Target Presents AFI Night at the Movies on Wednesday was hinged on a simple concept that isn't attempted enough at the red-carpet hullabaloos so intrinsic to Hollywood: Screen an iconic movie, introduced by the starring actor, at the snazzy ArcLight. Throw in some popcorn, soda and -- voila! It's a Hollywood mega-event with the timeless appeal of escaping real life for a couple of hours. No ponderous panel discussions to muck things up.
Last year, AFI's 40th anniversary event brought together 10 actors, including Clint Eastwood, Jack Nicholson, Julie Andrews and Warren Beatty, to wax rhapsodic about their classic films. This year, the ante was perhaps upped with a few actors who qualify as bona fide US Weekly bait. When tickets, at $25 apiece, were put up for sale, all 12 screenings sold out in a matter of hours.
"It's like a fireworks show of American films," AFI President and Chief Executive Bob Gazzale said. "It's to bring together the actors and the audience, period. It's not about what you're wearing, it's not about your new DVD, it's about the joy of going to the movies."
This year's roll call was formidable: Annette Bening, Jim Carrey, Sean Connery, Cameron Diaz, Jodie Foster, Dustin Hoffman, Shirley MacLaine, Steve Martin, Rita Moreno, Mike Myers, Keanu Reeves and Denzel Washington.
Actors, they'll have you know, are a funny bunch. And never do they want to top one another more than when there's an audience hanging on their every word. Even if that audience is their inverse, otherwise known as the media -- TV personalities, photographers and a few print dinosaurs -- smoothing their own hair for the camera and arguing over pieces of tape on the floor.
They were assembled in a quarter-filled theater to watch the actors take their "class" photo before they jetted off to different screening rooms to introduce their movies.
But first, let the comedy roll, inspired by the unspoken theme of "this is weird, isn't it?"
Martin mock-stumbled to his place on the risers and pointed down. "The tape is so high!" he cried.
"We all came out to the sound of applause," Hoffman said morosely, "but we can't even fill three rows." Beatty, sitting in the audience, guffawed.
"Are we allowed to touch each other?" Diaz asked. She stood next to MacLaine, dressed in gauzy lettuce green, who gave Diaz a warm hug.
Washington, in white sneakers, seemed uncomfortable. He asked Edward Zwick, director of "Glory," which Washington would introduce later, why he wasn't up there. Zwick, sitting in the first row, shrugged and said, "Talent only."
Earlier, when Zwick walked down the red carpet, he got annoyed when a TV journalist declined to interview him, her eyes trained down the carpet at bigger fish. "I know, you just want to talk to the movie stars. I get it, sweetheart."
Zwick's a classic power player who makes sprawling movies about the nature of war and man's epiphanies, yet he watched the antics of the class photo with something like bemused detachment.
The director, most recently of "Blood Diamond" and "Defiance," out at the end of the year, said he was here because movies are wrapped up in every facet of his life. "I tend to think of movies by relationships," he said. " 'Glory' was the first time I worked with Denzel. We've made many movies together. I've watched his kids grow up, he's watched mine, we've grown older together and that's all a part of it."
If the business of movies is like a family -- sort of crazy but lovable -- that sense also extends to mutual awe. Speaking on the red carpet, Myers said he first saw "Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery" coming to life when he stepped into Dr. Evil's lair. "Wow, I wrote this and then some really talented dude built the set and yet, we're about to make a film about a very, very narrow subgenre of film. It's not even a parody of James Bond, it's a parody of the James Bond parodies from the '60s."
So, has he met Connery yet?
"I have, but I can't talk around him," Myers said, then sheepishly grinned. "I just get too nervous."
Foster was also on the red carpet, her blue eyes flashing, her diminutive figure especially compact in a fitted dark dress. She repeated the same thing to each journalist, but it was convincing every time: "I love movies and I feel like I want to pass that on to the next generation."
She remembered how she pursued the "unflashy" role of Clarice in "The Silence of the Lambs." "I said, 'I don't care what I have to do but I want to be in this movie.' And a lot of people said, 'You're crazy, you just won an Academy Award. . . .' But I didn't really care. I felt like I knew who she was."
Carrey could relate to this feeling of kinship to the role. In his introduction to "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," he recalled his first meeting with Michel Gondry. The first thing out of the French director's mouth was "You're completely beautiful."
Carrey confessed to Gondry that he was getting over a failed relationship. " 'Don't get over it,' " Carrey quoted Gondry as saying. " 'We won't be shooting for another year.'
"And that's why we're all psychos," Carrey said, to rich laughter. "We're asked to keep in touch with that kind of pain."