They Ate, They Spoke, They Left Early

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Scene: Monday night's American Civil Liberties Union "Torch of Liberty" dinner in the ballroom of the Century Plaza Hotel. Producer/director Rob Reiner was honored for his film "The American President," in which Michael Douglas as president makes an impassioned speech declaring himself "a card-carrying member of the ACLU." Cast members Douglas, Annette Bening and Michael J. Fox spoke after dinner, along with Reiner's parents, Carl and Estelle Reiner, Martin Sheen and composer Marc Shaiman. The music was provided by Spinal Tap, the fictitious heavy metal band of the Rob Reiner satirical documentary.

Who Was There: Among the guests were Anne Bancroft, Mel Brooks, Jamie Lee Curtis, Warren Beatty, Taylor Hackford, Helen Mirren, Maxine Waters, Henry Waxman, Larry Flynt and Richard Dreyfuss.

Quoted: Said Rob Reiner, "To me it's very odd that in the last number of years, the ACLU has become known as some left-wing liberal organization, when the whole purpose of the ACLU is to protect people's rights--which is ultimately what the president is all about. The job calls for him to protect and defend the Constitution. For the ACLU to be pigeon-holed as if it's some Communist organization is curious to me. I don't know how you can call an organization that protected the KKK's right to assembly left-wing."

The Ambience: There is dignity in a certain minimalism. The ACLU did not add a stitch of decor to the ballroom. Guests dressed in black and dined on salad, chicken and chocolate cake. The speeches began and ended on time according to a printed schedule. This may be the only benefit dinner in the history of humankind that actually ended early. The exodus began at 9:25 p.m. Talk about civil liberties.

Highlight: Estelle Reiner sang "It Had to Be You," upstaging even the kilt and Lycra-clad members of Spinal Tap, who followed her with "Spinal Tap Unplugged," a two-song set that reeked of faux flower power. All good preparation for a clip reel that included footage of Rob Reiner as "Meathead" opposite Carroll O'Connor's Archie Bunker in "All in the Family."

The American President? Beatty and Bening made their conspicuously inconspicuous power-couple entrance at 8:45, well after the dinner hour, looking like members of the Armani National Guard, so austere and morosely fashionable were they. Come on, even Bill and Hillary Clinton show up for dinner on time.

Overheard: In line for the valet parking, a couple watched as a ruby red Bentley pulled away. "That's Larry Flynt," the man said. "Is that who it is?" the woman said. "Yuck, yuck, yuck."

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