Bruce Dern says the Oscar race was way longer than expected at Paramount nominees toast

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. – With the Independent Spirit Awards and the Oscars coming up this weekend, finally putting a bow on the year and wrapping up the kudos season, studios, agencies, production companies and anyone in between are feting those in their midst with skin in the game at this soiree or that. Thursday night, among other things, it was Paramount Pictures holding one of its big star-packed parties at Spago in Beverly Hills, everyone from Roger Corman to Jane Seymour turning out to honor the studio's Oscar nominees in films like “The Wolf of Wall Street,” “Nebraska,” “Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa” and “Star Trek Into Darkness.”

It was a two-hour event but some folks were just in and out. “Wolf” stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill made an appearance but didn't linger. “Nebraska” director Alexander Payne showed his face later in the evening. Martin Scorsese, however, held court in a booth with Don Rickles for quite some time, surrounded by the likes of Peter Fonda, “Nebraska” stars Devin Ratray, Angela McEwan and Tim Driscoll and more.

Speaking of “Nebraska,” one thing on the lips of many in the Paramount family was the potential for June Squibb to shock on Oscar night. We've been over the logic already, but the fact is she's getting a healthy number of votes, leaving one to simply wonder if the top two players in the Best Supporting Actress race are cannibalizing each others' support. Meanwhile, the overall assumption for Best Picture appeared to be “Gravity,” but no one is confident in the slightest. This is a nail-biter all the way up until the final envelope.

I spoke with Bruce Dern for the first time since the nominations were announced, and it was nice to pass my congratulations along to a guy who really wanted this leading man recognition. For some reason there were those who wanted to deny him that along the way by asserting that there was no way he could land a Best Actor nomination. The role was more supporting, they said. It wasn't meaty enough. He's shooting himself in the foot. Etc. They were obviously wrong, and for Dern's part, he's had a blast.

(To give you a quick idea of Dern, by the way, he registers things in regional basketball. No, really. As soon as he meets someone, he asks them where they went to high school. And being a bit of a gambler on the sports scene, he can then recount to you everything there is to know about local basketball in particular. Every time he sees me, it's, “North Carolinian!” or “Tar Heel!” It's an endearing trait, I must say.)

Fingers were certainly crossed throughout Spago that, despite fellow studio stablemate Leonardo DiCaprio being in the hunt, Dern could pull off an upset on Sunday. It would certainly mean more to him, probably, than anyone in the category. But he likely didn't expect it to be this kind of a whirlwind, and indeed, he admitted to me that he had no idea the race would be the endurance test it's been. As a former runner and speed skater, I imagine the 77-year-old knows something about that.

“I thought we were half-way done at Telluride,” he told me. “We were only just beginning!” Of course, “Nebraska” is a different case given that its journey started at Cannes way back in May of 2013 (where Dern won the Best Actor prize that started his red carpet ride). So I imagine it does all feel like the longest long-distance race of all.

I also spoke briefly with “Flight” screenwriter John Gatins, a first-time voter this year after being invited the the Academy following his Oscar nomination last year. He's excited to be initiated on such an amazing year for cinema, and he's pumped for the release of “Need for Speed” right around the corner. He's also hard at work on Nic Mathieu's “Spectral,” which to be perfectly honest sounds AWESOME. We both mostly geeked out over the fact that James Badge Dale is finally getting a leading man turn in the film.

Will Forte was there, talking up his new pilot and the hardships of getting a writing team together for it. The ubiquitous producing team of Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa were floating around, as well as Johnny Knoxville, Thora Birch, Amy Heckerling, Kelsey Grammer, Penny Marshall and Cristin Milioti. It was a breezy affair with the overall sense of relief hovering in the air: it's almost over.