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Diana Ross gives a lesson in diva style: All hail the Queen of Motown at TIFF

STOP – in the name of TIFF!

There to give a lesson in diva style to all the step-and-repeat specimens set to jam the red carpets this week: Diana Ross. Unapologetically decadent. Lashes bigger than your dreams and a wig full of secrets. A sundry blue number that made her look not unlike a gaseous planetary system unto herself. After giving a performance that will be hard to beat, inside the AMBI Gala, held Wednesday at the Four Seasons – she sang for nearly one hour, everyone storming the stage – the Queen of Motown even indulged in some warmed-over nostalgia about awards seasons past.

Photos by George Pimentel.

“It was nice to be nominated,” she told me with the little-girl voice of a debutante when I cornered her in a nook of the hotel right after her all-out ballroom-heist. We were, of course, talking about the year she was up for an Oscar, in 1973, one of history’s most legendary contests for best actress – a battle royale just this side of Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. It was Diana, star of the Billie Holiday biopic Lady Sings the Blues v. another undeniable icon, Liza Minnelli, the human explosion in Cabaret. Diana, who had grown up in the projects of Detroit before rising as a Supreme, v. Liza, daughter of Judy, and basically as royal as Hollywood got at the time. Though, Oscar-wise, it was a more innocent time (there was no à la mode Oscar machine and certainly no celebrity stylists), it was a battle, all right, with even Minnelli saying decades later that she thought Ross was going to take it.

“She was good, too,” Ross told me about Minnelli. When I bring the competition up now, Ross bats a lash that basically said you-win-some-you-lose-others (it would be her only Academy Award nomination), she was clearly here to give a pre-TIFF reminder to keep it nice, even as Hollywood begins its annual rite of scorched-earth Oscar racketeering in Toronto. Standing in front of the 71-year-old icon it hit me: Without her there would be no Beyonce, let alone a Mariah or a Janet. But, hey...why not do a fabulous stint on TV’s reigning hip-hop soap Empire? I snuck that one final idea into her head, before bidding my adieu.

“That would be wonderful,” Ross agreed. (You hear this, Lee Daniels?)

Loving the woman, and the night, meanwhile was a white-tie flock that included Prince Albert of Monaco (the night was raising funds for enviromental charities that his foundation supports) as well as Martin Short (who was here to emcee the night, and make the requisite jokes about Donald Trump, etc.). Inside a room that was lit a dramatic bordello-red, the best-dressed included socialite Sylvia Mantella, dressed in a Giambattista Valli with a train bigger than some Canadian provinces, as well as fellow patroness Simona Shnaider, dressed in a sleek, vintage L’Wren Scott. Holding court at the headtable? That would be the duo who’d pulled off this first annual gala – movie producers Andrea Iervolino, and Lady Monika Bacardi. Sitting right next to the former was that great renaissance dude of our time – Mr. James Franco.

Franco, who has a movie at the film fest, was giving the full Franco grin most of the night, and seemed only too happy to cameo in people’s selfies. Duh, how could he not? This, after all, is the multi-hyphenate-talent who did, not long ago, write a treatise in The New York Times titled, “The Meanings of the Selfie.” Praising them as “tools of communication more than marks of vanity,” Franco admitted there, too, “I am actually turned off when I look at an account and don’t see any selfies, because I want to know whom I’m dealing with.”

Okay, got it.

Meanwhile: A Dior-clad Natalie Portman had people rapt further downtown at the same time, as part of an on-stage conversation, and fundraiser, that TIFF engineered at the Lightbox. The Oscar-winning gamine had plenty to share, but one of the bigger takeaways was when she opened up to some doubts about her film resume. “I’m insecure now about Garden State [the 2004 Zach Braff dramedy] because people who I think are the coolest think it’s really lame,” is how she precisely put it.

Okay, got it.

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