Fans and paparazzi crowded behind a rope at the entrance of the Beverly Hilton on Monday as Oscar-nominated artists -- including 19 of the 20 actors hoping to win the gold statuette -- gathered for a celebratory lunch.
Tables in the chandeliered ballroom were set for about 150 people and the menu included Asian-inspired hors d'oeuvres and Alaskan black cod. The seating chart called for mingling, as actors were matched with directors, sound editors and costume designers. But the acting nominees held sway backstage in the press room.
Some critics, entertainment analysts and Oscar statisticians are already calling the race for acting awards over, since Colin Firth ("The King's Speech"), Natalie Portman ("The Black Swan"), Christian Bale ("The Fighter") and Melissa Leo ("Winter's Bone") have each taken home both SAG and Golden Globe awards.
But the other nominees didn't seem to care; they showed up in force and seemed to be swept up in the excitement of the season.
"To be here today is a great honor," said Javier Bardem, nominated for his lead role in "Biutiful," "especially because it is Spanish." The foreign film got more attention than it might have because of special screenings hosted by Bardem's friends, including Julia Roberts and Sean Pean, which the actor called "an amazing gift."
Many of the actors said they were happy that their nominations might bring more moviegoers out to see their small films, whether or not they win awards.
Oscar winner Geoffrey Rush, who earned a nod this year for his portrait of a speech therapist who helps King George VI overcome a life-long stammer, was asked about one very special group of moviegoers -- the British royal family.
He joked that "the Queen is probably on Netflix," adding that the tabloid Sun reported that she had seen the film and was "moved." Rush then imagined aloud an ad for the film, "'Dazzling,' New York Times. 'Moving,' Her Majesty."
Jeremy Renner, who was nominated last year for his performance in the "The Hurt Locker," the 2009 Best Picture winner, said he was still "wide-eyed about the whole process." Renner, nominated this year for Best Supporting actor for "The Town," came from Vancouver, where he's filming "Mission Impossible 4," for Monday's lunch.
Firth called the award season a "rather out-of-body experience."
The roster of nominees brought lots of newcomers, young and old, to the red carpet, including:
- a 14-year-old (Hailee Steinfeld for "True Grit");
- Jacki Weaver, an Australian actress who says she has been "a contented jobbing actor for 48 years," now recognized for her acting in the little-seen "Animal Kingdom;"
- John Hawkes, nominated for Best Actor for "Winter's Bone," who said he was "blown away" but also "a little nervous" over losing his anonymity.
Bale, Lawrence, James Franco -- who will host the Academy Awards ceremony at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood on Feb. 27 with Anne Hathaway -- and Mark Ruffalo, who is nominated for a supporting actor's Oscar for his performance in "`The Kids Are All Right," are all first-time nominees.
Jesse Eisenberg, also a first-time nominee -- for his portrayal of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in the Best Picture-nominated "The Social Network" -- may have gotten the biggest laugh in the press room with his characterization of awards season. He said it reminded him of being 13, when he had to attend bar mitzvahs every weekend.
"I have to put on a suit every weekend and go meet with a lot of Jews," he said, quickly adding, "this is better."
The red carpet looms large for both performers and television viewers.
Steinfeld admitted, a bit sheepishly, that, she had watched the Oscars "only for the red carpet ... (I was) so excited to see what everybody was wearing."
Helena Bonham Carter, who looked ready for an evening out in a low-cut black dress, long black gloves and a black net hat perched in her up-do, said of her wardrobe for the Oscar red carpet, "it's probably going to be a catastrophe ... but I'm gonna go for it."
Bonham Carter said she'd hadn't chosen a dress but promised to wear the same color shoes -- after wearing one pink and one green shoe to the Golden Globes.
Most of the other actresses wore more spring-like dresses or separates -- gauzy, lightweight and simple -- to the luncheon. to say about which pretty dresses her mom wears.
So for the Oscars, "fingers crossed, guys," said Kidman. "I could be wearing a tutu."
Natalie Portman, who wore tall red velvet heels and a silky deep aqua dress over her now-very-visible pregnancy, objected to the focus on the more frivolous aspects of the awards season, such as fashion.
"It's surprising that that's become the conversation rather than the work itself," she half-scolded a reporter after acknowledging that her choice of dress was "all about leaving space for growth."
But whatever they wear and whoever wins, the nominees are enjoying the moment, both surprised and delighted to be part of the Oscar tradition.
"It's taken me 20 years to get here," said Ruffalo. "I probably have the least showy performance of the group, so I'm a little surprised that I made the cut ... and very grateful."
Weaver said, "If I was a bell, I'd be ringing."
Many offered praise for others' work.
Annette Bening, who won a Golden Globe and is nominated for Best Actress for her work as one-half of the lesbian couple in "The Kids Are All Right," said her favorite scene in the movie was one with Ruffalo and Josh Hutcherson, the young actor who played his biological son.
Amy Adams, asked about working with Bale, given his intense method-like focus on character, said "all that matters to me is what happens between `action' and `cut' and ... he is 100 percent there, amazing, committed, a beautiful actor." Bale was the only acting nominee who did not attend the luncheon.
As for the awards ceremony itself, Franco offered few clues to how this year's show might be different, other than confirming reports that he, Hathaway and the producers hoped to draw in younger viewers while still helping the audience to "appreciate the history of film."