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A choice: Oscar or Boris

The letter bearing the signature of actor Jack Lemmon arrived at columnist Art Buchwald's office in early January. It was an invitation to a gala party for Russian President Boris Yeltsin to be held in Beverly Hills on the night of the Academy Awards.

But right away, Buchwald wondered whether he was being made the butt of a joke.

Why would Lemmon spell the columnist's name Art Buckwald? Why was Buchwald's address wrong on the stationery?

Why would he mention Paramount Pictures' President Brandon Tartikoff, whose studio Buchwald sued in a bitter legal battle over the Eddie Murphy film Coming To America? And why would Lemmon invite Buchwald to a party being given by, among others, Murphy?

"I smelled a real rat there," Buchwald recalled. "Tartikoff had announced that he wouldn't give me $1 for my lawsuit . . . and I thought if Eddie Murphy was the host, he would give me a table somewhere in the back in the kitchen."

The gala Oscar night party March 30 at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel for Yeltsin didn't just get Buchwald's attention _ it has become the talk of Hollywood because of the man who's throwing it: Michael Bass.

When Oscar officials called Elizabeth Taylor to see if she would attend the ceremony, the actress begged off saying she was going instead to Jack Lemmon's tribute to Boris Yeltsin. Officials were dumbstruck. A party for Boris Yeltsin?

"Russia is in such deep trouble, Lithuania is pulling away, they have such phenomenal problems of life and death and you think this guy is going to come to the United States to party on Academy Awards night?" said Oscar producer Gil Cates. "Does no one have a sense of reality any more?"

Then Cindy Adams wrote in her New York Post gossip column that Lemmon would hang a humanitarian award around Yeltsin's neck the night of the Academy Awards.

Organizer Peter F. Paul said $100,000 in tickets to the event have already sold. But organizers concede they do not have official or recent confirmation that Yeltsin will attend.

When Kim Basinger, among other actors, was listed as a member of the gala's host committee, her publicist hit the roof. "They are not authorized to use her name at all," said Alan Nierob.

And when asked whether Eddie Murphy, who Bass said allowed his name to be used, would be attending it, the actor's executive assistant said: "Definitely not. He's working on a film (in New York)."

A spokeswoman for a peeved Lemmon said the actor had supplied his signature sample _ as celebrities often do _ to help a charitable group raise funds, but he never was shown the letter and does not plan to attend the party. She said Lemmon has disassociated himself from the event.

Bass, the 34-year-old son of a local dentist, has become something of a legend in Hollywood. Although he works as a manager at Stanley Kramer Productions, Bass spends much of his time getting celebrities to attend charity events.

It was Bass who sent out the Jack Lemmon letter; Bass says the letter was written by volunteers and not intended to offend anyone.

He now regrets that Lemmon and Buchwald took offense, and says, based on a previous association, he thought Basinger would support the dinner. He denies that he planted the column item with Adams.

For the past four years, Bass' Oscar parties have attracted some of Hollywood's leading stars. He is quick to say that 105 celebrities attended last year's bash at the Roxbury, including Gregory Peck, Christian Slater, Raul Julia, Maximilian Schell and Edward James Olmos.

No one argues that Bass, who grew up in Beverly Hills and made it his job to befriend television and movie stars, knows many celebrities.

But some say that it is the nonprofit groups he attaches himself to that really attract the stars.

In throwing the Oscar parties, Bass has joined forces with several nonprofit organizations.

Bass said Yeltsin committed to come to the event through a "special adviser" but that was before the breakup of the Soviet Union. Nothing is official, he added, saying "One thing we can promise, there will be hundreds of stars there."