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A Lunch Where Sound Mixer and Star Get Equal Billing

Category: Art & Culture,Arts

Part of the fun of the annual Oscar nominees’ luncheon is seeing who’s talking to whom.

At one point during Monday’s event, Bradley Cooper was huddled in deep conversation with Spike Lee, while across the ballroom at the Beverly Hilton, Glenn Close made a beeline for Sam Elliott, affectionately dubbing him “my husband in another life.”

And where else but at a gathering of Oscar nominees would you find the Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige, the ballcap-clad producer of “Black Panther,” flanked on one side by Lady Gaga and on the other by the Japanese auteur Hirokazu Kore-eda?

“This is surreal,” said Melissa Berton, surveying the starry scene. Though she was a producer of the Oscar-nominated documentary short “Period. End of Sentence,” Berton primarily works as a high school English teacher, the sort of vocation that rarely leads to a Beverly Hills ballroom. “I’m used to students and white boards,” she said as the “Bohemian Rhapsody” star Rami Malek swanned past us.

Though it’s been reported that the academy may relegate categories like Berton’s to commercial breaks and then edit those winners into a clip package shown later in the Oscar telecast, the nominees’ luncheon is more egalitarian.

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Viggo Mortensen, up for best actor for “Green Book,” was seated as far back in the room as a table full of sound-mixing nominees. Later in the afternoon, all the nominated guests assembled on rows of risers to take a “class photo,” offering the rare opportunity for a visual-effects artist to pose alongside stars like Amy Adams and Rachel Weisz.

“I had to buy a suit for this, because I’m usually down in the mud with a camera in my hand,” said Skye Fitzgerald, who directed the Oscar-nominated documentary short “Lifeboat.” Like Close, he had also sought out Elliott, and their encounter left Fitzgerald beaming.

“I said, ‘I admire your work so much, thank you for talking to me,’” Fitzgerald recalled. “He responded, ‘You’re here, and you’re a star.’ He literally grabbed my shoulder and hugged me!” Fitzgerald grinned, patting the same shoulder. “That’s who I hoped he’d be,” he said.

Some nominees were more skeptical of all the pomp and circumstance. Your Carpetbagger was seated next to Su Kim, a producer of the Oscar-nominated documentary “Hale County This Morning, This Evening,” who told me that her husband had declined to be her plus-one. “I’m really uncomfortable at things like this, so I get it,” she said.

Over salad and salmon, we talked about deep-pocketed companies like Netflix and Hulu that had been flooding the documentary space in the hopes of gaining an Oscar foothold. While their money can create more opportunity for filmmakers, Kim worried that it might also limit their creative control.

For those reasons she was still mulling whether she would accept an invitation to join the academy’s documentary branch, if asked. “But I was talking to a colleague of mine who is a member,” Kim said, “and she said, ‘How do you think anything is going to change if you don’t join?’”

And even Kim can recognize the strange power of award season. When “Hale County” triumphed at the Gotham Awards in November, she broke her high heels: “I didn’t expect to win, and I got so excited that I put a little too much pressure on my shoe.” She still recalls how stunned she was when “Hale County” was read in the list of Oscar nominees last month.

“I thought I was not hearing things right,” Kim said. Then she got a congratulatory text message from a friend she hadn’t talked to in years, and the enormity of that moment finally hit her: “I looked at the phone and thought, ‘Oh my God, it’s real. He saw it, too.’”


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