There In Spirit If Not In Body : Premiere: Director Robert Altman wasn't at the opening of his film 'Short Cuts.' That didn't stop people from talking about him.

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It seems that if it's a Robert Altman film, it's also a Robert Altman premiere--even if the famed director is absent.

Altman was en route from New York to Paris Tuesday when his "Short Cuts" had its Los Angeles benefit premiere at the Motion Picture Academy. Although the auteur was gone, he was not forgotten.

"He's the youngest director I've ever worked with," said co-star Jack Lemmon about the 68-year-old Altman. "He's like a college kid who just got a camera, 2,000 bucks and someone said, 'Here's a roll of film, make a movie.' "

Or, in Lyle Lovett's case, make a film star out of a singer.

"I'm not an actor," said the musician, who has only been in two movies--both by Altman. "But he makes me feel like I know what I'm doing." (When Lovett emerged from a limo without wife Julia Roberts there was an audible sigh of disappointment from the paparazzi .)

Barbara Hershey praised the way there's "always a signature on an Altman film." Howard Hesseman said Altman has "a real cinematic sense and a good literary head. He lets the details of the characters tell the story."

And though the characters tell the story for more than three hours it was a relatively lively crowd that packed the Academy's lobby afterward. "That's a lot of movie," said Alfre Woodard, "and I like all of it."

"This is the single most ambitious piece of American cinema in the last decade," said Fine Line President Ira Deutchman. The exec said that Altman "guarantees" his next film, "Pret a Porter," "will be a lot shorter."

Glenn Close came to the screening after her first day of rehearsal for the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical "Sunset Boulevard." The cast is using a church's gym for a rehearsal space. "Everybody was staring at each other and realizing how much work we have to do," said Close.

Among the other 1,000 players at the screening, which raised $60,000 for the Sundance Institute and the Actors' Gang, were co-stars Chris Penn and Madeleine Stowe, co-screenwriter Frank Barhydt, producer Cary Brokaw, associate producer David Levy, Don Bachardy, Dana Delany, Justine Bateman and Donna Mills.

As the guests grazed on a half-dozen buffets from Ambrosia, (trout mousse breath may become this year's filmland occupational hazard) perhaps the most distinctive praise for the film came from a studio exec who said the film made him feel "empty, edgy and vaguely homicidal--like when I leave work."

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