Manhattan had seen nothing like it since the golden days of the silver screen, when a premiere meant Gable or Monroe or Bogart arriving by limo and stepping into the spotlights at the curb. That sort of spectacle returned with Ragtime and 82-year-old Jimmy Cagney. At the opening of the Milos Forman film, in which the actor makes his first movie appearance since One, Two, Three in 1961, everyone waited on Cagney. The movie did not begin to roll until he was in his seat, and the postscreening party for 600 at Lüchow’s was held up till he appeared. Cagney looked around at the lovingly refurbished 100-year-old restaurant and allowed as he’d been there before—sometime in the ’30s.
On hand at $250 per (the affair benefited the Heart Association and Forman’s film program at Columbia University) was another generation of actors: author Norman Mailer, for instance, who plays Stanford White in the film with surprising professionalism, and Elizabeth (Ordinary People) McGovern, who almost steals the picture as the nude and nubile showgirl, Evelyn Nesbit. Some Ragtime cast members who had filmed their scenes in the sprawling saga separately met for the first time at the party. While they danced to an oompah band, Cagney sat regally undisturbed, dining on sauerbraten, potato pancakes and strudel. He granted brief audiences to friends and to New York Mayor Ed Koch, who endorsed the film as “breathtaking.” Then Hizzoner summed up the consensus of Cagney’s constituency: The film was surefire Oscar material. Said Koch: “If they don’t give you an award, I will.”