Oscar stars share a pre-awards lunch. Denzel, Halle, and Will share the stage -- and Billy Bob and Angelina become proud parents
Will Smith, Halle Berry, ...
Credit: Washington, Berry and Smith: Steve Granitz/WireImage.com

The theme at Monday’s annual Academy Awards nominees’ luncheon at the Beverly Hills Hilton was high school — the Academy even handed out ”Class of 2001” sweatshirts and diploma-like certificates, and the 150 nominees present posed for a class photo. And the prom kings and queen were this years’ trio of African-American lead acting nominees, Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, and Will Smith, who posed for photos together and graciously answered the by-now-tiresome questions about the rarity and significance of such a strong showing by black actors at the Oscars.

”I think in this case, everybody voted for the people they thought were the best, and that happened to be three African-Americans,” Washington said. ”I don’t put any particular spin on that other than that.” On a lighter note, he said ”’It was really a wonderful feeling standing there taking pictures with Will and Halle. Then I realized I’m getting old!”

In fact, the mood was generally light and non-competitive, unlike the nail-biting tension that will mark the actual awards ceremony on March 24. ”I don’t care who wins,” Smith said. ”At this point, I’m just happy to be at the big dance… I’m the first rapper to be nominated for an Oscar. I’ve made history already!” Still, Smith said, ”I’d feel better if this award was at the Grammys.”

This was not the vicious, backbiting Hollywood portrayed in David Lynch’s ”Mulholland Drive.” ”Hey, Ridley, congratulations, buddy,” said Lynch, as he greeted fellow Best Director nominee ”Black Hawk Down”’s Ridley Scott. Even Russell Crowe was on his best behavior, sort of. Evoking thoughts of his tantrum a couple weeks ago in London, where he accosted a producer he blamed for trimming a short verse from his acceptance speech, he announced, ”I was thinking I might do some poetry for you.” Then he recited a dirty limerick.

Newly single Best Actress nominee Nicole Kidman let it be known that she’s in search of a date for the Oscars. ”I don’t really have anyone to bring at the moment,” said the ”Moulin Rouge” star. ”So I’m looking.”

The biggest news may have come from Smith’s fellow ”Ali” nominee, Jon Voight, who told everyone, ”I’m a grandfather today.” Daughter Angelina Jolie and son-in-law Billy Bob Thornton have adopted a Cambodian baby boy, he said. (It’s the first child for Jolie, 26, and Thornton, 46.) Jolie, a United Nations goodwill ambassador, has toured refugee camps around the globe, including in Cambodia, where she shot ”Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.” She’s working on a humanitarian-themed feature film in Africa now, which is where the child was delivered to her on Sunday when the adoption was finalized. ”She has the baby with her right now in Africa,” Voight said. ”But I’m willing to go over there and babysit. I’ve got a couple of weeks when I can change diapers and stuff.”

The warmest welcome may have been reserved for this year’s honorary Oscar winner, Sidney Poitier, who was greeted like an alumnus quarterback returning to the gridiron where he won his greatest victory. Nearly 40 years ago Poitier became the first — and so far only — black actor to win an Academy Award for a leading role, though this year’s nominees Washington, Berry, and Smith have a strong shot at changing that. When Poitier’s name was read, this year’s class gave him an unprecedented standing ovation.