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Traditions do still count for something

TORONTO--Seventy-five of his old friends turned up for lunch Saturday with George Christy. Many of them had logged 10 years or more at his annual soiree at the Four Seasons, where the top stars and directors at the Toronto Film Festival mix with Canadian tycoons and political leaders.

The routine was familiar, including the Chicken Pot Pie a la Garth Drabinsky, but there was one innovation: This was the first year George's after-dinner toast included the observation that since our last gathering he had been "screwed, stewed and tattooed."

Christy is the embattled columnist for the Hollywood Reporter, on suspension after charges by a former Reporter writer that he accepted freebies such as limousines, meals, hotel rooms and favors. He is also said to have entered the rolls of the Actors' Guild health benefits without having appeared in every picture that listed him in its credits. Such matters will be adjudged in the fullness of time by the appointed authorities, but in the meantime George is in exile.

It is a season for Hollywood moralists to be shocked! shocked! by practices that have been the industry standard for years. Recently Peter Bart, the powerful editor of Variety, was suspended. Among the charges, that he used politically incorrect language--another way of saying he talked exactly like every studio executive, editor or journalist (or unsaintly human being) who came of age before 1980. Bart is now back at work, sentenced to take "sensitivity training." At Telluride, a Variety staffer expressed relief that Bart had survived, adding, "God help those poor kids if they make him coach a Little League team."

I found myself underwhelmed by both scandals, because they were essentially versions of Gotcha! aimed at people unwise enough to still observe the practices they learned in their youth. We move along. Until about 1980, I went on paid junkets, but then it began to seem wrong, and the paper agreed that it would pay. Times change. But do we expect gossip columnists to pick up their own tabs? Is nothing sacred? Or profane, in Bart's case?

In a sense, the consumer is protected by the practice of comping gossips: Because they never pick up the tab anywhere they go, you know they're not there for the free cocktail weenies. Christy's "The Great Life" column, sometimes assumed to refer to his own, included coverage of dinners, parties, openings, closings, weddings, dedications, premieres, festivals, funerals, awards, holidays and coronations, all told in a rush of bold-face names. It was what it was. Anyone assuming George paid for his own dinner at the Golden Globes was probably moving his lips as he read.

Characters like George Christy add a little color to an industry that has become terminally staid. He brings a flair to his act; we're grateful for the entertainment.

Let me tell you a story. On the night before the Academy Awards this year, Miramax threw the annual party at which its stars enact satirical scenes from the nominated films. On stage were actors such as Ben Affleck, Geoffrey Rush and Jennifer Tilly. The ballroom of the Beverly Wilshire was standing-room only. By that I mean that Kevin Spacey was standing. Jennifer Connolly was standing. Gwyneth Paltrow was standing.

Harvey Weinstein, the chief of Miramax, was standing. We were all standing, because there weren't seats.

Only one person was seated. I plowed my way through the shoulder-to-shoulder mob, dodging trays of canapes that hungry stars lunged for with both hands. Then in the middle of the floor I came upon a table immaculately laid with a linen tablecloth and supplied with china and crystal. At this table was seated George Christy, attended by his own waiter, who was supplying him with choice crab legs and succulent jumbo shrimp.

The entire party was free for everybody. But George had raised the stakes. His private table was an expression of style, crossed with gamesmanship. Only a puritan or a prosecutor would fail to get the joke.

The message was: Everyone in the room had turned up for the free feed, but George demanded to dine in a civilized manner.

Now back to the Four Seasons in Toronto on Saturday afternoon. At George's right hand sat Hilary Weston, the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario.

At his left hand, Garth Drabinsky, whose stewardship of Cineplex Odeon has led to well-publicized legal trials. I was next to Garth, who told me: "George is going through hell."

Maybe, I suggested, that was why he wanted Garth at his side--for moral support. "I sat next to him last year, before his troubles started," Drabinsky observed.

In the room were stars such as Helena Bonham-Carter, Laura Harring and Arsinee Khanjian. Directors such as Norman Jewison, Fred Schepisi and Atom Egoyan. Four former directors of the festival and Piers Handling, its current head. Critics, columnists, tycoons, politicians, all regulars of what George calls "our potpie family." And yes, reader, chicken potpie was served, as it has been every year since Drabinsky said how much he admired it, except for the year of the unfortunate experiment with the chicken paella, which was dry.

George rose for his traditional toast, in which he thanked everyone involved plus various assistant pastry chefs not even visible. He told again the story of Drabinsky's passion for potpie. He recalled the year that festival co-founder Dusty Cohl revealed he could not abide green peas--and how the kitchens of the Four Seasons produced a potpie for Dusty that contained no peas. He conceded he felt screwed, stewed and tattooed by his recent travail, but said he was still standing, and happy to be joined by his friends. You have to admire a man who in the face of his troubles was still thanking the Four Seasons for the flower arrangements.

"Do you really like chicken potpie?" I asked Drabinsky.

"Well . . ." he said. "Yes, I do. And I like the billing. Chicken Pot Pie a la Garth Drabinsky. If he changes the menu, he might name it after someone else."

George was accepting compliments for his speech. I asked him if Dusty really had a pea-free pie. "I don't know what's the matter with that man," George sighed.

"Those are fresh peas from the vine."

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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