There was idealism, controversy, applause, a few hisses, a little bit of music, an uninvited protest, no flowers and very ordinary food.
"A typical ACLU event," board member Marilyn Bergman said, as the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California's Torch of Liberty Dinner ended with the abrupt removal from the stage of a man objecting to Courtney Love's presence as a guest presenter. But this was just a mild surprise for the organization, which had already incurred dissent from within its ranks for the choice to honor Milos Forman for his film "The People vs. Larry Flynt," in which Love co-starred.
The evening on Wednesday at the Century Plaza had already provoked sparks when honoree John Perry Barlow, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, insisted that the greatest threat to freedom of speech in cyberspace comes not from government but from commerce and copyright law, an opinion that didn't sit well with the entertainment crowd.
No wonder Executive Director Ramona Ripston remarked in her welcoming speech to the 500 guests, "It isn't easy to raise funds for the ACLU. If it were, we probably wouldn't be doing our job."
The evening's program was headed up by ACLU Board Chairman Lee Masters and President Danny Goldberg.
Love, set apart from the dressed-down crowd by her revealing melon silk evening gown, made the presentation to Forman, director of the movie little loved by feminists. In front of the audience, which included Flynt and another of the film's stars, Edward Norton, Forman made the sort of speech everyone hopes to hear at an awards dinner.
Charming, touching, amusing, sad, Forman's few well-chosen words included his response to a fable about Josef Stalin illustrating his dictator powers by pulling the feathers from a bird. "The image of that little bird, stripped of all his feathers which God gave him to fly haunts me. I understand that frightened look of his, searching around for someone to stand up and speak on his behalf. That's why I have such a deep admiration for the ACLU, for standing up for all the birds' right to fly--the sparrows, the eagles, even the vultures."