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Oscar Luncheon: Hints About the Show, and a Standing O for Max von Sydow

Max von Sydow gets the only standing ovation at the annual nominees lunch, the last collegial event on the Oscar schedule

If one were to judge by the applause inside the room at the Oscar Nominees Luncheon, Max von Sydow had better prepare a place on his mantle for the Best Supporting Actor trophy he'll win on February 26.

George Clooney and Max von SydowThen again, you can't really judge anything by the applause at the Nominees Luncheon.

But one of the time-honored rituals of the luncheon, of which Monday's was the 32nd, is the procession of nominees to the stage to receive their certificates of nomination and their official Oscar Nominee Sweatshirts. Considering that the room is filled with Oscar voters — nominees and Academy officials included — gauging the applause level can be something of a parlor game for those trying to figure out who the favorites are.

By that standard, von Sydow (above, with George Clooney) was the clear winner, drawing the afternoon's only standing ovation when he came to the stage very late in the lengthy, alphabetical roll call of 150 nominees.

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But don't jump to conclusions, because the main competition to von Sydow's performance in "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close," and the man who has won most of the precursor awards so far, is Christopher Plummer from "Beginners" – and Plummer was one of only two acting nominees who couldn’t make it to the lunch, killing the chance for a head-to-head applause-meter showdown between the two.

(Jessica Chastain was the other MIA acting nominee.)

Besides, the Nominees Luncheon is hardly an accurate sample. Instead, it's one of the most relaxed events on the Oscar calendar, a collegial afternoon in which nominees are seated at random across the ballroom of the Beverly Hilton Hotel, with nobody sitting at the same table as anyone from his or her movie, or category.

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It is, said Academy president Tom Sherak in his introductory remarks, "the last time you'll be rooting for each other."

They did just that after posing for the annual "class photo," with 150 nominees (one shy of last year's record total) standing on risers and applauding for each other as they went to the stage.

The actors often bunched together on the riser: Brad Pitt, Meryl Streep and Rooney Mara side-by-side on the top row, George Clooney, Jean Dujardin and Glenn Close together down lower.

Close made a big, theatrical bow to her fellow nominees when she was called to the stage by Academy chief operating officer Ric Robertson, while the nominees with the misfortune to have names that fell near the end of the alphabet slowly grouped together as the risers emptied.

"Rango" director Gore Verbinski, documentary director Lucy Walker, "Ides of March" writer Beau Willimon, "Kung Fu Panda 2" director Jennifer Yuh Nelson and actress Michelle Williams were among the last to receive their certificates – but the final slot went to "Moneyball" screenwriter Steve Zaillian, who'd spent the entire time leaning against the railing at the end of the top row, well aware that his alphabetic misfortune meant a long wait.

This year's turnout fell one short of last year's record of 151 nominees, and included a few tidbits from Sherak and show producers Brian Grazer and Don Mischer about the upcoming Oscars.

For one thing, Grazer told the nominees that host Billy Crystal will be doing an opening film "that includes all of you and all of your films."

Best Actor nominees: Gary Oldman, Jean Dujardin, Demian Bichir, Brad Pitt and George ClooneyHe said the Kodak will be reconfigured "to look like a classic movie theater, like the Village or the Pantages."

Sherak said that the post-show Governors Ball will be designed for mingling, which means that the traditional sit-down dinner aspect of the party will de-emphasized in favor of open spaces for socializing.

(The Academy tried that once before, in 2008, with buffet lines and common spaces rather than assigned tables and waiter service.)

And Grazer said that his and Mischer's goals for the Oscar show were "to be funny, to have some class and to be on time."

The last goal called for another Nominees Luncheon tradition, the admonition to deliver short, emotional acceptance speeches and never, ever pull out a list of names. If the past is any indication, the producers' words (and the accompanying Tom Hanks video) will prove to have fallen on deaf ears in at least some corners of the room.

While nominees like George Clooney and Meryl Streep were old hands at the luncheon rituals, others were wide-eyed newcomers – few more so than Brazilian music legend Sergio Mendes, who turns 71 on Saturday and who said he hasn't been to the Oscars since he performed on the show in 1968.

This year, Mendes is nominated for co-writing a song from the animated film "Rio," and the huge grin never left his face as he collected his certificate and sweatshirt (they only come in XL, so it'll be way too big for him), chatted with Michel Hazanavicius, Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo from "The Artist" and then spotted a favorite director.

"I have  to meet Steven Spielberg," said Mendes – who, after introductions were made, engaged in an animated conversation with the director. 

Elsewhere at the luncheon, George Clooney huddled with Harvey Weinstein outside the men's room, a logjam developed around Meryl Streep's table, and "The Descendants" producer Jim Burke made plans for the next stop on the awards circuit: the AARP Awards on Monday night.

(Photos by AMPAS. Class of 2011: Greg Harbaugh. Clooney and von Sydow, Best Actor nominees: Todd Wawrychuk.)