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Lunching With Oscar’s Finest

by Leonard Maltin
February 7, 2012 1:25 PM
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Like a high-school graduating class, names are called out alphabetically and each nominee accepts a handshake and certificate from Academy president Tom Sherak, in this case Glenn Close.

What a treat, and an honor, to be invited to attend the Oscar Nominees Lunch once again. This unique gathering of over 100 nominees brings together stars, directors, animators, sound men, documentarians, screenwriters, makeup artists, and other collaborators—and treats them all the same.  It’s a rare opportunity to commune with leading talents from every aspect of the movie world…but of course, stars get the lion’s share of attention. I told Meryl Streep, “I hope you know you are loved,” and she said she did at that moment, even though “I thought my career was washed up twenty years ago.”

I asked Kenneth Branagh if he’d show off his Oscar nomination certificate, and he kindly obliged.

That just goes to show that we never see ourselves as others see us. Throughout the rest of the afternoon, as I conducted interviews for Entertainment Tonight aside the Beverly Hilton pool and asked nominees who they were most excited to meet that day the answer was, as often as not, Meryl Streep. And why not? She is arguably our greatest living screen actress.

Another interesting pairing on the bleachers for the giant group photo: actress Michelle Williams and Moneyball screenwriter Aaron Sorkin.

Michelle Williams said she welcomed the opportunity to talk to Streep about the challenges of balancing motherhood and a career. I asked what went through her mind, knowing that she was sharing the Best Actress category with the likes of Streep, Viola Davis, and Glenn Close. The New York-based actress confessed that every time she comes to Los Angeles, she can’t help thinking about the time when she couldn’t get an audition, let alone a callback, in this very city.

An interesting trio among the throng of nominees posing for the official photo: Glenn Close, Jean Dujardin, and George Clooney.

For George Clooney, a highpoint of the day was meeting Max von Sydow for the first time. Even Gary Oldman had no compunction about admitting that he remains star struck. (He just got to work with one of his longtime heroes for the first time, John Hurt, in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.)

As for von Sydow, he reveled in the joy and enthusiasm of the assembled talent on hand. Even at the age of 82, he retains his passion for acting and reveled in the chance to spend an afternoon with his colleagues.

Tom Sherak and Jean Dujardin.

Nick Nolte, who gives such a fine performance in Warrior, admitted that he appreciated the honor more than he would have as a young man, when he says he had a habit of putting his foot in his mouth.

For newcomers to the luncheon the effect was especially powerful. “Pinch me!” said charming Jean Dujardin, while Demiån Bechir could only think of how far he’d come from playing soccer on the streets of Mexico.

I asked Clooney and his director, Alexander Payne, how they felt about the horse-race aspect of the Academy Awards, and the actor—who is quite possibly the savviest guy around—said he refused to get caught up in that aspect of the season. He enjoys being able to share this time with his colleagues and peers, as does Payne; they seem to appreciate all the good things it affords them and don’t want to become jaded.

Sherak and Nick Nolte.

It was nice to see Martin Scorsese, just one week after our evening of conversation at the Santa Barbara Film Festival, and he said with a smile, “Let’s do it again!” My reply: any time you say.

My most surprising encounter of the day was meeting Melissa McCarthy, who told me that years ago she was in my house as a production assistant with a crew that was interviewing me! Little did I know I had already met one of the breakout stars of the past year…and little did she dream, way back then, that she would be an Academy Award nominee.

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