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Late-night chit-chat

The Mercedes taxi whirs through the night along the old beach road to Antibes, past the sleeping villages and sudden flashes of light from bars and bouillabaisse joints, and deposits us at the Hotel du Cap d'Antibes. We are attending the Vanity Fair party at the Cannes Film Festival. We walk down a cool marble staircase and emerge on a high wide deck overlooking the sea. Luxury yachts are anchored a few hundred yards offshore. Across the bay the lights of Cannes beckon.

"You almost got crushed this afternoon," says Hugh Hefner, who is the first person I see. He introduces me to Stephanie, one of his seven dates. While taking a photo at his birthday party earlier in the day, I'd been caught in a human wave of paparazzi.

"Everybody in the back started to push," I say.

"If they'd pushed any harder, it would have been sodomy," he observes.

We see Liv Ullmann, who is Madame la President of the Cannes jury this year. We discuss theories about "Faithless," her film based on a screenplay by Ingmar Bergman. I say my original theory was insane, but after a second viewing I understand the film better. She thinks my first theory might have something going for it.

My wife, Chaz, and I make our way through the gathering. It is not a throng. There is space for guests to mingle on the broad expanse. Here is Bob Shaye, president of New Line Pictures. He has invested $170 million in "Lord of the Rings," which will come out at Christmas. "Everyone thinks we've bet the company," he says, "but after selling the international rights, the video and the after-markets, we're 85 percent covered. What kills me is the cost of sequels. 'Rush Hour' cost us $32 million. It's a hit, so we make a sequel. The sequel costs $92 million."

Jackie Chan materializes. He seems like the happiest man on Earth. I extend my hand at the exact moment that he performs a dramatic bow, and my thumb pokes him in the eye. He staggers back shouting "Aie! Aie! Aie!" and cartwheeling his arms, just like in his movies. "Is not serious wound," he says. "I have just finish new movie." I ask what it is called. "Rush Hour 2," he smiles.

Here is Kirk Kerkorian, who buys and sells movie studios and Las Vegas casinos. He is 85, the father of a 2-year-old. We talk about the rating system. He is youthful, alert, witty. We drift over to Helga Stephenson, former director of the Toronto Film Festival, and Catherine Verret of Unifrance Films. "Kirk Kerkorian is incredibly sexy," they whisper, checking him out. Helga says she has a friend who has the hots for him: "I said, yeah, sure, he's a billionaire. My friend says, 'Trust me, honey, it isn't the money.' "

Here is a richer man than Kerkorian: Paul Allen, the Microsoft billionaire. He is a movie nut. We talk about the classic movie palace he renovated and operates in Seattle. "Once a year we show something in Cinerama," he says. "We found the projectors in South America and refurbished them. We have the three big screens, everything." I think of the Mel Brooks line: "It's good to be the king."

Jean-Claude Van Damme drifts by in dark glasses. Barry Diller is with his wife, Diane von Furstenberg. Here is the actor Ethan Hawke. He directed "Chelsea Walls," playing in the Director's Fortnight. I admire him because you can't catch him making easy choices for quick money.

"You are 31 and have been acting for 16 years, and have never killed anyone in a movie," I say. "That's quite an achievement."

"Well, of course I killed two people in 'Hamlet,' " he says, "but how was I supposed to know it was Polonius in the closet?"

Waiters circulate with silver trays groaning with hors d'oeuvres. There are four bars. Here is Graydon Carter of Vanity Fair, whose party on Oscar night is the most coveted ticket in town. Now he is conquering Cannes. What he offers the guests at his parties is the other guests. Jugglers circulate, passing out glowing plastic balls, which you can use to illuminate the steps down to the pool.

Lawrence Bender materializes. He is the legendary producer who made his fame with Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction." He's about to be honored as producer of the year at a ceremony presided over by Gilles Jacob, the president of the Cannes festival. He is worried about his speech. I advise him: "Say that you speak little French, and so you decided to quote Groucho Marx when he was honored in 1972 by the festival."

"What did Groucho say?"

"He bowed to Gilles Jacob and said, 'Voulez-vous couchez avec moi?' " "Which means . . ."

"'Will you sleep with me?' What about the rumor that Tarantino has made a film in secret and will premiere it at the festival?" This has been reported by Harry Knowles on his Ain't It Cool Web site, and has everyone in a lather.

"Fat chance," he says. "Assuming Quentin could make a film in secret, how would he do the secret post-production? Where would he find the secret labs and sound mixing studios?"

Joel and Ethan Coen are standing in the shadow of a pillar. Their film "The Man Who Wasn't There" is to premiere the next day. The press screening is at 8:30 a.m. "I don't know if I like the idea of the critics seeing the film that early in the morning," says Joel. I tell him the sun is shining, the birds are singing, the dew is still on the tables in the cafes. "Yeah, and it's already 1 a.m.," he says, looking at me as if I should be in bed.

Here is Jack Valenti. He calls everybody by name. "Roger," he says, "what are we going to do about this bill being introduced by Joe Lieberman and Hillary Clinton, which would make it against the law to advertise R-rated movies to people under 17?"

I agree it is among the more harebrained pieces of legislation ever conceived.

"The Super Bowl has 87 percent viewers over 17," he says. "If we advertise a movie on the Super Bowl and the other 13 percent see the ad, do we go to jail? The only show we'll be able to advertise on is Jim Lehrer."

"There's always C-SPAN," I say.

"I'm gonna use that," Valenti chuckles.

"The insanity," I said, "is that they are applying legal penalties based on a voluntary rating system that has no standing in the law."

"Exactly. The irony is, if we didn't rate the movies, they wouldn't have the R rating to enforce their law."

"Now you're talking," I said.

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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