Published July 31, 2002
You thought Mel Gibson's new movie, Signs, was about unexplained crop circles cropping up in the Midwest. But it turns out that's a whole load of crop.
The circles, found in a cornfield in Bucks County, Pa., are not what the movie is about. It's about faith, redemption and healing. It's about making the best Steven Spielberg movie you can make, and combining it with Alfred Hitchcock as an added treat.
Some people may not like Signs. Against all my best judgement, though, I loved it. The audience at Monday night's premiere at Lincoln Center loved it too. M. Night Shyamalan, who had a hit out of the box with The Sixth Sense and then strayed off course with Unbreakable, may be giving Disney/Touchstone its first live-action No. 1 hit in ages this Sunday.
Gibson himself does not believe in aliens. He told me on Monday night that the X-Files is of no interest to him and that the truth is probably not "out there." But he does believe in unexplained phenomena.
"One night when I was about 17 my brother woke me up to tell me our brother, his twin, was in trouble. He'd sensed it. He needed me to get out of bed and drive him to find him. I thought he was crazy but we did it, we went out and found him. He'd been in a fight and was beaten up pretty badly. So, you never know ..."
Gibson came to the premiere with his wife Robyn, the mother of his own seven childen who range in age from about 3 to 20. (Even though Robyn has never been much for the spotlight, she's been out and about a bit more lately - and it's about time. She's beautiful and lovely.)
Gibson now has to face the prospect of having adult kids. The girlfriend of one of his twin sons was downstairs at the entrance to the party, lobbying to get in.
Has he met the girlfriend? "I've met the young lady on several occasions and she's very nice," Gibson reported, but then added that his approval wasn't necessary. "My sons are at the age where I can just take the collar off and say, 'Sic 'em.'"
Mel is one of the few bona fide movie stars, even if he doesn't like to talk about it. His last film, When We Were Soldiers, had a great opening and was very popular, even though it wasn't the best movie in the world.
That's because Gibson can "open" a film better than Harrison Ford, Tom Cruise or anyone. Tom Hanks might be his only real competition at the box office.
"You try not to think that way," Gibson told me. "Because then you lose sight of what you're doing. You just try to do your best."
The Poughkeepsie, N.Y.-born superstar (forget all that Australia stuff - he's American, for God's sake) doesn't know what he'll do next.
He just completed a large cameo in a remake of Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective opposite Robert Downey Jr. He's stayed loyal to Downey, who worked with him a dozen years ago in Air America. He's also stayed friendly with Matthew Modine, who he made Mrs. Soffel with even before that, about a million years ago.
Modine and his beautiful, smart wife Cari put in an appearance last night and hung out with the Gibsons, as did Bruce Willis, who shares an agent (the mighty Ed Limato, resplendent in a tomato-red blazer) and a publicist (Rogers & Cowan) with him. Gibson clearly inspires loyalty, and that's a rare thing in Hollywood.
The only other big "names" spotted last night were, of course, Gibson's co-stars from Signs: Joaquin Phoenix, Patricia Kalember, Cherry Jones and some children. And then there was Queen Latifah, looking svelte and basking in pre-release buzz for her performance in the upcoming film version of Chicago.
Latifah, who made a splash in Living Out Loud some years back, is ready for her second round of stardom. While she's waiting, she giddily stood at the inside entrance to Avery Fisher Hall and tried to be helpful. "Please have your tickets out, and show them to the usher," she commanded each of the entering guests. They were so taken aback, they did exactly what she requested.
Besides Latifah, my other favorite person at last night's premiere was definitely Phoenix. He had his steady girlfriend with him (a South African beauty who gives Charlize Theron a run for her money) and his mom, Hart Phoenix, the mother of this successful, oddly-named acting clan (the late River, the recently successful Summer, and so forth).
Joaquin, who is very funny and charming in person, told me he's having trouble living down his famous line from Gladiator - "I am vexed."
"I recently had to do a reading with some other actors, and they had a line there - I find it very vexing. Some actors would have said, No no no. Not that again. But I thought it was funny and I just did it."
Phoenix, by the way, almost steals Signs. He appears in the single funniest scene, wearing an aluminum foil hat he's convinced will protect him from the oncoming aliens. It's a priceless moment, and one of many in Shyamalan's excellent thriller.
What if you worked for a company for 30 years - say, starting in 1967 and ending in 1997 - and then realized the company had never paid into your pension fund? You'd be pretty steamed.
That's what happened to Sam Moore from the famous R&B group Sam & Dave. He had hits with Atlantic Records, which is part of Time Warner, like "Soul Man," "Hold On I'm Coming" and dozens of others.
Even though new hits stopped coming, the old ones kept selling. He figured that when he reached retirement, Atlantic would have been paying his pension into his union, which is called AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists).
When Moore applied for his pension, he was told that he had benefits coming to him. What a relief, he thought. Then he got the bad news. AFTRA was all set to pay him a whopping $67 a month. This is the same AFTRA that now boasts a $1.2 billion surplus.
That $67 figure came not from the money Sam thought he was getting from Atlantic, but from radio and television appearances he'd made over the years. It turned out that Atlantic had never paid one dime into his pension fund. Nothing. Nada.
Think of all the times you've heard "Soul Man" played on the radio, or in clubs and restaurants. Sam Moore was not getting paid for any of it.
Push has come to shove, though. Moore, along with two dozen or so other artists - including some who've passed away - sued AFTRA and the record companies for their proper compensation.
It turns out, by the way, that you don't have to be a member of AFTRA to qualify. If you recorded songs for a record company that was a signatory of AFTRA - which means all of them - you qualify for a pension. And not just black artists or those from the '60s. The Eagles, for example, are as mad as Sam Moore about what's happened.
Last month, AFTRA tried to push a settlement through in the ongoing case. They offered to pay each of the plaintiffs $100,000 apiece, and let the rest of the recording artists twist in the wind.
But many of the plaintiffs, including Moore, objected, and the judge took them seriously. Moore figured that he was probably owed about a million bucks. So the judge told all sides to go back to the drawing board and start over.
Tomorrow, all the attorneys involved in the case - representing AFTRA, its pension fund, the recording industry organization RIAA, the record labels, the plaintiffs, etc. - will meet in Scottsdale, Ariz., to start negotiations. It should be interesting since one law firm, Proskauer Rose, represents both the AFTRA fund and the Recording Industry Association of America.
The record labels are united on one front: They don't want to have pay about 20,000 different artists 30 years of back pension and health benefits.
At a hearing in Sacramento last week, Montell Jordan - a more contemporary artist whose big hit was "This Is How We Do It" - revealed that he, like a lot of other music stars, had no idea he was supposed to get health benefits from his record company. When his wife gave birth, Jordan said, he brought cash to the hospital.
At the same hearing, music industry lawyer Don Engel, called the record companies' accounting practices "intentionally fraudulent" and compared them to WorldCom and Enron. Only, the record companies have been doing this since Elvis Presley wore tight pants. They've just never been questioned about it.
Jordan, by the way, testified that even though "This Is How We Do It" sold 2 million copies, his record company says he's never broken even with them or turned a profit.
I know another artist who had hits in the '70s, and whose record company says the same thing. My guess is there are hundreds or thousands more stories like these. They're all about to come out as the rock generation ages into retirement. If so, Enron is going to look like a cakewalk by comparison.
More, as the situation develops ...