Proving once again that its strongest programming can be found on the screen, this year's Los Angeles International Film Exposition began Thursday night with a droll British comedy that was the high point to an otherwise uninspiring gala opening.
The screening of "A Private Function" at Mann's Chinese Theatre, followed by a $250-a-head benefit ball at the Palace, was the kickoff to the 14th Filmex as well as the major fund-raising event of the year for Los Angeles' annual film festival.
The event fulfilled its primary function, drawing an estimated 700 supporters to the Palace and thereby becoming "a financial success," according to Filmex executive director Suzanne McCormick.
But "Night of 100 Stars" this evening wasn't.
Although a number of studios and production companies bought tables at the post-screening party, only a handful of Hollywood notables were in sight.
The Palace affair lacked a sense of festivity or community spirit, which some longtime Filmex-goers noted had been more evident in the past.
Cher, sporting her new "skunk" look currently in view on the cover of People magazine, lent the event its only sizzle. With boyfriend Josh Donen, a vice president of ABC Motion Pictures, on her arm, Cher arrived at the Chinese Theatre to a chorus of cheers and whistles from the relatively few stargazers lined up out front.
Michael Caine, Sidney Poitier and Michael York were among the few other celebrities in attendance.
Though Cher was an honorary co-chair of the opening event, she said of Filmex that "actually, this is the first time I've really known about it. I think it's fabulous when films that aren't in the mainstream can be seen by everybody."
"A Private Function" afforded just such an opportunity, drawing nearly a full house to the 1,500-seat Chinese Theatre. Many of those in attendance paid only $10 for the screening portion of the gala.
The film, a considerable change of pace from last year's brooding "Under the Volcano," drew sustained laughter from the audience with its tale of pork-rationing and class distinctions in postwar England.
The film's producer, Mark Shivas, director Malcolm Mowbray and writer Alan Bennett were on hand to help Filmex salute the British Film Year, as was British Ambassador Sir Oliver Wright.
But none of the film's stars--Michael Palin, Maggie Smith, Denholm Elliott and a cast of English character actors--were present.
Nor was George Harrison, whose HandMade Films produced "A Private Function" and who was rumored to be in town. (One paparazzo said he was wearing a beeper that would alert him as soon as Harrison left his hotel room--wherever that might be.)
Co-chair Jack Nicholson likewise never showed up.
The third honorary co-chairperson, longtime Filmex-booster Wendy Goldberg, said that this year's list of 130 films, which will screen through the end of the month at Mann's Westwood Triplex, had received more thoughtful consideration than in previous years. Hinting at accusations that earlier Filmexes were too intellectual, she commented, "it's really important to present films that are going to appeal to your audiences."
Director Henry Jaglom, who arrived with actress Andrea Marcovicci, said that Filmex nonetheless continues to "tell the audience certain things about the quality of a film . . . (that) it's not a film that's aimed at a mass audience."
Jaglom, whose new film "Always" will have its world premiere at Filmex, said he holds Filmex "in even higher esteem" under the artistic direction of Ken Wlaschin, who, along with McCormick, took over from Gary Essert last year.
Tri-Star Pictures production president Jeffrey Sagansky, the only studio honcho spotted, said he was having staff and friends see as many as possible of the upcoming Filmex slate. Sagansky said he would be looking to Filmex for "young directors and new acting talent."
Though the presence of pork dominated "A Private Function," its only nod at the Palace party came from the pig's head perched on the buffet table. Filmex patrons' appetites apparently were neither stimulated by the film's food scenes nor squelched by its scatological content as they made their way to several buffets.
McCormick said Thursday night that Filmex expects to take in about $50,000 this season over and above its $750,000 operating budget for the year. That would reduce Filmex's deficit, which was $300,000 when Essert departed, to about $180,000.