“I get it, but everyone will receive their awards, just like always ... the show’s just going to be tightened up,” said Oscar-winning makeup artist Bill Corso, an academy governor representing the makeup artists and hairstylists branch. “If you’re a viewer, I don’t think you’ll notice the difference. We have a responsibility for putting on an entertaining show. Honestly, I think this is long overdue.”

If the show is as entertaining as first-time ceremony producer Will Packer’s luncheon speech, it might be in good shape. Packer, like most show producers before him, pleaded good-naturedly with nominees to be prepared and concise.

“Nobody believes that you thought there was no way you’d win so you had nothing prepared — just going to be honest with you,” Packer said. “You’ve got 20% chance of winning, that’s good odds in this town.

Ariana DeBose
Ariana DeBose has made history as the first Afro-Latino and openly queer woman to be nominated for an acting Academy Award.
(Myung Chun / Los Angeles Times)
Javier Bardem and wife Penelope Cruz are both nominated for Academy Awards.
Spouses Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz are both nominated for Academy Awards. Cruz is nominated for lead actress for her role in “Parallel Mothers,” and Bardem is up for lead actor for playing Desi Arnaz in “Being the Ricardos.”
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)
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“I’ve got a speech,” he added. “I’m not even nominated. I wrote it in the third grade.”

To emphasize his point, Packer introduced a black-and-white sketch, purported to be from the 1938 Oscar nominees luncheon. In it, Golden Age actress Gloria Concave — played by “Saturday Night Live” star Kate McKinnon — offered a host of what-not-to-do advice based on her own unfortunate experiences, such as the time she yammered on during her acceptance speech and was pelted by cured meats by “some Italian.”

Whether the nominees in attendance were taking notes is anyone’s guess. Equally speculative is reading the applause-meter in the room. But for those scoring at home, “No Time to Die” song nominee Billie Eilish received a much louder ovation than Lin-Manuel Miranda, also in the category for “Dos Oruguitas” from “Encanto.” Will Smith’s name produced thunderous applause, as did the announcement of his “King Richard” co-star Aunjanue Ellis.

And any time the music documentary “Summer of Soul” was mentioned, people smiled and clapped their hands. Questlove, its director, might have been the most popular man in the room.

“Just to see all these people together is such a kick,” said Heder, a first-time nominee (for adapted screenplay). “I guess we’ll be doing this again in a couple of weeks, but I’m never going to forget this day, that’s for sure.”

Andrew Garfield.
Andrew Garfield landed the second Oscar nomination of his career with recognition for his performance as playwright Jonathan Larson in “Tick, Tick … Boom!”
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Will Smith, left, joined by Aunjanue Ellis.
Will Smith, left, joined by Aunjanue Ellis, has received his third and fourth Oscar nominations this year, earning his place on the lead actor list for his role in “King Richard” and sharing in the film’s best picture nomination with Tim White and Trevor White.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
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