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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

At the Oscar nominees luncheon, a crowd in cruise control

From left, the “Elvis” star Austin Butler with Tom Cruise at the luncheon in Beverly Hills for this year’s Oscar nominees on Monday, Feb. 13, 2023.

By Kyle Buchanan

For the privileged few embarking on an Oscar campaign, the path to a nomination asks you to hobnob with so many of the same people that over the course of many months, your competitors can begin to feel like classmates.

But on Monday afternoon, at a luncheon held in Beverly Hills, California, for this year’s Oscar nominees, the arrival of a new student caused quite a stir.

That would be Tom Cruise, nominated this year as a producer of the megahit best picture contender “Top Gun: Maverick.” He was among the first notable names to walk into the ballroom of the Beverly Hilton. The 60-year-old star had sat out both the Golden Globes and the Critics Choice Awards this season, so many of his fellow nominees were encountering him for the first time. Before long, the ballroom had turned into a massive meet-and-greet.

“I love you, I love you, oh, my God!” said “Everything Everywhere All at Once” star Ke Huy Quan, who hopped in place, exclaiming, “I want a picture with this man!” before seizing a selfie with Cruise. Director Guillermo del Toro went over for an embrace, as did nominated actors Brendan Fraser, Angela Bassett and Michelle Williams. Cruise even posed for pictures with Steven Spielberg, a once-frequent collaborator whom the star has not been publicly photographed with in over a decade.

The nominees luncheon is supposed to be an egalitarian affair where big stars and behind-the-scenes technicians are on equal footing, but there was no mistaking Cruise as the ballroom’s top dog: He had the gravitational pull of the sun and its burnt-orange countenance, too. Any of the nominees who might have pulled focus from Cruise had declined to attend: Original-song contenders Lady Gaga and Rihanna were busy with other obligations (including, for the latter, a just-concluded Super Bowl stint), and even surprise best-actress nominee Andrea Riseborough was missing in action.

Still, simply making it to Cruise took some time: In the schmoozy hour before lunch was served, he was so mobbed by his fellow nominees that he was hardly able to move more than a few feet. I watched for a while as “Elvis” star Austin Butler drifted with slow, inexorable determination toward Cruise, who finally pulled the younger man toward him by clamping a hand on his shoulder like a stapler. For several minutes, they were locked in such a tight bro-embrace that it was impossible to discern what they were talking about (or, more important, whether Butler was still speaking in his “Elvis” drawl).

So instead, I made my way to “Top Gun: Maverick” producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who observed the scene serenely just a few feet away. “It’s my first time at the luncheon,” said the newly nominated producer, who’s better known for making explosive action movies than Oscar fare. “After 50 years in the business, I finally get here.”

It was not the first time at the luncheon for songwriter Diane Warren, who has been nominated for an Oscar 13 times before and is back in contention this year for the song “Applause,” from the film “Tell It Like a Woman.”

“It’s my favorite day,” Warren said. “No one’s a loser yet, everybody’s a winner.” I noted that Warren had received an honorary Oscar in November, and asked whether it had dimmed her desire to win a competitive statuette. “No, I still want to win,” she said, grinning. “He wants a friend!”

As the nominees and their guests took their seats to nosh on mushroom risotto, the academy president, Janet Yang, came to the stage and addressed the fallout from the organization’s handling of the Will Smith slap at last year’s ceremony.

“It was inadequate,” Yang said. “We learned from this that the academy must be fully transparent and accountable in our actions, and particularly in times of crisis, we must act swiftly, compassionately and decisively.”

One unrelated tweak has already been made: Unlike last year, when eight below-the-line Oscars were presented just before the telecast began, Yang promised that each category would be aired live during the March 12 telecast. Because of that, Yang pleaded with the nominees to keep their speeches short: “We need to be sensitive to our running time,” she said. “This is live television, after all.”

With that settled, the nominees were called one by one to the front of the stage, where they would pose together for one massive “class photo.” The first name announced was Jamie Lee Curtis, who had earned her first Oscar nomination this year for “Everything Everywhere All at Once.”

“I’ve been acting since I was 19 and I’m 64 — do the math,” Curtis told me. “That’s many years of watching this photograph being taken.” Her late parents, actors Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, had both been Oscar nominees. “To be connected through this legacy of their work and my work and now being included here, it’s very powerful,” she said.

Eventually, with all the nominees assembled, producer and academy governor DeVon Franklin counted down to a flashbulb — pop! — then counted down again as the academy photographer took another picture. “All right, three more,” Franklin said.

“I’ve got one more expression,” shouted best-actor nominee Colin Farrell (“The Banshees of Inisherin”).

Moments earlier, Farrell had been in an animated conversation with Warren, who was standing on the riser behind him. When the pictures were finished and the attendees started to make their way out of the ballroom, I asked Warren what they had discussed.

“We talked about how we both did very badly at school,” she said, “and now here we are, at the coolest graduation picture ever.”

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