Monica Almeida/The New York Times
Jessica Chastain, center, at the Oscar nominee luncheon at the Beverly Hilton on Monday.
BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — If the Oscars are a horse race, then the annual nominee luncheon here is the paddock. With the qualifying rounds over and voting set to begin, the competitors are ritually assembled for a high-wattage gathering and a cordial glass of Champagne or two before the bell rings and the jockeying starts in earnest.
So Steven Spielberg, nominated for directing “Lincoln,” mixed with the team behind “Wreck-It Ralph,” while Mark Boal, a nominee for “Zero Dark Thirty,” smiled near Harvey Weinstein, who was pushing “Silver Linings Playbook.”
“Your storytelling instincts are so right on,” the writer and director Phil Robinson said to Ben Affleck, who attended the lunch on behalf of “Argo.” Mr. Affleck bowed his head and said a humble, “Thank you.” (Mr. Robinson, an Academy governor, directed Mr. Affleck in “The Sum of All Fears.”)
The rear of the International Ballroom of the Beverly Hilton here was transformed for the cocktail hour into something resembling a nightclub, a departure from previous years. Attendees gathered amid fake fog, a D.J. and blue lighting dim enough to challenge the Academy’s older ranks.
The luncheon’s celebrity turnout is painstakingly monitored both by the Reporters Who Cover Hollywood and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The luncheon is a two-way street: the Academy honors the nominees, treating all, for the moment, as winners — but the nominees are also expected to honor the Academy by showing up to rub shoulders with its governors.
This year Academy publicists said 21 of the 25 nominees in the high-profile acting and directing categories attended. Missing were Emmanuelle Riva, a best actress contender for “Amour,” and that film’s director, Michael Haneke. Two supporting actor nominees, Alan Arkin (“Argo”) and Philip Seymour Hoffman (“The Master”), were absent.
Ms. Riva had commitments in Europe that she could not break, and Mr. Haneke was busy directing an opera in Madrid, said Michael Barker, the co-founder of Sony Pictures Classics, which released “Amour.” A spokeswoman for Mr. Arkin said he was in New Orleans filming a new movie, “Grudge Match.” A publicist for Mr. Hoffman said he was tied up in New York.
They missed blueberry vodka martinis, white orchid centerpieces and burrata cheese and honey-date appetizers. (The lightness and good cheer inside the hotel stood in contrast to a scene outside. Two anti-torture groups staged a silent protest of “Zero Dark Thirty,” a best picture nominee that has been criticized for its depiction of “enhanced interrogation” in the hunt for Osama bin Laden.)
Monday’s luncheon, the 32nd of its kind, came as “Argo” continued to surge in the run-up to the Oscars, which will be held on Feb. 24 and televised by ABC. After winning the top prize at the Screen Actors Guild Awards on Jan. 27, “Argo” and Mr. Affleck also took home the biggest trophy at the Directors Guild Awards on Saturday.
Where does that leave Team “Lincoln,” which had been the early front-runner? If Mr. Spielberg was sweating it, he didn’t look that way. He arrived at his table and warmly greeted Quvenzhané Wallis, the young best actress nominee. She seemed more interested in the flavor of her salad dressing, but Mr. Spielberg promptly removed the orchid centerpiece as he took his seat. “I want to be able to see her,” he said.
The nominee luncheon is known for strained bonhomie — air kisses and hidden daggers — and, just as in the junior high cafeteria, a focus on who sits where. In the past the Academy has seated reporters by lottery. But last week the Academy spread the word that it would decide where reporters sat, prompting press corps whispering about the reasons behind the change. An Academy spokeswoman said, “We wanted to try something different.”
As usual, the Academy used the gathering to admonish nominees to keep acceptance speeches short, should they be called onstage to collect a little gold statue. “Please speak from the heart, not from a piece of paper,” said Craig Zadan, a producer of this year’s telecast.
And … they’re off.