MTV | Tom Cruise Jeannie Williams   

Britney Dances With a Snake on MTV Awards Tonight

Let me save you the trouble of watching tonight's MTV Video Music Awards. Or at least watching them for three hours.

First, the big news: Britney Spears dances with a boa constrictor. She picks it up and dances around as if the large sort of light green snake is a piece of exercise equipment. She looked absolutely petrified of it during rehearsal and put the big lizard down as fast as she could.

Spears also lip-synchs a truly awful new song. It's the worst kind of lip-synching too. Sitting way back in the theatre at the Metropolitan Opera House I was able to see her mouthing words a second behind the audio track, like she was the star of an old Japanese movie.

A tiger also makes an appearance in Britney's jungle set, but it stays in its cage and is just dressing. A number of male dancers in loincloths gyrate around the singer, simulating suggestive poses. Oh my!

The good news about tonight's show though is that there are some very strong performances, including a knockout one by U2 on a medley of "Stuck in the Moment" and "Elevation." (Lead singer Bono was about a half-hour late arriving at rehearsal, putting the well-oiled show into limbo. When he arrived though he managed to give the proceedings his full attention.) Also, 'N Sync — not my favorite group — is quite impressive on their "Pop" number. They are nothing if not hard working and earnest about their craft.

On the downside, this year's Video Music Awards feature a couple of potentially unfunny comic skits featuring Andy Dick and Jack Black. And a truly off-color interlude by comic writer Robert Smigel with a sock puppet dog is sure to offend many of the evening's guests. A sample line: "Sure I'm an 'N Sync fan. But I also eat my own poop."

In the theatre during rehearsal today was Will Smith, who worked hard to be helpful with pal Jamie Foxx, the evening's host. He and Foxx, who was loose and engaged in the process, had a nice rapport during their banter. Foxx tells some of his own off-color jokes as well.

There don't seem to be many surprises coming tonight, but there is a rumor that Michael Jackson, in town for his Madison Square Garden shows, will pop in at the very end to drum up interest in all his new projects. Mick Jagger is the final presenter of the night, which may be an inducement for Michael since they did once make a record together (State of Shock) in the 80s. And a scheduled heartfelt get well "shout out" to Mariah Carey will warm the singer's heart as she recuperates from her mental stress.

Something you won't see: Carson Daly eyeing the stand-in who did his presenting chores, from afar. The stand-in did a very good job, as good if not better than ol' Carson. It didn't seem lost on the original.

Tom Cruise Gets What He Wants

Never say Tom Cruise has no power or determination in Hollywood. The mighty Cruise recently faced an obstacle and met it head on. And no, this has nothing to do with Nicole Kidman. No smarmy jokes please.

Cruise and his producing partner Paula Wagner decided that they wanted Shadow of the Vampire director E. Elias Merhige (pronounced like marriage) to direct a movie called Suspect Zero for them. Not one that Tom would star in, but one that the producing pair — who are currently on a roll with The Others — would put together for another actor.

But there was a problem. Merhige is represented by Artists Management Group, the management talent agency owned by super-famous Michael Ovitz. Cruise is represented by Creative Artists Agency, which Ovitz used to run. There's a lot of hostility between both camps because of Ovitz decamping years ago and then starting this competing agency. But that's another story.

According to my sources, Cruise-Wagner Productions tried on at least two separate occasions to contact AMG and make an offer to Merhige. You'd think Merhige, whose only credit of any interest was the wonderfully executed Shadow of the Vampire, would be thrilled. You'd think AMG — which is having birthing pains of its own — would be jumping for joy that Merhige was wanted by an outfit as hot as Cruise-Wagner.

Well, it didn't work out that way.

Merhige has told intimates that he was finally contacted directly by Wagner and Cruise, who insisted that their efforts to go through AMG had failed. The result: Cruise took matters into his own hands. "Tom took Elias to lunch and made him an offer he couldn't refuse," says an insider. "Elias was surprised that he hadn't heard about the offer before."

Indeed, it turns out that Merhige is now almost set to direct Suspect Zero, a thriller written by Zak Penn, for Cruise-Wagner. There were obstacles however. For one thing, Merhige wasn't keen on directing someone else's script, so he and a writer named Billy Ray, selected by Cruise-Wagner, are doing a three-week polish and rewrite before they send out for casting. Also, Merhige is still hoping to bring on board one of his producers from Vampire, to give the guy a career boost.

Is it just another Hollywood legend or it did it really happen? AMG's Stephanie Davis, one of the firm's sharp, talented crew, did confirm for me yesterday that AMG twice rejected offers from Cruise-Wagner. "There were issues of concept and creative control," she said. "But it is true they came after Elias hard. Paula Wagner in particular really wanted him." And did Tom have lunch with Merhige? "I can't say. I know that Elias has lunch with people like Nicolas Cage and John Malkovich."

So Merhige moves up a notch on the Hollywood food chain. Cruise gets what he wants. And Mike Ovitz? He's doing just fine, thanks.

I Dream of Jeannie Williams

I guess USA Today has decided to make some changes. After many years, Jeannie Williams is giving up her celebrity/gossip column and moving on to other sections of the paper.

I don't know if Jeannie's happy or upset about this, and I'm sure USA Today doesn't care what I think. I'd just like them to know that there isn't a harder working reporter anywhere than Jeannie. She's a trouper who does yeoman work, scut work and gets good stuff no one else does.

There isn't anyone on this gossip beat who doesn't see Jeannie with her tape recorder and microphone, diligently — and bravely — digging for something of interest even at times when not much is there. I also hope USA Today knows that very often stars and publicists request to have Jeannie at an event because they know she will give a fair and balanced report.

Jeannie will give 'em hell no matter what section of the paper she winds up in. And I guess we'll all benefit from that. Brava, Jeannie!

Respond to the Writer