Oscar nominees do lunch

Stars out in force at contenders gathering

This year’s Academy Award nominees had a chance Monday to rub shoulders with each other, exchange congratulations and pose for pictures as a big, happy group. Next time they meet — Oscar night, March 23 — they are likely to be considerably more nervous.

Monday’s event was the 17th annual Oscar contenders’ luncheon, held at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, at which 118 nominees, a record number, showed up.

After they posed together for the traditional “class photo,” Academy exec administrator Ric Robertson called the name of each nominee, who was then pre-sented a certificate of nomination by Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences prexy Robert Rehme.

“This is designed to impress upon you the grown-up nature of the whole thing,” Minnie Driver, first-time supporting actress nominee for “Good Will Hunting,” said as she sat down. “I feel like a kid who’s been allowed to stay up late. I’m on my best behavior.”

Matt Damon, who’s up for a best-actor Oscar and another for co-writing the “Hunting” screenplay, kept quiet as he watched the banter of his fellow actor nominees — Robert Duvall, Peter Fonda, Dustin Hoffman and Jack Nicholson — as they posed for a group shot of the five.

“Uncle Bobby! How’s the picture?” Nicholson asked Duvall, referring to “The Apostle,” and gave him a hug. Instructed to trade places in the set-up so that he would not be obscured by the lanky Fonda, Hoffman asked the photographer with feigned resentment, “Is this a height thing?”

Duvall then brought Damon into the circle. “Hey, Dustin, if you think you’re a ladies man, you should see this guy!” Duvall said, putting his arm around the young actor, who still appeared mildly tongue-tied.

As he walked back toward his table after the photo session, Damon said, “That was pretty much the highlight of my life.”

Earlier, Fonda quietly presented each of his four fellow nominees with a Tiffany box containing a silver pocketknife. “I couldn’t afford to do the whole show,” he said when asked why. “I was just showing my good will.”

Gil Cates, producer of the Oscar show, got down to brass tacks when he addressed the gathering. “Should you be fortunate enough to win an Oscar on March 23, I want two things from you — entertainment and brevity,” he admonished them. Acceptance speeches, he said, should be no more than 45 seconds, and preferably less.”If all you’re doing is reciting a list of names, after 45 seconds the microphone will sadly begin to disappear — it will slowly begin to descend into the podium,” he said. “When we watch the seconds tick by, our hearts can get pretty cold.”

While the group picture was being set up, James Cameron joked with Fonda, as Kim Basinger chatted with Joan Cusack and Driver. Hoffman took a swig of his red wine before putting his glass down and joining the lineup. Greg Kinnear looked very dapper, while scripter Brian Helgeland looked anything but, in denim shorts, untucked shirt, rolled-down socks and hiking shoes.

Four of the five helmers were there — Cameron, Atom Egoyan, Curtis Hanson and Gus Van Sant; only Peter Cattaneo, of “The Full Monty,” was missing. Screenwriting nominees Paul Thomas Anderson, James L. Brooks, Paul Attanasio and Hilary Henkin also made it, as did dozens of the less well-known faces, each of whom was roundly applauded.

Before the lunch, some of the nominees appeared individually before a group of reporters. “I didn’t think I had a snowball’s chance in hell,” said Kinnear, referring to his Oscar nomination for “As Good as it Gets.” “I was hosting a cable talkshow four year ago.”

Gloria Stuart, from “Titanic,” said she would love it if whole casts were given Oscars, much like the Screen Actors Guild’s award for acting ensembles. “That way we wouldn’t be nervous wrecks,” she said.

AMPAS started the luncheon in 1982 to allow nominees to meet each other “and be honored in a setting free of the tensions of Oscar night,” according to an Academy release.

Oscar ballots close March 17, with the awards handed out six days later at L.A.’s Shrine Auditorium, beginning at 6 p.m. PST on ABC.

(Timothy M. Gray contributed to this report.)

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