Julianna Margulies Honored at Project A.L.S. Fundraiser: "Affliction Can Make Us Better People"

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'The Good Wife' star was joined at the Beverly Hills event by Les Moonves, Jimmy Kimmel, Michael J. Fox and special guest Nanci Ryder.

Julianna Margulies just gets it.

That's what Project A.L.S. founder Jenifer Estess told the actress more than a decade ago while the former was fighting a brave fight against amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the progressive and invariably fatal disease often referred to as Lou Gehrig's disease. Estess, a former theater producer turned BWR publicist known for her work with standout New York theater group Naked Angels as well as her magnetic spirit, lost her battle with ALS in December 2003 at age 40, but her work lives on through Project A.L.S. which honored Margulies Thursday night.

While accepting her award inside the Four Seasons' ballroom on Doheny Drive, Margulies (the night's sole honoree) provided the context to their conversation. "When a number of her actor friends had gathered to do a movie about her life, I went to see (Jenifer) in her hotel room and at that time she was bedridden and on feeding tubes," Margulies recalled to the intimate crowd of more than 230 people that included Estess' sisters Meredith and Valerie, who carry on with the organization in top leadership roles. "I walked in and she looked at me and she said, 'You get it Julianna. You really get it.' I don’t actually know what she meant, but it’s always stayed with me and I suppose that’s why I’ve stayed with this. Maybe I got something. You’re all here tonight so maybe something happened. But I do know this: While Jenifer lost her battle with ALS in the physical world, I do believe with ever fiber of my being that her enduring spirit will eradicate it."

Something certainly happened at the event. What could have been a tear-jerker of a charity fundraiser because of the uniquely crippling aspects of living and dying with ALS, instead turned out to be an inspiring, uplifting and fast-moving program thanks to a gracious speech from The Good Wife star, onstage zingers from host Jimmy Kimmel and event co-chair Les Moonves, a detailed update of the advances in Project A.L.S.-funded studies of stem cell research (or "disease in a dish strategy") from Dr. Kevin Eggan, a Harvard University professor of stem cell and regenerative biology, a moving tribute from Matt Bomer (who read Gehrig's infamous farewell speech from July 4, 1939), and the presence of special guest Nanci Ryder

The event could've delivered a bittersweet night for Ryder, who revealed her own ALS diagnosis in the pages of THR in October and was close to Estess back in the day during her tenure at BWR. But you wouldn't have known it by witnessing the former BWR power publicist in the ballroom. Ryder was seen smiling and hugging close friends and former clients like Michael J. Fox, Courteney Cox and Don Diamont, as well as former colleagues like BWR's Paul Baker, Larry Winokur, Nicole Perna and Brett Ruttenberg. Ryder, whose speech is nearly gone, was seen writing on a digital notepad and enjoying a long embrace with CAA's Kevin Huvane while surrounded by his brother, manager Chris Huvane, and several other industry pals.

Nanci Ryder with CAA's Bryan Lourd.

Ryder received a standing ovation when the Estess sisters thanked her for aligning her own personal fight and fundraising efforts with their org. Though she didn't take to the podium at the Audi-sponsored event, Ryder did tell THR in an interview via email that she'll always be present when she's called upon. "The only thing I know how to do is to spread the word and fight hard. Participating in events like these makes me feel like I am part of that fight. We need money. We need awareness. We get that when people gather at events like these," she said. "This is not a cakewalk but I'm pretty strong and very determined. I'm ready to fight as hard as I can against this thing.”

She's in good company. Project A.L.S.’s honorary committee is an impressive roster of Hollywood names including George Clooney, Katie Couric, Ben Stiller and wife Christine Taylor, publicist Simon Halls and husband Bomer, Ridley Scott and wife Giannina Facio, Andrew Jarecki and wife Nancy, attorney Michael Gendler, agent Michelle Bohan, event planner Mindy Weiss, publicist Cari Ross, Ryder, Baker and Winokur, among others. Notable guests in attendance on Thursday night included CAA's Bryan Lourd, Jennifer Grey and Clark Gregg, David and Blair Kohan, Liseanne Frankfurt, Michelle Bohan, Sharon Osbourne and Aimee Osbourne, Margulies' husband Keith Lieberthal and Andy Garcia, the latter who presented the actress with her award. 

Those close to the organization cite Jenifer Estess’ “force of nature” personality and “fireball” spirit for the success of Project A.L.S. and for the tireless work her sisters, and others like Margulies, have done since her death in keeping the mission alive and thriving. Halls was one to pause in awe at the accomplishments of the organization and the spirit of the women in his life who have been affected by the motor neuron disease. 

“Jenifer and Nanci are shining examples of the triumph of human spirit over huge, unimaginable adversity,” said Halls, who added that Estess was one of his best friends, the godmother to his eldest son and the two “basically lived together the last year of her life." “Both of these women know how to rally support and now Nanci is showing the same courage and the same spirit that Jenifer did in the face of all of this. It’s come full circle." 

Circling back to Margulies. In accepting, the actress thanked her two-time on-screen husband Garcia for the introduction, Moonves and an absent Brad Grey for co-hosting, publicist Ross for the heavy lifting in pulling the event together, and Kimmel for taking time out of his busy TV schedule (and reading “mean tweets”) to host the evening. The actress then recounted a recent trip to the airport, riding in the back of a chaffeured car driving down the L.I.E. in New York to catch a flight to L.A. for a Paleyfest event in Beverly Hills for The Good Wife

After requesting that the driver tune the radio to NPR, she caught an interview with Bruce Kramer, the former dean of the college of education at the University of St. Thomas. "He passed away in March, a month ago, of ALS, but before doing so he left these extraordinary teachings about life and death that are now chronicled in a beautiful memoir called We Know How This Ends," she detailed. "He spoke in great detail about how his body started to experience paralysis but his mind was very much alive. As a person with ALS, he was acutely aware of everything that was happening to him. And it gave him this higher level of understanding of the human condition. It was almost otherworldy. He wrote to dance this dance, we must embrace vulnerability. If you think about it, that’s the very core of what this evening is about. That’s why we are here tonight. That’s the spirit we carry to embrace the fact that as human beings we’re all vulnerable and those of us who aren’t need to care for those of us who are in need because no matter how invincible we think we are that dynamic can change in an instant."

And when life does get turned upside down, like it does with an ALS diagnosis, Margulies said individuals are offered two roads to travel. "The first one is to hide, give in, give up. Completely understandable. The second is the chance to fight on. And Jenifer Estess was that fighter," she said.

The actress remembered meeting Estess when she interned at the then red-hot NY theater company Naked Angels after graduating from college. “It was the place to be," noted Margulies, dressed in a strapless Martin Grant design. "I was lucky enough to get a brief internship there and I met Jenifer Estess who managed the place. I honestly was completely frightened but I was also in awe."

When Margulies' career started to take off, it was then she was informed that Estess had been diagnosed with ALS in 1997, which at the time was not at the forefront of public consciousness the way it is today following last year's Ice Bucket Challenge phenomenon and Eddie Redmayne's best actor Oscar win for playing Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. "A year or two later, I went to visit Jenifer and she was in a wheelchair; her legs had stopped working. But her hands and her arms hadn’t and there was something I’ll never forget watching her tie her beautiful hair into a ponytail with such defiance. It was a gift to see that," she said. "This isn’t a charity that I’m just interested in, It’s personal."

Margulies was then moved to tears, validating her own words of how close to home the cause is for her as she paused to catch her breath. "If you know me well, you’ll know that every Christmas, every birthday, any special occasion, the best gift you could give me is a donation to Project A.L.S. I think we all have enough trinkets and I think if we could start passing it on just to say you know what, all I want for my birthday is a donation in my name to Project A.L.S., we’d move along a lot faster and help a lot of people," she said. And it should be noted that the event itself was a no frills fundraiser, an intimate soiree free of those trinkets (gift bags), instead focused solely on the cause and the support and research behind it.

Then, the actress, who received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Friday, circled back to Kramer in closing. "He was asked, 'What do you think your legacy will be?' And his answer to that question was, ‘Legacy is an act of ego but education is an act of faith. It's faith in the fact that human beings have the capacity to grow and that as humans we can become better, we can become more compassionate, we can become more understanding. And no matter what it is that afflicts us, that affliction can become a part of us that makes us better people.' So thank you from the bottom of my heart for coming tonight. I think we’re all better people for it."