Yes, producer Michael Douglas conceded, the timing was perfect for his film.

Three days before "The China Syndrome" opened in New York, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had ordered five nuclear power plants across the country to close down for safety reasons.

"Sure, it's great PR," Douglas said at a benefit party after the premiere Thursday night, "But you have to remember that I started this project three years ago. The issue has gotten hotter and hotter."

Nonetheless, "it wouldn't mean s -- as a political statement if it didn't work as a thriller anyway," said star Jane Fonda over the crowd of 400 who had walked a few blocks from the theater to fill the Rebecca Harkness mansion on East 75th Street.

Although the party was ostensibly a fund-raiser for California's Laurel Springs Education Center -- a project to combat environmental causes of cancer on whose board both Fonda and her husband, Tom Hayden, sit -- many of those who paid $125 apiece were unaware of the cause.

"I'm just here for the movie," shrugged Carly Simon, escorted by Jake Brackman, who writes some of her songs. And the same was true for a number of the mix of Hollywood and New York celebrities, including Paul Simon, Margot Kidder, Jann Wenner, Adolph Green, Kevin McCarthy, Oleg Cassini, Ralph Lauren (in gold-tipped cowboy boots) and Gov. Brendan Byrne of New Jersey.

The grave issues addressed in the movie, which portrays a near disaster at a nuclear power station, were rarely discussed by the conservative, pin-striped and Gucci-shod crowd.

"I was dimly aware of the movie's ancestry -- back to 'Enemy of the People'," said Adolph Green, whose opening-night appearance must number in the chousands.

But no, said costar Jack Lemmon, "The China Syndrome" is not a political indictment of the nuclear power industry, it is a thriller in which the guys in the black hardhats just happen to be nuclear board chairmen.

"No way that it's an editorial," he said. "I know what people are going to read into it, with Jane's history of political activism. But if she had wanted to make a statement, she'd have done a documentary. It's the best Hitchcock movie that Hitchcock never made."

Delighted with this line, Lemmon succumbed to a solo soft-shoe routine reminiscent of his Hasty Pudding days at Harvard to celebrate the strong reviews and big promotional tour.

Looking wonderful in a sequined top and black pants, Fonda remained slightly larger than life all evening. Her famous temper eventually grew short as a flock of photographers took continued pictures of her seated with her husband Hyden, a willowy Margot Kidder, and diminutive Paul Simon. But her energy seemed endless, and she graciously accepted numerous congratulations for her performance.

After a round of farewells that consumed much of the evening, Fonda left alone for an early flight to Utah to continue filming "The Electric Horseman" with Robert Redford. Hayden was seen at the end of the party deep in a political argument with Village Voice writer Paul Cowan.

Douglas continues to handle his success as producer-actor with charm and quiet intelligence. Looking tired but trim from his six-mile daily run, he stoody by his blond Spanish wife, Diandra, who appeared even more exhausted, and patiently waited all night long to go home.

"This is the end," he said. "I've been with this for three years now and I've been on the road for the last month promoting it. It's going to open in 700 theathers tomorrow. We just want to go back to California and rest."

Almost lost in the crowd was Bruce Gilbert, the 31-year-old executive producer of "The China Syndrome" and, before that, of "Coming Home." And yet he had the most to celebrate. In addition to the excitement of the film debut and the first positive reviews Gilbert had gone out ad gotten married an hour before the premiere.