At the annual Oscar nominees luncheon, there is always a top dog that even a ballroom full of A-listers will clamor to meet. Last year, that honor went to the “Top Gun: Maverick” producer Tom Cruise, a star so huge that the other nominees began to orbit him, biding time until they could dart in to kiss the ring.
The luncheon held Monday afternoon at the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills, Calif., initially seemed to lack that supernova presence, even though there were plenty of famous names including Robert Downey Jr., Emma Stone and Martin Scorsese. Still, they’ve all grown too used to each other to engage in much genuflection: When you treat an awards campaign like a full-time job, the other contenders might as well be your co-workers.
Was there anyone who could jump-start this starry but sleepy scene? I didn’t think so, until I saw supporting actress nominee America Ferrera turn to her left, look down and gasp.
“Oh my God!” she exclaimed. “It’s the actor dog!”
At her feet was Messi, the beautiful black-and-white Border collie from the French courtroom drama “Anatomy of a Fall.” I gasped, too, and not just because I’m a dog person: This was Messi’s first big awards-season appearance, though his star has risen on social media for a performance on par with some of the nominated humans.
As Snoop, the family pet who witnesses the disputed death at the heart of “Anatomy of a Fall,” 7-year-old Messi does things you wouldn’t believe a canine thespian is capable of, including a fakeout death scene executed with unnerving aplomb. At the Cannes Film Festival, where “Anatomy of a Fall” won the prestigious Palme d’Or, Messi was even awarded the Palm Dog. What more could a pooch want, besides treats?
Though I’ve been to plenty of awards-season events where stars were kept on tight leashes by their handlers, this luncheon was the first time it was not metaphorical. “Can I say hi?” Ferrera asked Messi’s owner and trainer, Laura Martin Contini.
“Please!” said Contini.
Ferrera knelt beside Messi and stroked his head. “You did a fabulous job,” she told the dog.
Staring back at us with a pair of compellingly humanlike blue eyes, Messi happily accepted praise and neck rubs from Ferrera, whose “Barbie” colleagues proved similarly beguiled. Billie Eilish, nominated for her “Barbie” song “What Was I Made For?,” set her Gucci bag on the floor to scratch Messi beneath his chin. Later, when Ryan Gosling was introduced to the dog, the supporting actor nominee put a hand to his heart and walked away for a moment, overcome.
For once, the luncheon’s top dog was an actual dog. “It’s crazy,” mused the “Anatomy of a Fall” director Justine Triet. “I think he’s much more famous here than in France.”
Navigating the Hollywood scene for the first time, Messi handled the room like a pro, politely accepting hugs from anyone who walked past. Despite the fact that he was wearing a blue bow tie and nothing else — an awards look even Timothée Chalamet would find too daunting to attempt — Messi proved well-behaved, at least until Contini offered me a toy bone emblazoned with the Beverly Hilton logo.
Messi, who had been scanning the room for more people to pet him, suddenly locked on to that toy bone with laser focus. It was as though I had dangled a best director nomination in front of Bradley Cooper, and all the other noise in the room fell away as Messi willed me to play fetch with him. “Are you sure?” I asked. The damn dog nodded.
I tossed the bone and Messi leaped to the left, catching it in midair and nearly colliding with a scrum of Champagne drinkers. Suffice it to say, this wasn’t the sort of scene you get with Meryl Streep.
Though Messi proved to be the luncheon’s biggest draw, the event has always been designed to encourage unusual connections, throwing together nominated actors, behind-the-scenes technicians and documentary subjects for an electric, egalitarian afternoon. In one corner of the room, I met the director Sean Wang, nominated for the documentary short “Nai Nai & Wai Po,” about his elderly grandmothers, Chang Li Hua and Yi Yan Fuei. Both women had come with Wang to the luncheon.
“I can’t even express how happy I am to think that my grandson could be somewhere like this,” said Yi.
Raney Aronson-Rath, who produced the nominated documentary “20 Days in Mariupol,” told me she had ventured out of her comfort zone to request a photo with the “Barbie” star Margot Robbie.
“My daughter now literally thinks I walk on water because I was able to get a picture with her,” she said.
Robbie received one of the afternoon’s biggest rounds of applause, when she was summoned to the risers at the front of the room to pose for a class photo with her fellow nominees. A contender for producing “Barbie,” Robbie was still dealt a headline-making snub when she failed to crack the best actress lineup. A similar surge of enthusiastic applause greeted Greta Gerwig, who received an adapted-screenplay nomination but was squeezed out of the best director category.
As the nominees assembled and the photo was taken, I checked in with Messi, who had settled in at a back table next to Contini as she noshed on vegan scallops. Wiped out from all the attention, Messi had spent the last 20 minutes drifting in and out of sleep.
Tom Quinn, whose studio Neon distributed “Anatomy of a Fall,” sat down on the steps beside Messi, silently administering scratches and a shoulder massage. Was this the sort of treatment exhausted awards candidates could count on from him?
“Only the ones who deserve it,” he said.