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CANNES, France -- The Cannes Film Festival has its first unqualified hit in a ribald new comedy by Spain's Pedro Almodovar, and an oddball conversation piece in "The Limey," by the American Steven Soderbergh. As Hugh Hefner's Playmates slug it out with the Hawaiian Tropics girls for the photo op prize, the 52nd annual event is in full swing. Even Chicago's world-famous gate-crasher is in attendance.

The Almodovar film, "All About My Mother," once again displays his uncanny ability to make a film in which sexual outlaws embody family values. It's about a single mother who works in an organ transplant center. After her son is killed by a car and becomes a heart donor, she revisits her native Barcelona - where, 18 years earlier, she was a hooker who became pregnant by a drag queen.

She wants to look up the father of her child, but first falls in with another old friend, also a transvestite, who becomes the personal dresser for an aging actress specializing in Tennessee Williams roles. A pregnant nun also gets into the picture. It sounds like a steamy and profane sex romp, but all of the characters are good-hearted and well-meaning, and the movie's values are conservative: Parents should treasure their children, old friends should stay loyal, etc.

Almodovar's matter-of-fact treatment of gender confusions is helped by a funny and popular performance by Antonia San Juan, as the transvestite named "Agrado" - for "agreeable." When the Williams heroine can't go on as Stella in "Streetcar," Agrado steps before the curtain and brings down the house with a standup act about her plastic surgeries. San Juan is an early favorite for a jury prize as best supporting actor/actress.

"The Limey," the Soderbergh film, shown out of competition, stars Terence Stamp, who continues his recent comeback with a dryly comic role as a British ex-con who travels to California seeking revenge against the murderer (Peter Fonda) of his daughter. The plot outlines make it sound like a standard crime movie, but as Soderbergh demonstrated in last year's "Out of Sight," crime can provide the framework for sly comic excursions, as when the Fonda character is described as a record producer who "took the whole '60s Southern California zeitgeist and ran with it." "Out of Sight" was not an unqualified success, but it was never boring and often did a little running with the zeitgeist itself.

Crowds surge against the red velvet ropes protecting Hugh Hefner's very large rented yacht, which rocks in the harbor in the shadow of the Palais des Festivals. I have not yet made my pilgrimage to the anchorage of the Head Rabbit, but, believe me, it's on my to-do list. Readers of Chicago gossip columns have long been familiar with the name of Jerry Berliant, shadow to the stars. I was first introduced to him by late Cubs announcer Jack Brickhouse, at the 15th anniversary of Disney World. "He's the world's greatest gate-crasher," Brickhouse told me, while Berliant carefully pretended not to hear. "You'll be seeing a lot of him."

I have. I've seen Berliant at the Oscars and the Emmys, at television conventions and the Kentucky Derby, and as he stood beaming behind political candidates during their acceptance and/or concession speeches. Here I was making an espresso stop in the bar of the Majestic Hotel, and he materialized, brimming with news.

"Yeah, Tom Rosenberg is here, from Lakeshore Entertainment," he was saying. "Hefner's been on his yacht all morning. Did you see Faye Dunaway? She's here for 'Bonnie and Clyde.' Yeah, I've had a good year. I was in Palm Springs during their film festival. Yeah, they do a good job with it. And the Hamptons, they have a nice little festival. I was up there. Yeah, I like the Riviera. I was in San Tropez the other day. Nice, Monte Carlo. . . . After Cannes I'm going to drive up through Switzerland and down through Italy. See some friends. Yeah."

Gossip columnists with enormous overhead don't collect half the intelligence that Berliant gathers, I reflected, and yet he seems to exist on air. This is a festival where seasoned journalists despair of getting into screenings and parties. Where muscular gorillas in monkey suits bar your entry to every door. Where directors have been refused entry to their own screenings. The American Pavilion is fenced off inside a high-security compound in this year of Kosovo, with passes checked at the gate, and yet when I stopped off later for a quick sandwich, there was Berliant, working the room.

Last night my wife Chaz and I joined the South African producer Anant Singh and his wife Vanashree for dinner. Afterwards, we took taxis to the Hotel du Cap d'Antibes for a quick drink. This is a hotel where the rooms start at $2,000 a night and payment is required in cash - no plastic. Where Miramax's Harvey Weinstein gave orders last year that the Bellini cocktails were on him, and got a bar tab for $14,000. The papers have been filled with reports of millionaires being robbed, kidnapped, insulted, etc., on their way to and from the hotel.

When we arrived at the gate a uniformed guard with a checklist demanded our names and admitted us only because we were meeting Monsieur Singh, a guest. We walked into the lobby bar. "Nice to see you," said Jerry Berliant. "Yeah, Sean Connery's still down at the restaurant."

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