It felt like old times at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on Monday, as the Oscar Nominees Luncheon returned to the same room where it took place for decades after its beginnings in the 1980s. There were actors sitting next to sound mixers and directors with production designers, a record 182 nominees taking their seats in tables across three levels of the hotel’s ballroom and a “class photo” memorializing the event.
There were stars galore among the attendees, from Cate Blanchett to Ke Huy Quan, Paul Mescal to Bill Nighy, Brian Tyree Henry to Kerry Condon to the biggest movie star of all, Tom Cruise, who was in the room not as an acting nominee but as the Oscar-nominated producer of “Top Gun: Maverick.” And all of them managed to fit onto the big, multilevel riser for the photograph that serves as the event’s most notable souvenir.
In other words, the afternoon was full of everything that has been missing for a few years.
Last year, in contrast, brought a tentative nominees luncheon, taking place for the first time in a larger room at the Fairmont Century Plaza hotel, with COVID tests for everybody in attendance and smaller, socially-distanced groups instead of the big class photo.
The year before, the event was canceled completely because of the pandemic.
And in 2020, the luncheon had been moved to the equally vast Ray Dolby Ballroom at the Hollywood and Highland Center because the accelerated Oscar schedule meant it was happening less than two weeks before that year’s Academy Awards ceremony. The Academy didn’t want the show’s execs having to drive across town when they were already deep in preparations at the Dolby Theatre.
So Monday’s event was a welcome throwback for those who remember what the Oscar Nominees Luncheon used to be – which didn’t include most of the acting nominees in attendance, since this year’s crop of nominees consists of 16 first-timers and only four past nominees, with Cate Blanchett being the sole past winner.
“It’s hard to wrap my mind around it,” first-time nominee Austin Butler said. “These are all my favorite filmmakers and actors and people I’ve looked up to and admired and studied for years, and suddenly I’m in this room with them.”
The room reached critical mass quickly on Monday, with the crush of people moving depending on what luminary was where. Jamie Lee Curtis talked to Cruise, and photographers surrounded them immediately. Steven Spielberg, one of the few to wear a mask, hugged his “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” star Ke Huy Quan, and lenses pointed in their director. Cruise met Butler, and the room pretty much had a meltdown: Gawkers backed up as if to give them room, while a ring of cameras encircled the pair to document every embrace and grin.
Cruise was clearly the room’s center of gravity, which is unusual for a Nominees Luncheon that also includes Spielberg. At one point, a woman on the outskirts of the crowd that surrounded the “Top Gun” poster boy laughed and said to a friend, “Let’s face it, we’re just all at Tom Cruise’s wedding.”
But this was a wedding without vows, a celebration of 15 dozen film professionals and their guests, plus a lot of Academy officials. AMPAS President Janet Yang was the only one in that last camp who got to talk: where previous luncheons had found the Oscar show producers telling nominees to please keep their speeches short if they won, Yang handled that chore briskly this year, giving the group a 45-second limit on speeches and adding that every category would be presented live during the telecast, “so we need you to work with us.”
It fell to Academy Governor DeVon Franklin to read the list of names of the 182 nominees in the room, which included all the Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress nominees, all the Supporting Actor nominees except Barry Keoghan and all the Best Actress contenders except Andrea Riseborough and Ana de Armas. The roll call began with Jamie Lee Curtis and ended with Guillermo del Toro, with lots of applause for the “Everything Everywhere All at Once” contingent, particularly Michelle Yeoh, but few clear winners in the always-suspect Nominees Luncheon Applause Meter.
One interesting sidelight: Cruise was one of the last nominees called to the stage – and despite his status as the room’s clear star, the acceptable round of applause he got wasn’t even as loud as the hand for cinematographer Roger Deakins, who followed him.
After the class photo, the room quickly broke up into a crowded group of mutual-admiration societies: Sarah Polley and Michelle Williams over here, Ke Huy Quan and Hong Chau over there. Guillermo del Toro gushed to Charlie Mackesy, the author of the book “The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse” and the nominated director of its animated-short adaptation. “Your film was amazing,” del Toro said. “I’m a filmmaker – when you show me a film, it’s hard to surprise me. Your film surprised me.”
Nearby, 84-year-old Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski grabbed TheWrap. “My favorite directors are Steven Spielberg and Guillermo,” said the legendary director whose “EO” is one of the boldest films in this year’s Oscar race. “I would love a picture with them. Can you set that up?”
For the record, we tried – but Spielberg had already left and del Toro was heading for the exit with a parting “Time for me to get out of Dodge.” Even at an Oscar Nominees Luncheon that was back in its old stomping grounds, not all dreams can come true.
Here is the Oscars’ 2023 class photo: