The Little Girl Steals the Show at the New-Look Oscar Nominees Lunch

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"Beasts of the Southern Wild" star Quvenzhane Wallis was the belle of the ball at an Oscar nominees lunch that felt more engineered and less egalitarian

If one were to judge by the amount of applause at Monday's Oscar Nominees Luncheon, Jennifer Lawrence and Jessica Chastain have a formidable new rival for the Best Actress award in the pint-sized form of nine-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis.

The young "Beasts of the Southern Wild" actress was the clear winner when it comes to the amount of applause garnered by the more than 150 nominees who were called to the front of the International Ballroom at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. Of course, that doesn't mean she's a real rival to Lawrence and Chastain for the Best Actress Oscar – simply that Wallis can charm any room, even if it's filled with Oscar nominees.

AMPASThe annual nominees luncheon is a comfortable, 32-year-old Oscar ritual that began as an attempt to get a little extra publicity during a slow spell on the awards calendar, and quickly became a friendly and collegial gathering well-known as the least-tense gathering in which the nominees will ever take part.

As befits an Academy that has been trying to nudge things in different directions lately, the luncheon was a little different this year. For one thing, it had a DJ – and not just any DJ, but five-time Oscar nominated producer Frank Marshall, who manned the twin turntables and spun tunes as the nominees and guests gathered.

This being Hollywood, there was a little trickery involved: As one documentary nominee pointed out to TheWrap (the doc folks being more concerned with truth than the Hollywood types), Marshall's turntables were nothing but props; the discs may have been spinning, but the sound was really coming from his MacBook.

But nobody really cared about the only-for-show turntables, and Amy Adams even heard Marshall playing "Because the Night" from the press room and said, "I think that's the theme to my lunch."

For most others, the theme was mingling, and enjoying an event in which nominees are arranged at tables so that nobody is sitting with anybody else from their movie or anybody else in their category.

Getty ImagesSo "Silver Linings Playbook" director David O. Russell told "Zero Dark Thirty" director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal that they'd made "the perfect movie," and a few minutes later an excited Bigelow said, "Look at my tablemate!" and pointed to the guy sitting next to her, "Silver Linings" co-star Robert De Niro. 

(Right: Russell with Jessica Chastain, Megan Ellison and Bigelow)

Another new touch to the luncheon: The small number of press who were invited to eat with the nominees were preassigned seats rather than participating in the random lottery of years past, a change that resulted in significant grumbling and charges of favoritism.

The nominees were also called to the front by table rather than alphabetically, as they had been in the past, though the fact that the roll call began with "Lincoln" producer Kathleen Kennedy (wife of the DJ) and ended with "Lincoln" director Steven Spielberg suggested that the charming randomness of past luncheons had been replaced with some planning.

The result sometimes felt engineered rather than egalitarian, with the additional odd touch that the nominees were instructed to pick up their certificates of nomination at the sign-in tables on their way out, taking what used to be the centerpiece of the luncheon and making it a last stop on the way to the valet stand.

But at least one new wrinkle was welcome: Directors of the nominated foreign-language films had been excluded in the past because the official nominee is the country of origin rather than the filmmaker — but this time the directors were treated as if they too were nominees, as they should be.

And the lunch did have some of the old standbys, including a speech in which the show's producers, Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, implored the nominees to "speak from the heart, not from a piece of paper" if they won.

Getty ImagesZadan also promised a show that would "perhaps provide more entertainment than usual" — while privately, a member of the show's staff admitted what already seemed clear from Zadan's and Meron's announcements of a number of production numbers and musical performances: "It's going to be a long show, and they're OK with that."

Besides Wallis, big rounds of applause were fairly evenly distributed as the nominees were called to the riser one by one. "Life of Pi" director Ang Lee got a big hand, as did his visual effects supervisor Bill Westenhofer; Ben Affleck got a nice reception, and so did "Argo" composer Alexandre Desplat.

Bigelow and her tablemate De Niro both got sustained ovations when their names were called, while Disney/Pixar animation guru John Lasseter whooped and hollered loud enough for Naomi Watts, who'd been sitting at his table, to raise the room's decibel level all by himself.

And once the "class photo" was taken – at the end of the lunch, another change from past years – guests mostly ignored the trays of candy and desserts as they began to straggle toward the exit.

"What did we learn today?" asked one Academy member afterwards. "People love that little girl. I guess that's the takeaway from this lunch."