Pete Hammond

Today’s 31st annual Oscar nominees luncheon was typically relaxed and collegial — a place where there were only winners, at least for today — and contenders could catch up with old friends who also just happen to be rivals in this year’s race.

So there were Best Actor nominees George Clooney and Brad Pitt walking into the ballroom together deep in conversation. And Best Picture producing nominees Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese walked up to the risers, arms around each other, standing together until Academy COO Ric Robertson called their names to come up onstage and get their nomination certificates. All the 150 (out of 188) of Oscar’s class of 2011 lined up more or less alphabetically for the annual “class photo” — starting with Transformers: Dark Of The Moon nominee Erik Aadahl and ending more than a half-hour later with Moneyball co-screenwriter Steven Zaillian. At my table, Hugo screenwriting nominee John Logan observed, “Scanning this stage how can you not be getting your heart beating?” Our table-mates included Academy Governor Paul Mazursky, Iron Lady makeup artist Mark Coulier, Moneyball sound-mixing nominee Ed Novick and past Academy President Arthur Hiller. Logan listened raptly as Hiller recalled the making of The Americanization of Emily and The Hospital, both written by screenplay god Paddy Chayefsky.

All the tables mixed nominees from various disciplines. Academy President Tom Sherak noted in opening remarks that the seating arrangements were deliberate since all nominees were equal and all films were equal. There was no War Horse or Descendants table, just a collegial family feeling. Sherak also revealed that this year’s Governors Ball would not be a sit-down dinner as in the past, but rather a party atmosphere with food and drink and “mingling”. It’s a good idea because sitting down at that event is never easy for winners — or those who go home without Oscars. As for this sit-down lunch — which began 31 years ago when just 40 nominees showed up — Sherak said, “We know awards season can be exhausting. Today is about taking a moment, taking a breath and realizing what a special family this is… So take the applause. This is probably the last time you’ll be applauding each other.”

One of the games pundits play at this event is trying to gauge the amount of applause each nominee receives as their name is called by Robertson to receive their certificate of nomination. By that measure it was no contest: 82-year-old Max von Sydow. He told me he had cracked six ribs a few days earlier and was the only one of the 150 in attendance to be seated on a chair in front of the risers throughout the certificate ceremony. Several friends made a point of saying hello as they made their way to the stage and by the time his name was finally called the place erupted with the biggest hand of the day. Clooney, Pitt, Gary Oldman, Jean Dujardin, Meryl Streep, Michelle Williams, Kenneth Branagh, Octavia Spencer and Glenn Close were among others who scored impressively on the applause-o-meter, but I would say Viola Davis and Demian Bichir probably eclipsed them. After lunch Harvey Weinstein stopped by Bichir’s table to congratulate him. “That was a lot of applause you got. I saw Clooney and Pitt looking nervous, even my guy” Dujardin from The Artist,  he said. I showed Bichir an email I had received earlier morning from an Academy member who had just seen his film. “We watched it last night, and my view on immigration has totally changed. It was a very poignant and meaningful film, which we loved and were totally moved,” it read. Bichir, clearly touched, said that was exactly the kind of response he hoped his nomination would elicit. Bichir also started a trend when his name was called by bowing and blowing a kiss to his fellow nominees on the risers.

Speaking of Weinstein, he ran into Ludivic Bource, Oscar-nominated composer of The Artist, in the Hilton lobby before lunch and Bource proudly presented him with the entire written score autographed with his thanks. Bource also made Harvey turn to one specific blank page where it said, “Love Theme From Vertigo”, and just below was his handwritten note: “Call Kim Novak”. Weinstein cracked up at the reference to Novak who took out a trade ad complaining about the inclusion of a small part of Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo music in one scene in the film. When I caught up with The Artist Best Actor nominee and SAG winner Dujardin I congratulated him on his recent Leno appearance where he killed with his John Travolta impression. “And John Wayne too,” he reminded. “I liked Jay Leno. He is a nice man. He has 130 cars. He said he drove the French car Citroen that day in my honor and showed me his parking spot.” Dujardin was heading back to Paris shortly after the lunch and then on to next weekend’s BAFTA awards in London.

Later during lunch 84th Oscar show producers Brian Grazer and Don Mischer took the stage to congratulate the nominees, beg them to be brief and meaningful in their acceptance speeches, and offering a few details about the show (which will not include performances of the two nominated songs. What? No Muppets?). “Billy Crystal has a fantastic film with all of you and your movies in it to open the show,” said Grazer who also emphasized the producing pair’s goals, basically to be funny with lots of comedy, to have some class and to come in on time. The theme this year will be the importance of a shared experience seeing films in an actual movie theatre. As such the Kodak (or whatever it’s called by show time) will be outfitted like a classic movie palace. As for speeches Mischer emphasized “Speak from the heart. Tell us how you feel. We hope you will give that thought. Be memorable and you will be remembered. If you just read off a long list of names no one will remember you,” he said. Actually if Brad Pitt gets up and reads a list I have a feeling people will still remember him. With that they rolled the annual Tom Hanks filmed primer on the proper way to accept an Oscar.

If only the Oscars ceremony could have the relaxed vibe of this event it would be a completely different show.  Academy first VP Hawk Koch says it is a one-of-a-kind thing. “I just had the most incredible thing happen to me here,” he said. ”I talked to (supporting actress nominee) Octavia Spencer and she said, ‘don’t you remember me?’ I asked where I met her and she said she was an assistant in the casting department on The Long Walk Home, the movie I produced in Alabama in 1990!”

Only at the Oscar nominees lunch.

Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.