At the annual Oscar Nominees Luncheon Monday, Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs couldn’t help but take note of the “empty chairs” in the room. Absentees like “The Salesman” director Asghar Farhadi, as well as the subjects of short documentary nominee “The White Helmets,” have been in limbo and expected to miss this year’s ceremony due to Donald Trump’s executive order barring entry from residents of seven predominantly Muslim countries.
“There is a struggle globally today over artistic freedom that feels more urgent than at any time since the 1950s,” Isaacs said. “Art has no borders. Art has no language and doesn’t belong to a single faith … Just as our work does not stop at borders, borders cannot be allowed to stop any of us.”
It was a somber if needed note in an otherwise upbeat affair as the Beverly Hilton’s International Ballroom slowly filled with attendees grinning ear-to-ear, celebrating anywhere from their first to 21st Oscar nominations. Indeed, no one was a loser just yet.
Many of the principals behind 14-time nominee “La La Land” huddled by a bar snapping selfies early in the afternoon. Director Damien Chazelle talked about the huge honor of receiving this year’s Directors Guild prize for the film, but like anyone who attends that event, couldn’t help but note the staggering length. “If I were president of the guild, that would be the first thing I’d tackle,” he quipped. “But I imagine, thankfully, they’re focused on much more important things than that.”
Composer Justin Hurwitz wasn’t aware that he was this year’s only triple nominee, given that there are no multi-hyphenates in the mix this year. Of late he’s been working with the Oscar telecast producers regarding song performances, which haven’t been hammered out yet and seem to always be on the verge of being nixed from the rundown. Last year was doubly worse as two of the less popular tunes were arbitrarily and unceremoniously axed from the proceedings. If “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” and “City of Stars” get their moment, at present, it’s unlikely stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone will perform. “We’re still working it all out but I hope all five nominees are able to be performed,” Hurwitz said.
Meanwhile, editor Tom Cross flew in just for the afternoon from New York, where he’s cutting Scott Cooper’s “Hostiles.” He’s been relieved to stay hard at work and somewhat disconnected from the season, but was quick to mention that Cooper frequently encourages him to break away and soak up the moment when he can. Cross won the Oscar for Chazelle’s last film, “Whiplash,” and appears to be the favorite this year as well.
One consistent attendee of the luncheon is mixer Andy Nelson, who landed his 21st nomination this year for “La La Land.” Interestingly, the musical also picked up a sound editing nomination, which took it over the top and into record-tying territory alongside “All About Eve” and “Titanic.” Musicals just don’t tend to receive that particular notice, which he finds unfortunate. “The music editing is considerable,” he said of such projects. He chalked the unexpected bid up to the branch finally recognizing that, and, of course, the incredible momentum the film has been enjoying.
Elsewhere, and speaking of longtime attendees, mixer Greg P. Russell (“13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi”) was cheerful as ever, glad to be back for another Oscar class photo — and, of course, appreciative of the only pundit who called his unexpected nomination this year (ahem). “This is the best event of the year, man,” he said. And he ought to know. He and former partner Kevin O’Connell (nominated this year for “Hacksaw Ridge”) have been lucky enough to attend the luncheon numerous times over the years: O’Connell is on his 21st nomination, with Russell on his 17th. They’re both still looking for that elusive first win.
Casey Affleck, meanwhile, said he was happy for “Fences” star Denzel Washington, who topped him at the Screen Actors Guild Awards this year. “Are you kidding? He’s a legend,” Affleck said. “I grew up watching that guy. I was very happy for him.”
This is the “Manchester by the Sea” star’s second nomination, the first coming for “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” nine years ago. Over that span of time, though, Affleck said it’s been disheartening to watch the awards season turn into an “unpleasant” pageant where “it seems people are just trying to take movies out and go for the jugular.” Then again, he’s at the end of a very long haul with “Manchester,” which began way back at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. The “Assassination” season felt much more like a quick burst of excitement as opposed to this “marathon,” as his director, Kenneth Lonergan, put it.
And cinematographer Greig Fraser (“Lion”) was feeling good after winning the American Society of Cinematographers prize over the weekend. He admitted his money was on “La La Land” lenser Linus Sandgren, but Fraser has been charging through the ranks since bursting onto the scene with Jane Campion’s “Bright Star” eight years ago. His peers no doubt felt it was time.
The afternoon also featured a dose of comedy thanks to Kate McKinnon. In a short movie produced for the luncheon, the “Saturday Night Live” cast member starred as an actress from Hollywood’s Golden Age giving tips to the nominees of the 11th annual Academy Awards. And yes, even that included a note on the political climate: “What’s next, a woman as president,” McKinnon said before staring deadpan into the camera.
Finally, each of the nominees ascended the risers for the annual Oscar nominees class photo as actress Laura Dern read off their names. It was a notably diverse portrait this year, which left Isaacs’ earlier comments on the Academy’s efforts in that regard ringing as the group cheesed for the official cameras and the sea of iPhones from other guests in the room.
“Simply put, real progress has been made, progress that I am confident will continue in the future as we continue to bring change to the Academy and our entire industry,” Isaacs said. “When we expand our membership, when we reach out to be inclusive, we set a shining example. When our storytellers tackle issues of importance, from religious intolerance to racism to sexism, when we bring to the screen stories from around the world, we become agents of change. And when we speak out against those who try and put up barriers, we reinforce this important truth: that all artists around the world are connected by a powerful bond, one that speaks to our creativity and common humanity.”
The 89th Academy Awards will be held on Sunday, Feb. 26.