LOS ANGELES: Tom Cruise lived up to his billing as the "last true movie star" as nearly 200 of this year's Oscar nominees gathered to celebrate -- and size up their competition -- at the Academy's annual luncheon Monday, including Pakistani activist and Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai.
"It's surreal," she told AFP after meeting Cruise. "I've seen him on the screen and now I'm seeing him in person."
Yousafzai, attended as an executive producer of 'Stranger at the Gate,' a short documentary about a US Marine veteran who plotted to blow up a mosque in his hometown.
In a room packed with A-listers such as Steven Spielberg and Cate Blanchett, there was no doubt Cruise remained the biggest draw, with a crowd of well-wishers from Hollywood moguls to Yousafzai lining up to greet him throughout the event.
Cruise is nominated this year as a producer of 'Top Gun: Maverick,' in which he also starred. The film is considered a growing frontrunner for the best picture Oscar -- Hollywood's most prestigious prize.
"It's been incredible... I just want to get people into theaters," Cruise told AFP.
"But this is lovely," he admitted, motioning to the Beverly Hills ballroom, packed with Oscar nominees and Academy voters, and kitted out with giant golden statuettes and open champagne bars.
The 95th Academy Awards will be held on March 12.
Academy voters this year handed out various nominations for box office smash hits such as 'Maverick,', 'Avatar: The Way of Water' and 'Black Panther: Wakanda Forever' -- raising hopes that Oscars TV audiences will pick back up.
"The awards gods have smiled on us -- there's nothing we can do about that," joked Glenn Weiss, who is returning to produce next month's Oscars telecast ceremony.
During her luncheon speech, Academy president Janet Yang also reiterated her wish to leave behind the "unprecedented" controversy of last year, when Will Smith infamously slapped Chris Rock live on the Oscars stage before being banned.
"What happened on stage was totally unacceptable. And the response from our organization was inadequate," she said.
Smith was allowed to remain at the Oscars and accept his best actor prize after striking Rock, and was only later banned from attending the Academy Awards for a decade.
The Academy "must actively compassionately and decisively" in times of crisis, said Yang, to applause.
After lunch, the names of all 182 attending nominees, plus directors representing their countries in the international feature film category, were read out, and the nominees posed for the traditional, giant-sized "class photo."
'Everything Everywhere All At Once,' a quirky sci-fi with a predominantly Asian cast which is many pundits' tip for best picture winner, earned the most nominations this year with 11, and its cast received many of the loudest cheers on Monday.
"We paid them a lot of money to do that!" joked best actress nominee Michelle Yeoh, describing the indie film's giant success as "a dream come true."
Colin Farrell and Austin Butler, best actor nominees and stars of best picture rivals 'The Banshees of Inisherin' and 'Elvis,' also drew raucous cheers from the luncheon crowd.
Notable by her absence Monday was Andrea Riseborough, who controversially earned a coveted best actress nomination after an intense, last-minute social media campaign mounted by prominent celebrities.
But among the nominees present was Kazuo Ishiguro, nominated for writing the screenplay of British drama 'Living,' some five years after he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in Stockholm.
"This is very different... This is like some version of the American dream. So many people dream about being here," he said.
"The Oscars are more like an election -- there's a lot more campaigning" than for other famous awards, he added.