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Road to Promotion 

A Luxurious Stop on the Press Junket Gravy Train

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After I moved from Chicago to Burbank, California, friends from home would constantly inquire, "Met any movie stars yet?" as if around any corner, I'd bump into Cameron Diaz or Richard Gere. I didn't. My only connection to the celebrity world was an older woman in my water aerobics class who confided to me that she'd once made out with Jerry Lewis.

Then I started writing for a small paper devoted to entertainment news. Suddenly I was working the roundtable circuit, hanging out at five-star hotels and washing down free shrimp and grilled asparagus with San Pellegrino water. Finally I had the celebrity tales my midwestern friends had been yearning for: Ray Liotta wears too much cologne (or perhaps I was sitting too close). Pee-wee Herman has the creamiest complexion. Penny Marshall can talk without moving her mouth. Johnny Depp chain-smokes tiny hand-rolled cigarettes. I even stole a butt as a souvenir.

That cigarette butt traveled with me when I visited the midwest. "Wanna stroke Johnny's butt?" I'd ask. Some laughed. Others were spellbound. But until recently, that paltry DNA remnant (and the occasional autograph) were all I could offer my pals.

That changed when Road to Perdition opened in the Windy City. Living in California, I could never partake in the ultimate perk--a free stay at a five-star hotel like the Four Seasons or Le Meridien. But with Road to Perdition premiering in Chicago, I'd have the chance to luxuriate at the Ritz-Carlton, where I'd prepare insightful questions for Tom Hanks. Could it get any better than this?

It could. Dreamworks called to tell me a second day had been added to my junket for a press conference with Paul Newman.

My mother gasped loudly into the phone, followed by a string of "no"s. When she recovered she said, "You gotta get his autograph for your godmother." I was struck by her magnanimity. Usually these requests are more personal and involve me as her personal emissary--stuff like "Tell Johnny Depp that your mother really likes him. It'll make him feel good to know that the older generation likes him." I remind mom it's a press conference. I'll be competing with a hundred other journalists. If I say anything at all I'll be lucky. And if I get close enough to look into those baby blues, I'll probably be dreaming.

From the moment my taxi pulls up to the Ritz-Carlton at Water Tower Place, I'm entering uncharted waters. A doorman--bellhop? bellboy? bellman?--whisks away my luggage and leads me to the 12th floor. The lobby is a two-story greenhouse with skylights, massive floral arrangements, and a gushing fountain. I speak my name and within seconds a young woman hands me a key. "You're all checked in now, Ms. DiGangi," she says. She even pronounces it correctly.

My room is gorgeous, with a stunning view of Navy Pier and Lake Michigan. My closet is equipped with an iron, an ironing board, puffy quilted hangers (Joan Crawford would be impressed), a long wooden shoehorn, a clothes brush, and a mysterious lavender spray. There's a Sony PlayStation next to the TV and two telephones--each with its own separate line. The marble bathroom features yet another phone. The four goose-down pillows on my king-size bed, according to prices set in the downstairs gift shop, are worth $75 each. Altarlike shelves above the mini-bar are stacked with cookies, nuts, and other goodies, including a disposable camera. My hundred-dollar per diem could easily be spent on snacks, drinks, and phone calls, especially after I hook my laptop up to the Internet. But I'm ready to spend it. I pick up the phone and dial my friend Lana at work to tell her I've arrived.

When I lived in Chicago, Lana was my official movie buddy, so it makes sense that she be my guest at the premiere. After work, she meets me at the Ritz, where we board a tour bus for the ride to the Chicago Theatre.

Back when I was a teenager, downtown was the place to see all the big movies. I'm thrown into a time warp as I stare at the ceiling of the movie palace. Meanwhile Lana is reminiscing about a not-so-distant past when she and I saw flicks together at Webster Place and the Biograph. "Can't we sit closer to the screen?" she asks an usher who has led us to a taped-off media section midtheater.

"Well, I suppose," says the usher, who, like me, doesn't understand Lana's motivation.

"You remember," she says to me. "Like we did back in the old days. We always sat up front."

I guess we did. But this screen's a tad larger than a multiplex's. As we approach it, another usher sends us back to the media section. Lana's ready to argue her case until we turn around and realize we're being deposited across the aisle from several seats labeled "Hanks."

We take our seats and soon get a close look as Hanks strolls down the aisle with his wife, Rita Wilson. Sitting nearby are Bonnie Hunt, Anne Archer, Joe Mantegna, the father-son producer team of Richard and Dean Zanuck, and Illinois' first lady, Lura Lynn Ryan.

When Rita discreetly leaves the auditorium for what I suspect is a bathroom break, I imagine Tom having told her, "Go now, honey, you won't miss anything during this part."

The biggest thrill of attending the postpremiere party at Gene & Georgetti's will be afterward, when I get to tell everybody that I was there. For now, Lana and I fill our china plates with filet mignon, salad, and other food that needs two hands and cutlery, but we can't find a table. Hanks and the other celebrities are downstairs, where we suspect the crowd is even more crushing. We find a dark, abandoned staircase near the bar and eat off our laps.

Things improve when we head back to my room, where the seating is more comfortable and we can raid the minibar.

Roundtables start at 9 AM the next day. Six or seven interviewers at a time will grill actors Tom Hanks, Daniel Craig, Tyler Hoechlin, and Liam Aiken. We'll also talk to Sam Mendes, screenwriter David Self, and the Zanucks. This is a fairly standard lineup for a big-budget junket. But for this Important Movie, rarely seen players have been added to the brew: production designer Dennis Gassner, costume designer Albert Wolsky, and cinematographer Conrad Hall--all Oscar winners in their respective fields.

Typically roundtables are held in cozy hotel rooms with missing beds (although sometimes the headboards surreally remain bolted to the wall). There's a sense of intimacy, with little noise or distraction, as the interviewees circulate from room to room.

But today all the tables are in one huge ballroom, which creates some acoustic challenges. These challenges become greater as Hanks stops at the tables near mine. He's just too funny, making those other journalists laugh just too hard.

Later, when Hanks makes our table laugh, all is forgiven. One writer breaks a tacit rule by venturing into self-indulgent territory: he tells Hanks about his developmentally disabled son, who's grateful for Hank's performance in Forrest Gump.

"Awww," says Hanks.

The son carries around videos of the movie as a seduction device, handing them to every pretty woman he sees. By now it's painfully clear that this son is not a boy but a grown man. The journalist quotes him: "Dad, someday I'm gonna get laid from this film."

Hanks replies, "If any of my films help anybody get laid, it's a wonderful service to mankind."

Early afternoon, I hook up with my friend Nancy, who has driven all morning from Bettendorf, Iowa. Nancy and I were fellow rebels at an all-girls Catholic school. We haven't changed all that much. "Maybe I can just ride up and down on the elevators until he gets on," she says, hoping for a glimpse of Newman.

"That might work."

I use my per diem to treat us to $17 lobster salads at the Ritz's cafe. We joke about hatching a scheme--a la Lucy and Ethel--to plant Nancy somewhere near the ballroom. "I could hide behind a potted palm," she suggests.

"If you could, would you want to attend the press conference with me?" I ask her. "It's 45 minutes with Newman, and 45 minutes with Stanley Tucci."

"Oh my God! Stanley Tucci's here too!"

"Is that a yes?"

I'll ask the Dreamworks people if I can bring a guest. The worst they can do is say no. I ask the friendliest face I can find. He isn't sure. Phone calls must be made. Can we wait? Sure. A few minutes later, we get our answer. It's affirmative.

The moment we get behind closed doors Nancy's squealing, "We're gonna meet Paul Newman! We're gonna meet Paul Newman!"

I remind her that we won't exactly be "meeting" him, but she gets to me, and within moments we're both freshmen again, singing, "We're gonna meet Paul Newman!"

With an actor like Newman, even stars like Tom Hanks get starstruck. "When I looked him in the eyes for the first time," said Hanks, "I thought, oh, that's Paul Newman. I'm making a movie with Paul Newman. But after a while I'd loosen up and say things like 'Hey, Redford, you wanna pick up the cues there for crying out loud!'"

Stanley Tucci admits that he, too, was awed. "How do you deal with that?" a journalist asks him. "I throw up--no, just kidding."

After the Tucci interview wraps up, Paul Newman enters the ballroom, carrying a breakfast plate and wearing squarish, dark-rimmed glasses. He sits at a raised table surrounded by microphones. He removes the glasses and becomes that familiar icon.

When asked if he's conscious of his iconhood and how that affects his performances, he replies, "You say I'm an icon, but my grandchild does not think I'm an icon."

The journalist inquires further. He wants to know if there's anything an actor whose face is so familiar can do to get an audience to suspend its disbelief. "People see your face, and they think about the spaghetti sauce..."

"The spaghetti sauce is a good thing to think about," says Newman.

Nancy and I, however, aren't thinking about spaghetti sauce, we're thinking about Hud, The Hustler, Butch Cassidy, and Cool Hand Luke. When Newman finishes, I join the pack storming the podium. Just doing my job. Nancy lags behind, but I wave at her. "Come on down!"

My colleagues continue to throw questions at Newman. His press agent holds his ground. "The conference is over. Sorry. Mr. Newman isn't taking any more questions." Nevertheless, I extend my press book and pen toward Newman for my godmother's autograph. Nancy hovers behind me.

"Mr. Newman," I say.

"He doesn't do that," says the press agent, holding out his hand in a "stop" gesture.

But Newman has more grace. He locks my eyes with those steely blues: "If I did it for you," he says, "I'd have to do it for everybody."

Seconds later, I'm informed by another journalist that Newman hasn't signed an autograph in years. I was the only person dumb enough to stand there, pen in hand, smiling hopefully.

Sometimes ignorance is bliss.


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