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Nominees in good company at lunch

By wire services
Published February 15, 2004

There probably is no other reason under the sun for a little-known teenager from New Zealand and one of Hollywood's biggest cynics to sit down to lunch together, but there they were Monday, nibbling pretty little appetizers and sea bass and both grinning ear to ear.

Keisha Castle-Hughes, the novice star of the sleeper hit Whale Rider, and Sean Penn, who impressed motion picture academy members with his performance in Mystic River, were among some 100 Academy Award nominees dining at the Beverly Hilton Hotel for the 23rd annual Nominees Luncheon.

Castle-Hughes was nearly breathless as the reality of being the youngest best actress nominee ever (11 when she made the film and 13 now) was starting to sink in. There she was on risers for the traditional "class photo" of the whole group, standing next to a giant Oscar statuette and just in front of one of her idols, Clint Eastwood.

"I'm so star-struck right now," she said, moments after posing for photographers and meeting with a press corps in an adjacent room. Her personal publicist (the very idea of having one was ridiculous such a short time ago) shepherded her protectively through the proceedings.

Castle-Hughes said she's hoping for another chance to encounter Johnny Depp, the Pirates of the Caribbean best actor nominee who missed the luncheon. "But that will have to wait for awards night," she said.

Penn's appearance hints that he will attend the Feb. 29 ceremony, although he usually lays low during awards season. The robust hand he received when his name was announced Monday may encourage him.

Diane Keaton showed a little leg in a cream-colored suit, accented with a red-and-black ascot, red heels and red gloves.

"I've never been here before," said Keaton, enjoying her fourth nomination, for Something's Gotta Give. "I'm so excited!"

Ben Kingsley is no stranger to the Oscar season hoopla, having won for Gandhi and been nominated most recently for Sexy Beast in 2002. He said he still feels a rush in the parade of limousines and photographers.

"One would be numb beyond belief if one wasn't excited," he said.

The luncheon is probably the most egalitarian get-together in the entertainment business. The stars are scattered among the crafts people around the room, and the crush of the cocktail time and the deliberate mixing at tables of 10 makes for some unusual conversation partners: Tim Robbins and Julie Andrews, Elvis Costello and Sofia Coppola, Kingsley and Charlize Theron.

Marcia Gay Harden, winner for Pollock who is up again in the supporting actress category for Mystic River, rubbed her pregnant belly affectionately (she's expecting twins).

"It always feels new and fresh and wonderful," she said, "but I have company this time - no room for nerves."

T Bone Burnett, up for two Cold Mountain numbers in the best song category, gushed to writer Callie Khouri about the thrill of talking with documentarian Errol Morris (The Fog of War).

"This is the one place in Hollywood where there isn't a hierarchy," Burnett said.

Peter Weir, nominated for producing and directing Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World, said the gathering is a chance to mingle with fellow nominees before the hard-bitten competitiveness kicks in.

"There's something ancient, I'm talking really primitive, some Stone Age thing comes out and you want to win. It's like acid in your mouth," he said of Oscar night.

"It's still somewhat civilized, so it's a very nice period right now."

Benicio Del Toro, who won a supporting actor Oscar for 2000's Traffic and is up again this year for 21 Grams, said he's "a little more relaxed" this time around. "I'm collecting signatures, autographs," he said before the luncheon.

Peter Jackson was invited to the luncheon when he was up for best director for 2001's The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. "I couldn't come because we were at work finishing the other two films," he said.

Now that they're all finished - except for the final "extended edition" DVD - he had time to kick back and enjoy the perks of nomination for directing and producing the end of the trilogy, The Return of the King.

The normally barefoot Kiwi director even put on a rare accessory for the event. "Yes, I do have shoes on. I feel it would have been impolite not to wear shoes," he joked.

[Last modified February 12, 2004, 11:07:50]

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