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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

At the Oscar nominees luncheon: Glamour, griping and gluten-free meals

Andrew Garfield and Lin-Manuel Miranda at the nominees luncheon for the 94th Annual Academy Awards in Los Angeles on March 7, 2022.

By Kyle Buchanan

On Monday morning, as Daniel Ojari left the house to go to a luncheon for this year’s Oscar nominees, his 4-year-old son surprised him with a handwritten card.

“Good luck at the Oscars,” it said.

Ojari, who is nominated for his animated short “Robin Robin,” broke out into a big grin. Then he turned the card over and saw that it was addressed not to him but to Lin-Manuel Miranda, a best-original-song nominee for the animated musical “Encanto.”

“Can you give it to Lin-Manuel?” his son asked.

So it goes at the annual Oscar nominees luncheon, the sort of event where sound mixers get to rub shoulders with superstars. Held this year at the Fairmont Century Plaza Hotel and reserved solely for the nominees and their guests, the luncheon is usually a cheerful affair since everybody gets dressed up and nobody loses.

For Jonathan Fawkner, who has been nominated for the visual effects Oscar three times and is in the running again this year for “No Time to Die,” the high point of the luncheon tends to be the “class photo,” where the year’s nominees are called to the stage one by one to to pose together as a huge, egalitarian group.

“The best thing is that in one breath, they could say ‘Clint Eastwood,’ and everyone claps, and then ‘Jonathan Fawkner’ — huh? — but everyone still claps,” Fawkner said. “It’s brilliant!”

This year, that all played out a little differently. Though attendees had to be tested for COVID-19 within 48 hours of the event, the class photo was still split into small, socially distanced groups of about a dozen nominees each, which would later be digitally combined into a traditional photo.

But for the hours of schmoozing that preceded the photo, no such digital trickery was necessary.

Guests were only too happy to embrace each other at one of the first major awards season events to be held in person since the omicron variant had scuttled winter campaigning. An enthusiastic Will Smith, considered the best-actor front-runner for “King Richard,” gave out high fives to Jessica Chastain and Maggie Gyllenhaal, while supporting-actor nominee Troy Kotsur (“CODA”) shook hands with Denzel Washington and fist-bumped “Summer of Soul” director Questlove.

Elsewhere in the ballroom, Steven Spielberg dined on gluten-free chickpea panisse at a starry table that included Kotsur’s “CODA” co-star Emilia Jones as well as Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem, one of two married couples to score matching Oscar nominations this year. (The other couple, “Power of the Dog” co-stars Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons, had to skip the luncheon because of filming commitments.) And at the table next to mine, best-actress nominee Kristen Stewart and her fiancée Dylan Meyer, chatted with Finneas O’Connell, nominated for co-writing the title track to “No Time to Die” with his singer sister, Billie Eilish.

Will Packer, the producer of this year’s Oscars broadcast, took the stage to encourage the potential winners to keep their acceptance speeches short, though he made no mention of the academy’s controversial plan to cut them even shorter: In a bid to bring the show in under three hours, eight awards will be given out in the hour before the Oscars are televised, then woven into a highlight reel aired later in the show.

Past Oscar winners like Spielberg and Guillermo del Toro have spoken out against the plan, which prompted Oscar-winning sound engineer Tom Fleischman to resign from his academy membership last week. Some nominees have discussed boycotting the show, but even the ones who attended the luncheon had plenty to say about it.

“I’m angry and disappointed,” said Joe Walker, who is nominated this year for editing “Dune.” His race is among the eight that will be presented before the show. “I think it’s a mistake,” he said.

“I think many, many people who are in the academy, in other branches, don’t understand what editing is,” said Walker’s guest, Mary Sweeney, who edited the films “Lost Highway” and “Mulholland Drive.”

Though the academy is shortening the show in an attempt to bring in younger viewers, Sweeney and Walker suggested that the TikTok and YouTube generation may be more well-versed in editing than they are given credit for.

“The interest in editing is rising all over the world,” Walker said. “I mean, the most inspirational cut I saw last year was in a TikTok!”

Since most of the best-known Oscar nominees will still be walking the red carpet when those eight categories are announced March 27, Monday’s luncheon may have provided the only real opportunity this season for some of the honored guests to get face time with famous names. Luckily, when Ojari walked into the event, the very first person he saw was Miranda, his son’s idol.

He walked up to explain the note, and Miranda encouraged Ojari to keep it himself, as a memento. But Ojari knew his son would want him to complete the mission. When I spoke to him near the end of the luncheon, he was scanning the room for Miranda, note in hand.

“I’ve still got to try and shove it in his top pocket,” he said.

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