By Neda Ulaby

Movie freaks unite on the subject of award ceremonies. They’re terrible. They’re wonderful. They’re terrible. We’re addicted to them like goddamned drugs. So it was that I accepted a hastily thrown out offer to be a presenter at the Chicago Film Critics Association Awards ceremony this month. As one of the very few women in the association, I was to present the best supporting actor award.

A star-studded gala, the ceremony bustles with socialites, gregarious PR professionals, and of course film critics, a sullen, withdrawn lot.

Last year’s ceremony was held at the Four Seasons, where muckety-mucks dug through gift bags filled with a strange assortment of goodies, including copies of Variety and dime-store plastic handcuffs. This year’s goodies were much in evidence during the rehearsal in the dim environs of the Park West. We had to navigate carefully through a field of glossy white bags to reach the stage. We got Variety again, but also handmade soap and a copy of a book about filmmaking in Chicago.

The presence of top stars was supposedly top secret, but I’d been at the rehearsal for all of five minutes before the big names were breathed into my ear. Kevin Spacey. Julia Stiles. Sam Mendes. The Cusack acting clan, for a special award. Bonnie Hunt. More stars would have come but for an Academy Awards luncheon on the coast. It was while this information was being imparted that a ruddy older gentleman in sunglasses strolled up to the gaggle of film critics I was gossiping with and introduced himself as Bill.

Despite his hideous loafers, Bill exuded calm amid a swarm of people seething with self-importance. He seemed tranquil, above the melee. And indeed he was. I discovered that earlier in his career, William Devane was a fairly prominent screen actor who starred in a Hitchcock thriller (Family Plot) and any number of mostly B classics now fondly remembered by film geeks. And I learned that Bill was to be my copresenter for the best supporting actor award.

Bill projected an ego battered but unbowed, charming in its devilish comfortability and not without curiosity or sturdy royalty checks.

“So you’re a film critic,” he said, standing so that a full half of his body was pressed against my side. “What did you think of American Beauty?”

“I loved it, especially when it first came out,” I cautiously answered, edging away. “Honestly, I’m a bit tired of it now.” Silence. “What did you think?”

A snort. “I thought it was a gay fantasy.”

I considered informing William Devane that I work for a gay and lesbian newsweekly, but that was a conversation I didn’t particularly want to have.

“What did you think of Being John Malkovich?” he said, still pressing.

I couldn’t help myself. “I thought it was a gay fantasy,” I shot back, even though I don’t; I think it’s a straight fantasy of a lesbian fantasy, sort of.

Bill wasn’t really paying attention. “That movie I just didn’t get,” he said, shifting on those loafers. “It was just–it blew my mind, you know what I’m saying?”

I nodded. I smiled. I went away and sat down and started reading.

Bill is one of those people who think reading is a bid for attention. He sat down next to me. “Doesn’t it make you feel bad to criticize people all the time?” he wondered. I shut my book.

I explained to Bill that “criticism” isn’t the same as “criticizing,” and said that maybe it’d be difficult if I had personal feelings about any movie people but I don’t so it isn’t.

Bill reflected and grunted assent, and I asked him if he has any kids. He does. They’re about my age. Suddenly Bill turned into my uncle. We talked about the Sox–my team–and the Cubs; we talked about his canceled television series Turks and what he likes about Chicago; and we talked about his farm outside Los Angeles. Bill listened attentively as I described researching my dissertation on slapstick comedians at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences library and at UCLA last summer. I found myself growing quite fond of Bill.

The emcee, comedian Tom Dreesen, was going to read: “For you betting types, we are hitting the big money categories. Here to present the best supporting actor is Neda Ulaby, film critic for the Windy City Times. With Neda is that dashing leading man from Knots Landing, the one whose job it was to do all those love scenes with beautiful women, Mr. William Devane. Can you imagine doing that and getting a check for it?”

“And the nominations for best supporting actor,” I recited faithfully from the TelePrompTer, “are John Alkovich for Being John Malkovich and–”

The TelePrompTer froze in apparent terror as an M was hastily added to the name.

The critics chortled as I approached the table where they camped out.

“You’ve got a good voice,” one informed me. “Very low and sexy.”

“All that gin and cigarettes,” I replied.

“John Alkovich would be proud,” cracked another.

I returned to the Park West at seven that evening. The Film Critics Association adheres to a strict hierarchy, and as a presenter I was admitted to the VIP room. I found myself foraging for chopsticks with John and Joan Cusack’s mother over the sushi table; I held up tiny candles so we could assess the condition of the fish. Dubious, we agreed.

“You clean up nicely,” boomed Bill Devane as I trembled away the minutes to our copresentation. (I had hit a makeup counter on Michigan Avenue on my way to the ceremony, and the engaging Alexis of MAC Cosmetics performed quite a number on my mug.) After quaffing quite a lot of mineral water, we were guided backstage as the Cusacks accepted their awards. We got a full-body rub from the entire clan as they filed past us through the cramped back hallway. Bill soothed my last-minute hair terrors, making me feel beautiful. What a pro.

Tom, the emcee, had talked throughout the evening about his status as a Chicago boy made good, a normal guy who used to open for Frank Sinatra. He interspersed endless observations about growing up in Harvey with crunchingly bad humor about ex-wives (“I call her–Plaintiff”) and going to movies with black audiences. He was simply dire.

Before Bill and I went on, Tom made a big deal about how unpronounceable my name is.

“Ulaby! Ulaby! Ulaby!” Tom intoned. It was like being back in junior high.

“That’s a devil of a thing,” Bill commented as a PR girl gazed at me sympathetically. I rolled my eyes. Tom finished his spiel–“Can you imagine doing that and getting a check for it?” he shouted to lukewarm applause.

Bill strolled on and grabbed the mike, me at his heels. “I heard Tom practicing Neda’s name all afternoon back at the hotel,” he murmured, very cool. “I guess these guys from Harvey aren’t very smart.”

My hero.

The room erupted into applause.

Tom Cruise won best supporting actor for his performance in Magnolia. A video clip showed him accepting the award and memorializing Gene Siskel. Other video clips featured Hilary Swank and Wes Bentley thanking us from locations and hotel rooms. Live highlights included Julia Stiles plugging Habitat for Humanity, for which she’s been working the past few months, and Kevin Spacey doing a devastating Johnny Carson impersonation with Roger Ebert as his Ed McMahon. Afterward a Pump Room reception awarded us champagne cocktails and an opportunity to ogle Kevin, Julia, John, and Joan.

Ogling movie stars is fine. My problem, if it ever comes up, is what to do with the next movie starring Bill Devane. I can’t slam my hero.