Let’s do lunch: Oscar treats 1996 nominees

The prominent role of specialized pics among this year’s Academy Awards nominees was very much in evi-dence Tuesday as a decidedly non-Hollywood crowd gathered at the annual Oscar Nominees Luncheon at the Bev-erly Hilton Hotel.

Among the 90 contenders who ate, posed for a “class portrait” and collected black Oscar sweatshirts were directors Scott Hicks, Mike Leigh and Anthony Minghella, and actors Brenda Blethyn, Cuba Gooding Jr., Barbara Hershey, Frances McDormand, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Edward Norton, Kristin Scott Thomas, Billy Bob Thornton and James Woods.

Also attending the low-key noontime event were producers James L. Brooks, Simon Channing-Williams, Cameron Crowe, Laurence Mark, Richard Sakai, Jane Scott and Saul Zaentz, and a number of composers, including Hans Zimmer and Randy Newman.

Also there were reps from every other category, from art direction to visual effects.

Absent from the gathering were some of the few big-name stars nominated in major categories, including Lauren Bacall, Tom Cruise, Woody Harrelson and Diane Keaton.

But Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences president Arthur Hiller downplayed the distinction between in-dependents and majors in light of the dominance of the former in so many Oscar categories this year. “The size of the budget doesn’t limit creativity and doesn’t limit dedication,” Hiller said.

Because of its casual atmosphere and relative lack of media attention, the luncheon is considered to be one of the highlights of the Oscar season.

“It’s the best part of the Academy Awards because nobody has to make a speech and there are no losers,” said direc-tor Norman Jewison, a former nominee and a member of the Academy board of governors.

Producer Gil Cates used the opportunity to beseech nominees to keep acceptance speeches brief and avoid laundry lists of thank yous. “They need to be the glittering jewels of Oscar night,” Cates said of the speeches.

As examples of short but entertaining Oscar acceptances, Cates showed clips of actress-scribe Emma Thompson and makeup artist Rick Baker receiving their statuettes at previous Oscar shows.

Privately, a number of nominees agreed that the recognition by the Academy of so many specialized films had raised the profile of indie filmmaking in Hollywood, but wondered if it would result in any real changes in studio policy.

“I’m not sure how much this will cause studios to rethink the type of movies they make,” “Secrets and Lies” pro-ducer Channing-Williams told Daily Variety.

At a pre-luncheon press conference, many of the first-time nominees expressed surprise that they had been nomi-nated. “I never imagined the words ‘Academy Award nominee’ before my name,” said “Shine” helmer Hicks. “It’s incredible, like being strapped to some kind of rocket.”

“Fargo” actress nominee McDormand said that while she has enjoyed the attention her nomination has brought, she’s ready for her life to return to normal. “At the end of March I’m dying my hair, having a complete facial re-construction and I’m out of here.”

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