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Inside the Oscar nominees luncheon, where the clarion call was 'art has no borders'

Inside the Oscar nominees luncheon, where the clarion call was 'art has no borders'
Attendees on Monday prepare for the class picture of all the nominees during the Academy Awards annual nominees luncheon for the 89th Oscars at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

There was a star at almost every table: Pharrell Williams, taking daytime formal to the extreme in a NASA sweatshirt, ripped jeans and a ballcap. Emma Stone, flanked by her mother, who was busy capturing the event with her iPhone. Casey Affleck, still basking in the glow of the New England Patriots' Super Bowl win just hours before.

All told, 160 of this year's Academy Award nominees turned up at the Beverly Hilton on Monday afternoon to celebrate their accomplishments at an annual luncheon. But despite the impressive roster, focus remained on the 40 nominees who weren't in the room —  including Asghar Farhadi, the Iranian director of "The Salesman," who said last week he would not attend the Oscars in the wake of President Trump's executive order banning travel from seven majority Muslim countries.

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"Each and every one of us knows that there are some empty chairs in this room," acknowledged Cheryl Boone Isaacs, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, as she addressed the nominees. "There is a struggle, globally, today over artistic freedom that feels more urgent than at any time since the 1950s. Art has no borders. Art has no language and doesn't belong to a single faith. No — the power of art is that it transcends all of these things, and strong societies don't censor art, they celebrate it. America should always be not a barrier but a beacon."

Just a year ago, Isaacs stood at the same plexiglass podium, calling out the "elephant in the room" after the #OscarsSoWhite controversy. In 2015, not a single actor of color was recognized by the academy, but last month, the organization nominated seven minority actors from 2016 films.

"Wow," she told the room on Tuesday, "what a difference a year makes."

With an almost palpable sense of relief, Isaacs noted that the academy grew by 683 members this year, saying the progress made by the group should set a "shining example" for the movie business.

"When our storytellers tackle issues of importance — from religious intolerance, to racism, to sexism — when we bring to the screen stories from around the world, we become agents of change," she said. "And when we speak out against those who try to put up barriers, we reinforce this important truth: That all artists around the world are connected by a powerful bond, one that speaks to our creativity and common humanity."

Though Isaacs' remarks set a somewhat sober tone, the celebratory mood in the ballroom was hardly muted. Bountiful vases of pastel orchids and spray roses were set at each table, where guests were served Chilean sea bass, chocolate-covered strawberries and Champagne Brut.

"Day drinking!" exclaimed Mike Mills, the writer-director of "20th Century Women," as he reached his chair.

"Hacksaw Ridge" director Mel Gibson, seated alongside Isaacs and "Lion" star Dev Patel, proudly showed off a photo of his newborn son on his cellphone.

"He looks kind of like Jack Benny, doesn't he?" Gibson said of his ninth child.

Affleck, meanwhile, said he'd been unable to watch his hometown team win the big game Sunday night because he was participating in a Q&A at a film festival. He also did not see comedian Alex Moffat's impression of him on "Saturday Night Live."

"They called me and said 'Is this OK?' and I was like, 'It's fine,' but I couldn't watch it," he said. "What was the joke? Did they make fun of anyone else?"

Fortunately, just as the "Manchester by the Sea" star asked for an explanation, the lights dimmed, and telecast producers Michael De Luca and Jennifer Todd took the podium to offer guidance on acceptance speeches. The theme of this year's show, said De Luca, is "how movies and the stories they tell both inspire us and give us something to aspire to."

"So if you find yourself on the Oscar stage, and if those themes are themes that you can relate to, feel free to make them part of your acceptance speech," he urged. "[Viewers] want to hear about your film, about what the movies mean to you, about your personal journey that may inspire them, they want a message of hope or aspiration — delivered in 45 seconds or less."

To underscore the importance of urgency, De Luca threw to a pretaped segment starring Kate McKinnon as a fictional 1930s film star named Gloria Concave. Once, she advised, her speech ran too long and she was "pelted with cured meats by some Italians."

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Casey Affleck kisses Octavia Spencer on the platform Monday as they prepare for the class picture of all the nominees during the Academy Awards annual nominees luncheon for the 89th Oscars at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills.
Casey Affleck kisses Octavia Spencer on the platform Monday as they prepare for the class picture of all the nominees during the Academy Awards annual nominees luncheon for the 89th Oscars at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

"Just yesterday," she kidded, "I found a little piece of Mortadella in my cleavage."

With that sound advice in mind, the nominees were called, one-by-one, by academy Gov. Laura Dern to gather on risers for their class photo. "Jackie" star Natalie Portman, heavily pregnant, was given an early seat in the front. But "La La Land's" Ryan Gosling and "Arrival" director Denis Villeneuve were asked to stand on the top row, where they smiled and clapped gamely for 20 minutes until the entire roster was called. When everyone was in place, five photos were taken — and a copy of one of them will eventually be sent to each nominee.

Michelle Williams was placed next to her co-star, Affleck, and "Lion's" Patel and Nicole Kidman stood tall by one another's side. And while there were no empty holes in the photo — headpiece-wearing stagehands had made certain of that — there was still a sense that something was missing.

Namely, Meryl Streep, nominated for her turn in "Florence Foster Jenkins," and not in attendance. Perhaps after 20 of these things, you're over the free sea bass — or you simply don't have any more space on your wall for the class photos.

Follow me on Twitter @AmyKinLA

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