Nominees for the 91st annual Academy Awards gathered Monday afternoon for the annual Oscar Nominees Luncheon in Beverly Hills. Those in attendance included directors Spike Lee, Alfonso Cuarón and Bradley Cooper, actors Glenn Close, Amy Adams and Richard E. Grant, as well as the countless artisans recognized this year for their work on many of the Motion Picture Academy’s favorite films of 2018.
But while celebration was the organization’s number-one order of business Monday, the esteemed collective of film professionals has nevertheless remained embattled — increasingly its resting state — throughout much of the awards season. From a proposed “popular film” Oscar that was openly mocked by high-profile members, to a hosting debacle that saw would-be Oscars emcee Kevin Hart step down amid an outcry over previous homophobic jokes, to a reported attempt to sideline three of the nominated original songs on the Oscars telecast (a plan that was ultimately walked back, again, amid outcry from members) to the still wildly unpopular decision to air certain awards presentations as part of a latter-show package rather than live on ABC — the Academy and its board of governors can’t seem to make a right step. Journalists and filmmakers alike have wondered aloud whether the institution is sacrificing what makes its die-hard audience tune into the show in pursuit of an audience that doesn’t.
Academy president John Bailey kicked things off by quipping about the reaction to that “popular” Oscar situation. He pointed out, as he has before, that at the inaugural Oscars ceremony, two films were handed top honors: “Sunrise” and the more traditionally recognized “Wings.”
“What ever were the founders thinking,” Bailey quipped with notable shade. “Not to worry. It was just a one-off.”
Beyond that, Bailey celebrated the diversity on display in this year’s lineup, including the largest number of female nominees to date. He also touched on an element dear to his heart: the ongoing internationalization of the Academy. “This year’s nominees affirm our success with international inclusion,” Bailey said. Two of the directing nominees, for example, helmed foreign-language films, while two actresses from Cuarón’s “Roma” were recognized and three of the nominated cinematographers shot foreign films.
Nevertheless, there’s still no host for the show. That particular note was not addressed by Bailey or telecast producers Donna Gigliotti and Glenn Weiss, though an Academy source did finally confirm with Variety that there will in fact be no emcee (the first official word on the matter from the organization). The 91st Oscars will therefore be the first in 30 years to proceed host-less.
Elsewhere in the room, “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” producer Phil Lord hunkered down with “The Wife” star Glenn Close. “BlacKkKlansman” helmer Spike Lee chatted up “First Reformed” writer-director Paul Schrader (both receiving a lot of love from attendees). And as he is everywhere, “A Star Is Born” star Sam Elliott was one of the most popular people in the crowd.
Regarding the plan to air certain crafts categories in a package taped during commercial breaks throughout the telecast, some nominees felt it an unfair and disappointing decision. Others said they were still wondering whether to tell loved ones to even bother tuning into the show, given that the Academy has not addressed which categories will be handled in this way.
Still others are taking the possibility of their category being held off live air in stride.
“Look, I’ve been to the Grammys lots of times,” said “BlacKkKlansman” composer Terence Blanchard, referencing the fact that the majority of the Recording Academy’s awards aren’t presented on its live telecast. “All these awards shows are fighting for ratings. It’s a battle.”
As if to underscore that point, the annual plea for winners to be brief with their speeches felt more didactic than ever. Gigliotti and Weiss even screened “Traffic” director Steven Soderbergh’s short-but-sweet 2001 speech as an example of what to aspire to.
“The board of governors has promised a three-hour show,” Bailey said. “When you head to the stage, move quickly. Show us how eager you are to get up there.”