BEVERLY HILLS, Calif., March 11 (UPI) -- For a couple of hours Monday afternoon there were, probably, more movie stars per square foot at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif., than anywhere else in the world -- as the cream of this year's movie crop gathered for the annual nominees luncheon.
Russell Crowe, Halle Berry, Denzel Washington, Sissy Spacek and Nicole Kidman joined directors Ron Howard, Robert Altman, Ridley Scott and scores of nominees in the other categories for a meal and some fellowship -- part of the whirlwind that is an Oscar nominee's life between the announcement of the nominations and the presentation of the Oscars.
It was an especially sweet taste for Howard. Although he is one of Hollywood's most successful, respected and popular figures, he just earned his first Oscar nomination for directing "A Beautiful Mind," based on the life of the schizophrenic Nobel Prize-winning mathematician John Forbes Nash Jr.
When Howard attends the Academy Awards ceremony as a nominee on March 24, he will reflect on a nearly life-long interest in the event.
"I first became aware when I was 6 years old," said Howard. "I watched from home and had a rooting interest."
Howard played in "The Music Man," which was nominated for best picture in 1962, but lost to "Lawrence of Arabia."
It's ironic that Howard is nominated for a picture about math, because his math on that point is a little suspect. He was actually 9 when the 1962 Academy Awards were handed out, but he has certainly had lots of time to fantasize about, and perhaps even prepare for, this night.
"Like everyone else, I've given the speech in the shower over the years," he said, "and now that I'm nominated I can't remember the hook."
Sissy Spacek, who won in 1980 for her portrayal of country singer Loretta Lynn in "Coal Miner's Daughter," was widely regarded as a cinch to take home another best actress statuette this year for her performance as a mother finding it impossible to cope with the tragic death of her son in "In the Bedroom."
But conventional wisdom went through something of a shakeup Sunday night when Halle Berry won the Screen Actors Guild Award for female actor in a leading role for her performance as a black woman who falls in love with the white corrections officer who executed her husband in "Monster's Ball."
At the nominees luncheon, Spacek admitted she wants to win but said all the other best actress nominees -- Berry, Judi Dench ("Iris"), Nicole Kidman ("Moulin Rouge") and Renée Zellweger ("Bridget Jones's Diary") -- are worthy choices.
"It would be an honor to lose to any of them," she said, "because they're fabulous and their performances are stellar."
As usual, the field of nominees for supporting actor and actress is filled with remarkable performances.
Jon Voight, nominated for his portrayal of sports broadcasting legend Howard Cosell in "Ali," said the sheer number of fine supporting performances is enough to justify a trend that a lot of people in Hollywood have criticized -- the proliferation of awards shows.
"It spreads the attention out a little bit to have so many awards shows," he said. "There are many performances deserving of attention that could have taken the place of any of the five of us in this category. I could probably name 20-25 (supporting) performances of extraordinary merit."
He said Jolie was overseas picking up the child, but he "would be willing to go over and babysit."
Helen Mirren, nominated for supporting actress for "Gosford Park," said there were a lot of fine performances in her category too -- but not for a reason that appeals to actresses.
"It's always tough competition in this category," she said, "because there are not nearly enough good leading roles for women."
Smith -- nominated for best actor for "Ali" -- seemed resigned to watching someone else walk off with the Oscar on March 24. He told reporters he said as much to Russell Crowe.
"If this was the rap category at the Grammys," said smith, "then I'd have a much better shot."
Smith was tickled when someone informed him that he is the first rapper ever to be nominated for an acting Oscar.
"I've never thought about that," he said. "That's kind of cool. I've made history already."
Kate Winslet, who is nominated for supporting actress for "Iris," said she is enjoying the experience more than she did the first two times she was nominated -- for supporting actress in "Sense and Sensibility" (1995) and for best actress for "Titanic" (1997).
"This is the third time," she said, "so I'm quite good at losing, number one, and I'm good at learning just to enjoy it."