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79th Annual Academy Awards: Noshing with the Nominees at the Ultimate Power Lunch

When Hollywood.com found itself slipping through the same out-of-the-way entrance at the Beverly Hilton Hotel to avoid the throngs of fans and photographers lining the lobby and nearly collided with a briskly walking Clint Eastwood, we knew we’d found the event we were looking for: the 26th Annual Oscar Nominees Luncheon.

Eastwood, nominated as Best Director for Letters From Iwo Jima, was among 140 Oscar contenders from the 79th Academy Awards assembled in the hotel’s International Ballroom to mix, munch and mingle at what is considered the most fun event in the nerve-wracking whirlwind of the annual awards season. The reason is simple: at the beginning and end of the day, everyone’s still a potential winner.

After collecting an armload of awards this year for his performance in The Last King of Scotland, Forest Whitaker was bracing himself for the Big Night, an event he has never attended as a guest, let alone a Best Actor nominee.

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“I’ve never been,” Whitaker confessed, musing about his expectations. “I’m hoping that I’m going to have one of the greatest nights of my life. I’ll be there with my friends and my wife and people that I like and respect, and I will just celebrate no matter what happens. I have no idea what to expect. Even here today I had no idea what to expect.” His verdict: “It’s all good.”

The Queen’s Helen Mirren was still wrestling with the ethical quandary of whether to actually vote for herself as Best Actress. “It’s a terrible moment. It’s an awful moral dilemma that descends upon you,” she fretted. “It’s like, ‘I can’t vote for myself. That is outrageous.’ You cannot vote for yourself, and then you think that maybe it’s the one vote that you need! It’s an awful moment that I shall have nightmares about for the rest of my life.”

So what did the Dame do? “I’m not telling. You know what I did.” She sank her head in shame and made little devil horns atop her head with her fingers.

Djimon Hounsou, nominated as Best Supporting Actor for Blood Diamond, had no such issues. “Of course I have to vote for myself,” he proclaimed. “Who else would I vote for? I have to start with myself.” He was more concerned with making it through the whirlwind of the long road to Oscar night.

“It is hectic—it is so much work getting the nomination,” Hounsou explained. “You get a nomination and it’s all great and wonderful and then all of a sudden there is a certain stress level that sort of invades you, for lack of a better word. Thank God it’s not the first…I felt like in America many people were thinking that getting here was just an accident for me, getting the nomination for the first time. The second time around is definitely sweeter.”

No one was savoring their nomination more than Jackie Earle Haley, who earned a Best Supporting Actor nod for his role in Little Children after a brilliant start as a child actor was derailed by over a dozen years of unemployment in Hollywood.

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“I think that the time away from acting made me a better actor from the standpoint of giving me so much more to draw on,” Haley revealed. “I got to go out there and experience life in the corporate world and just doing various odd jobs to try to survive, getting three months behind on rent, struggling and driving limousines and delivering pizzas.”

After stabilizing his life by finding work in the corporate world, Haley said he “started to get pretty comfortable in my skin and I started to do okay financially, and life was becoming very rewarding…I feel like I have a lot more life to draw on than I did when I was 14.”

Penelope Cruz look positively radiant as she mused about how her nomination as Best Actress for Volver was especially meaningful, coming for a Spanish language film directed by her mentor Pedro Almodovar.

“He’s the reason why I decided to become an actress when I was a teenager,” Cruz said. “He really has written some of the best character work for women in the history of movies. In Volver there are six women of six different generations…I think he’s the master of that, the female confusion. I think the female confusion is very cinematic and he is the proof of that.”

“This is really wild,” admitted singer-songwriter Melissa Etheridge, who was reveling in her nomination for Best Original Song from the documentary after winning a lengthy battle with cancer. “I remember laying in bed on chemotherapy going, ‘Oh, gosh. What’s next? What’s going to happen?’ I kind of tumbled out of that and my steps have been really on a golden path and if I can just stay out of my own way I think that I’m going to really enjoy the next half of my life.”

Double-Oscar-winner Paul Haggis, who took home the Original Screenplay and Best Picture trophies last year, made a return trip to the luncheon, nominated for Best Original Screenplay for his work on Letters From Iwo Jima, but claimed he was only riding director Clint Eastwood’s coattails.

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“Clint had a great passion for this piece and I was so glad to be a small part of seeing that passion come to life,” said Haggis, who was drafted into swiftly co-writing Letters in two short months while still in the middle of scripting the companion film Flags of Our Fathers. “I just thought that he was mad, but he’s Clint Eastwood and he usually figures out how to pull off his dream. So I said, ‘Okay, I’m onboard. We’ll find someone for me to work with and we’ll do it.’ Seeing the glint in his eye when he has an idea is just wonderful. I’m really happy to work with him.”

“I feel like a true Dreamgirl today,” proclaimed Best Supporting Actress nominee Jennifer Hudson, who was acutely aware of just how significantly her life had changed in just one short year. “Last year at this time we had just started filming Dreamgirls. We were in our second month of filming.”

What got Hudson through from her famed American Idol failure to the road to Oscar gold? “I just believed in my talent more so than anything else, and in myself and in my dreams. That was where my confidence lived.”

Another fresh face, Rinko Kikuchi, has seen her English skills growing by leaps and bounds since her arrival in Hollywood but she stuck with her translator to explain how meaningful her Best Supporting Actress nomination for Babel is to her. “I never really thought that I would ever be here, ever,” Kikuchi admitted. “It’s a wonderful opportunity. It’s made me more and more want to be a better actress, both personally and professionally.”

One pharse of English the Japanese-born actress had mastered herself was her response to the inevitable question of what she’d be wearing to the Oscar ceremony: “It’s a secret!”

The Departed’s Mark Wahlberg, who earned a Best Supporting Actor Nomination for playing a tough Boston cop, appreciated the sweet irony of his acclaim for the role, after being arrested by the city’s police more than 20 times in his troubled youth.

“The amazing thing is when I got the call that I was nominated I was able to call my parents and tell them good news that made them cry for the first time in my life,” Wahlberg said. “I had called them the 20-25 times that I’d been arrested, too, and one of them had to get on a train or a bus and come and bail me out and spend the money that they were going to use for food to feed their nine kids. So to be able to make them proud and to use all that experience and put it to good use was definitely a blessing.”

Everyone knew Will Smith, best Actor Nominee for The Pursuit of Happyness, was in the room when he entered with his characteristic enthusiasm and playful bravado, but he admitted that his sentimental side was brimming under the surface when talk turned to his son and co-star Jaden, who’s not exactly into sharing the Oscar ride with Dad.

“He so doesn’t want to do anything but play PS3 right now – he’s not into it,” Smith laughed. “He has no idea what’s happening and what’s going on, no concern. I know that one day when he looks back at it all he’ll see how beautiful of a time this is, how wonderful a time it is for our family and what it did for our relationship. Everything is just different right now because he was in that film with me.” 

Smith recalled a visit to Oprah Winfrey’s talk show to promote the film, where Jaden received a standing ovation from the audience, a moment that rocketed  Smith backward to a moment in his own life.

“At that moment I couldn’t have explained what I was feeling, but it connected to a day that I was in New York. It was the 4th of July, 1994, and I was looking out the window at the Zigfield [Theater] and I saw the line go out, go around the corner, come back down, come back around the street and come back and go out—it was for the opening of Independence Day.

“I remember thinking, ‘Everything is different from right now. It will never be the same again,’” Smith said. “And that’s the feeling that I had and have had with this movie and having done it with my son. It will never be the same again. Our lives are different forever. He’s given a performance. It’s on film. In the history of Hollywood and in the history of world cinema that’s not ever going to go anywhere and that just does my heart good.”

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