Bening, 52, a Best Actress nominee this year for The Kids Are All Right, recalls award season being much less circus-like in 1990 – so much so that she and her fellow Best Supporting Actress nominees could make a friendly wager and then all get together, without a peep from the media.
"In the orchestra section, there were no cameras then, and so we were all chatting," says Bening, who'd been nominated for The Grifters. "Mary McDonnell and I were talking. Lorraine Bracco, Diane Ladd and Whoopi Goldberg, we were all talking. And we all agreed that we would have dinner the next week, and whoever won would pay."
Goldberg, of course, won for Ghost – and promptly paid up. "We were making Bugsy at the time, my husband [Warren Beatty] and I, and I got a big bouquet of flowers and a card that said, 'Meet at this restaurant at such and such time, and we'll have dinner.' "
Only one of the women – Bening believes it was Bracco – couldn't make it. Goldberg gave the others each a gardenia and a chocolate Oscar. A meal like that "wouldn't really almost even be possible now," Bening says, "because there are so many cameras everywhere."
Bening, who was speaking to PEOPLE on Friday at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, where she accepted the American Riviera Award, says the Oscars are still special to her – and she can appreciate the recognition more now that she's older.
"I think it gets easier in a way," she says. "I know how fleeting it all is."