Inside the Oscar Nominees Luncheon: Time to Schmooze, With a Side of Politics

Among the guests mingling and making new friends were Ryan Gosling, Denzel Washington, Emma Stone, Michelle Williams and Isabelle Huppert

An impromptu reunion of “The Help” took place in the aisle, Ryan Gosling never got to eat his lunch, and politics hung in the air at that most civilized of the Academy Awards rituals, the Oscar Nominees Luncheon, which took place on Monday afternoon at the Beverly Hilton Hotel.

This year’s luncheon came at a time when most people are expecting the most political Oscar show since 2003, the year the ceremony took place the same week the U.S. attacked Iraq. And Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs addressed the tough times, as well as the travel ban that may keep Iranian director Asghar Farhadi from the ceremony, in her opening remarks.

“There are some empty chairs in this room, which has made Academy artists into activists,” she said. “Art has no borders… Strong societies don’t censor art, they celebrate it. America should not be a barrier, but a beacon.”

But around the Hilton’s International Ballroom, the talk was more about movies than politics. With more than 150 nominees in attendance, including every acting nominee except Meryl Streep, Michael Shannon and Andrew Garfield, it was an afternoon for making new friends and renewing old acquaintances.

Ruth Negga chatted with “Kubo and the Two Strings” director Travis Knight before the lunch, and with the short-documentary filmmakers who made “Joe’s Violin,” Kahane Cooperman and Raphaela Neihausen, after; Michelle Williams had to be torn away from a conversation with Isabelle Huppert so she could pose for photos with the rest of the “Manchester by the Sea” gang; and composer J. Ralph spotted Academy governor Annette Bening and talked to her about the upcoming film “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool,” in which she stars and for which he’s writing the music.

At one point, one of the narrow aisles between tables was completely clogged by three of the stars of “The Help,” all of whom had been nominated for different films: “Fences” star Viola Davis and “La La Land” star Emma Stone, who are competing against each other in the Best Actress category, and “Hidden Figures” actress Octavia Spencer, nominated for Best Supporting Actress.

Ryan Gosling, meanwhile, was a gracious host to a stream of admirers who came to the table he shared with “Life, Animated” director Roger Ross Williams, “Arrival” producer Shawn Levy, “Moonlight” co-writer Tarell Alvin McCraney, and short-doc director Dan Krauss (“Extremis”).

At one point, he looked at a nearby table and spotted “Arrival” director Denis Villeneuve, with whom he recently finished shooting “Blade Runner.” “Why do they keep us apart?” he said, laughing; after the two talked business for a few minutes, Gosling returned to his seat to find that waiters had removed his sea bass entree.

“It felt like a Charlie Chaplin movie,” he said later. “Every time I tried to eat, something happened.”

Looking around the room, “La La Land” composer Justin Hurwitz could only shake his head. “I feel like I’m in an alternate universe,” he said.

The luncheon was launched in the early ’80s, when board member (and future Academy president) Richard Kahn lobbied the board, against stiff resistance, to create a collegial event free of the pressure that comes at the Oscars, when 80 percent of the nominees turn into losers by the end of the night.

The ritual has changed a bit over the years: Official Oscar Nominee sweatshirts, introduced by Oscar show producer Allan Carr in 1989, were quietly phased out a couple of years ago, and the certificates of nomination are now handed out on the way out the door rather than in a ceremonial procession on stage.

But nominees are still spread around the room so that you don’t sit with anybody from your movie or anybody in your category. The nominees still make their way to a giant riser to pose for the traditional “class photo.” And the heart of the luncheon is still the mingling, which is both enforced by the seating arrangements and encouraged by the lengthy pre-luncheon cocktails and the post-photo mass of Oscar-nominated humanity.

Before that, though, the Oscar show producers got their usual chance to address the nominees, and to encourage them to keep their acceptance speeches short but also interesting.

Producers Michael DeLuca and Jennifer Todd took a new course to do that: They introduced a film clip in which “Saturday Night Live” star Kate McKinnon played a fictional actress from the 1930s, Gloria Concave, who rather hilariously illustrated all the ways not to make an acceptance speech.

Academy governor Laura Dern then read the nominees’ names one by one as they took their places on a riser for the annual class photo. Viola Davis, Denzel Washington, Jeff Bridges and Mahershala Ali were among the nominees drawing the largest rounds of applause, but it’s foolish to read too much into the Oscar Nominees Luncheon Applause Meter: Last year, after all, the big hit of the lunch was Sylvester Stallone, who ended up losing the Best Supporting Actor award to luncheon no-show Mark Rylance.

And hey, why are we turning this into a competition? That’s the whole point of the luncheon: For at least a couple of hours, everyone was (maybe) a winner.