There is a scene in the film, "Cross Creek," the story of author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' determined foray into a remote area of Florida in the late '20s, where Rawlings rebuffs a hired worker who protested her efforts to help with manual labor by saying: "Don't you tell me what a woman can and cannot do."

In the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater last night, this scene brought sustained applause from a crowd attending the premiere, a benefit for--surprise--the Women's Campaign Fund.

"We didn't even know that line was in it," said Elisabeth Griffith, the Republican co-chair of the Fund, who called the pairing of film and Fund "a reinforcement of themes."

Universal, the company that made the film, outdid itself for the benefit, producing the stars of the movie--Oscar winner Mary Steenburgen, Malcolm McDowell, Rip Torn, Peter Coyote, Alfre Woodard, Dana Hill--buying 100 tickets (and inviting prominent Washingtonians) to the $125-a-person champagne reception plus post-screening dinner at the Watergate, and contributing $10,000 to the Women's Campaign Fund. Universal also rented the theater for the screening.

Mary Steenburgen and Malcolm McDowell (who are married in real life)--she plays Rawlings, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "The Yearling," and he plays her editor, the legendary Maxwell Perkins--entered the reception as a study in contrasts, bathed in late afternoon sunlight streaming through the Kennedy Center foyer windows.

Steenburgen, dark-haired and dark-eyed, wore a one-shoulder black dress. McDowell, blond-haired and blue-eyed, wore a white double-breasted jacket and shirt.

Steenburgen has supported various women's organizations by giving her time as she did last night. "I'm also involved in the antinuclear movement," she said.

"She had so much guts," Steenburgen said of Rawlings, who died in 1953 and whose memoirs, "Cross Creek," describe her years in Florida, where she went to devote herself to writing. "Instead of just talking about her goals, she did them. She had the guts to make all the things she wanted come true. In the film, she isn't immediately likable. She wins your respect through the things she does. That's more interesting than an ingratiating character."

Steenburgen and McDowell have been in town for several days.

"We're staying at a wonderful hotel," McDowell said. "The Jefferson."

"The attorney general lives there," FBI director William Webster informed McDowell.

During his stay, McDowell has managed to play tennis, take a tour of Capitol Hill and engage in rousing conversation with a State Department official, "an assistant to the secretary of state" whose name McDowell either couldn't remember or wouldn't reveal.

"He was a charming fellow," said McDowell, "but I'm afraid we didn't see eye to eye. I said to him, 'You don't expect people to take your version of the Korean Air Line incident, do you?' His face dropped." McDowell chuckled. "He was a big fan of mine. Well, it's good for him to learn the views of vagabonds wandering through his town."

Later, at dinner, McDowell fretted he might offend someone with this story. But he was assured he wouldn't, and Steenburgen laughed and commented about her British husband, "He can't even vote here."

Praise for the film ran generously throughout the evening.

"It's a most unusual movie for the modern day," said former CIA director Richard Helms. "Nobody gets raped. Nobody gets their clothes torn off. Nobody gets eaten by an alligator."

Some of the actors and actresses at the screening were watching themselves in this film for about the third time.

Another guest was indeed watching himself for the third time--as portrayed by actor Peter Coyote. "I loved it," said Norton Baskin, Rawlings' widower. "The first time I saw it, it tore me to pieces--the emotion of it. I fell in love with Mary. To me, she is Marjorie."

Would the real Marjorie have liked it?

"She would have loved it," Baskin said. "She was a disappointed actress. She majored in journalism and creative writing at the University of Wisconsin. She was also in the drama club."

Baskin, who has a brief one-line part and is credited on screen for his help with the script preparation, said that "everything in the film happened," though some dates are changed, he noted, and some incidents are portrayed a little differently. For instance, in the film Norton Baskin takes Marjorie Rawlings' shabby and ailing car and miraculously restores it to mint condition.

No way, according to Baskin. "I couldn't fix a spark plug," he said. "I loaned her my car."