Here’s to the Oscar Nominees Who Lunch

You’re within spitting distance of some of the world’s biggest stars and movie personalities. You’ve got mere minutes to ask the right questions that will shed light on their feelings about what it’s like to be nominated for an Oscar. Tom Cruise But here’s the problem: You’re corralled into a roomful of other reporters, who all want to ask the same questions. And some of their voices are louder than yours.

Welcome to the annual Oscar Nominees’ Luncheon held today at the posh Beverly Hilton hotel, where Tom Cruise is on the menu.

“Tom, is this the weirdest role you’ve ever done in your life?” you ask, referring to that scurrilous Frank T.J. Mackey guy he plays in “Magnolia”.

“Yes,” Tom replies. Then he adds: “Hahahahahahahahaha!”

At a time of year when Hollywood is engrossed in awards ceremonies — the SAGs, the DGAs and every other trophy-dispensing event worth its acronym — this Oscar-sponsored meet-and-greet with the stars serves as a reminder that the Academy is a cut above.

And nobody seems to know this better than the journalists, herded into an anterior room while the stars lunch in the dining room. Undeterred by the tight quarters, the scribes shout out their queries quickly and loudly, without fear of being laughed at by Tom Cruise, and as if there were something urgent about knowing things such as:

— “How elated must you be about your nomination?”

— “Are you going to be emotional in your acceptance speech?”

— “Do you have a big, fashion-designer outfit?”

— “What’s the most fun of being a nominee?

— “Sam, why has this film hit such a nerve?” (Hint: Always remember to call the nominee by his and/or her first name, all chummy like. Even if you’d never heard of Sam Mendes, the “American Beauty” director guy, until about five months ago.)

— And, finally: “What was the most difficult part of making this film?” (Word of advice: Don’t ask this question of an auteur-type like “The Insider’s” Michael Mann unless you’re prepared for a long-winded, boring answer.)

In other luncheon fun:

CAN YOU SAY THAT AT THE LUNCHEON? We already know that “Blame Canada,” the Oscar-nominated song from “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut,” is causing headaches for producers of the Oscar telecast and ABC censors. Now we know why.

Songwriters Trey Parker and Marc Shaiman used the dreaded “F” word no less than a dozen times while speaking to reporters at the luncheon. (In the song, the word is used just once.)

Parker said the flap over how the song will be censored at the awards ceremony hasn’t been completely settled. But it’s not the “F” word that’s the problem (Parker concedes that it will most definitely be cut or bleeped out). He’s more surprised that the censors are giving him guff about the word “fart.”

Meanwhile, Randy Newman, whose song “When She Loved Me” from “Toy Story 2” is also nominated, threw in a word of support for the “South Park” guys — er, make that a nonsequitur of support. “I’m glad something got nominated from ‘South Park’ because it’s better than ‘Cats,'” Newman said. “I like it. I like my song better, though.”

AT EASE: Of all the celebs paraded before the press, Best Actor hopeful Kevin Spacey seemed to be most enjoying his turn in the Oscar limelight. Bleary-eyed and slightly pale after a night of post-SAG Awards partying, Spacey handled the hungry reporters’ verbal onslaught with jovial irony. When a post-answer burst of questions caused his (self-described) hungover body to lurch backward, he yelped, “Jesus! Don’t do that! I’m not awake!” And when innumerable reporters stepped on top of one another with a question, he said, “I can answer all four of those questions, and it would probably make as much sense as if I’d heard only one of them.”

Running a close second in the at-ease department would be almost-octogenarian actor Richard Farnsworth, in the Best Actor race for his role in “The Straight Story,” wherein he plays an old guy who drives across the country on a lawn tractor. True to character, Farnsworth said he was milking a cow on his New Mexico farm when he heard he was nominated.

THE ODD COUPLE: Best Supporting Actor nominee Tom Cruise, looking cool in a gray suit and burgundy turtleneck, and “Magnolia” director Paul Thomas Anderson, looking pale-faced, mussy-haired in a slobby red shirt and suit.

SHE’S ALL WOMAN: Hilary Swank gave a great performance as a young woman who blurs the line between male and female in “Boys Don’t Cry.” But now, the Best Actress nominee seems to be blurring the line herself. In paying lip service to Teena Brandon (aka Brandon Teena), the real-life subject of the film, Swank said, “He was very inspiring to me, because he was somebody who lived his life the way he wanted.” He? (For the record, Brandon technically was a she.)

HE DON’T GOT GAME: Who knows what they really think of reporters, but most of the nominees were willing to play the Hollywood game: Show up, meet the press, dish out a few sound bites, go eat lunch. But not Best Actor nominee Denzel Washington. He showed up and met the press, but wasn’t generous with the sound bites, avoiding direct answers and opting for a “Well, you know …” until his voice trailed off and you forgot what you asked him (or why you cared) in the first place.

IT’S THE NOMINEES’ LUNCHEON, STUPID: Reporters are accustomed to being plied with food and drink, but the Academy don’t play that. The libation du jour for the press was … water. Served in carafes. Really. Here’s what the stars ate: Salad (mixed greens, fruits and nuts), a platter of appetizers (salmon, cheese, asparagus, etc.), and a main course (grilled shrimp, filet mignon and fresh vegetables).

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