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Elizabeth Taylor helps host surreal AIDS benefit

CANNES, France -- I am a little dizzy. I have just returned from a $2,500-a-ticket dinner auction that followed a fashion show of Victoria's Secret swimwear and included Kenneth Branagh and James Caan stripping to the waist to be massaged by supermodel Heidi Klum on top of a piano later to be played by Elton John, while Harvey Weinstein auctioned off lunch with Nelson Mandela for $100,000.

The annual AMFAR Cinema Against AIDS Benefit at the Cannes Film Festival, now in its 10th year, is for a worthy cause. This year it raised more than $2.5 million for AIDS research. But it is growing more surrealistic by leaps and bounds. This year the event was held at the Palm Beach Casino at Cannes, and a giant tent was erected next door for the fashion show. Hollywood moguls, directors, supermodels and billionaire arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi mingled with Prince Albert of Monaco, Sean Penn, Gregory Peck and Naomi Campbell, and the star of the evening was Elizabeth Taylor, fresh from being made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

After her welcoming speech, she sat in the front row of the Paris-style runway show and watched as some of the most famous models in the world modeled items from the Victoria's Secret collection, including one swimsuit that seemed slightly impractical since it included angel's wings. These costumes are to swimming as Fred Astaire's tuxedos are to headwaiting.

After the show was over, I asked Dame Elizabeth how she felt about it.

"I feel like a swim," she said.

A silent auction offered luxury items such as a week on the private Italian island (yacht included) that once belonged to Rudolph Nureyev. Or a vacation at three top Thai spas. Or a week in a French chateau for you and a dozen friends staff, chef and chauffeur included.

The private auction and the fashion show were followed by dinner and a public auction masterminded by Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein, who this year not only offered a massage by Heidi Klum, but persuaded Branagh and Caan to take off their shirts and act as subjects for a demonstration of her skills. The massage went for $33,000. "Karl Marx is dead," observed the director James Gray.

Also auctioned off were a dance with Prince Albert, pushed for $28,000 for a man who did not want to dance with the prince (who seemed eager not to dance with him); they negotiated an on-the-spot deal to trade the prince for model Karen Mulder. Another $100,000 was bid by Weinstein to persuade Elton John to play and sing one (1) song. Meanwhile, waiters staggered under trays laden with dinner prepared by Chef Roger Verge of the Moulin de Moulins, the famous hillside restaurant above Cannes. The AMFAR auction has always before been held at the Moulin, but this year, Verge told me sadly, "we could not find the room for the Victoria's Secret show, you know, as it is a small village."

After Dame Elizabeth's welcoming speech was interrupted by someone's cell phone, I fell into conversation with Anant Singh, who is the most important movie producer in South Africa, and who arranged the $100,000 lunch with Nelson Mandela.

"Cell phones have been ringing all through every screening I've been going to," I said. "It's driving me crazy."

"In our theaters in South Africa," he said, "we are installing a jamming device that prevents people from receiving calls while they're in the theater."

"That is a brilliant idea," I said. "Why don't they do that at Cannes?"

"Why do you think?" he asked.

I was about to speculate that the people here would rather take phone calls than watch movies, but we were interrupted. Harvey was auctioning off a concert of "The Girl From Ipanema," as performed for you by five Brazilian supermodels.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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