There are few enough new ideas in Hollywood. Now comes word that my favorite TV show, Dallas, is coming to the big screen. Let the casting begin: Who'll Play J.R.? is sure to be as big a parlor game as Who Shot J.R.? (My choice for J.R.: Alec Baldwin. And for Bobby: Either Billy Baldwin or Steven Culp. John Cusack for Cliff Barnes. And so on.)
But the creepier news is that the long aborning remake of Valley of the Dolls is finally at hand. Director Betty Thomas is now in preproduction of this God awful thing. Expect the unemployed Melrose Place crowd to be sending in their 8 x 10s. I don't know if Thomas will play it straight or go campy. If it's the latter, then I suggest Britney Spears for the Patty Duke part. Duke couldn't sing a lick either.
Somewhere in the middle of the loud and boring Punch-Drunk Love, Shelley Duvall starts singing "He Needs Me." Shelley Duvall? Yes, Robert Altman's long ago pet actress. And indeed, the recording is from her performance in Altman's Popeye. Paul Thomas Anderson is so obsessed with making Robert Altman films, it's like he's reading the recipe out of a book that might be called The Joy of Altman by Pauline Kael. And, as with the frogs from Anderson's movie Magnolia that were inspired by pigeon droppings in Altman's Brewster McCloud, Anderson is back.
He likes to go by P.T. Anderson, and that is not coincidentally a reference to P.T. Barnum who said, "There's a sucker born every minute." Movie critics can be suckers, and if any of them start suggesting Punch Drunk Love is Oscar material then you know they've spent some time at the circus.
Punch Drunk Love is a test, offered by a truly gifted director: How much hoo-ha can he get away with and still be referred to as an artist? The movie begins with 45 slow-moving low-lit minutes that are buried in quicksand. Nothing happens except Adam Sandler, in a weird electric blue suit, acts weirder than usual.
Sandler is impenetrable, an actor with no insides. Who is he? What is he? After a dozen or so yecchy comedies, still his best bits are his "Operaman" skit on Saturday Night Live and his "Hannukah Song." His movie characters are self-righteous savants who find their appeal to other characters in the same movie because they're idiots.
You don't really know if Sandler's character Barry Egan is stupid, a misfit, or retarded. Maybe he's a little of each. Certainly six shrewish sisters and a brother-in-law confidante who can't keep his mouth shut could push Barry to violence, or worse. Then along comes Emily Watson, a real woman, and someone unreasonably overmatched for Barry -- and for Sandler. What are these two doing in a movie together? It's pretty weird and it only gets weirder.
New Line Cinema managed to bail out of the domestic end of Punch-Drunk Love after taking a bath on Anderson's three-hour Magnolia. They were smart to do it. Columbia Pictures picked up Sandler's Mr. Deeds in the process, a bad movie but a profitable one. Now they will suffer the indignity of a bust with this one. Add that to Madonna's execrable Swept Away, also opening today but in very few theatres, and Sony execs must be thanking the heavens for Spider-Man.
Richard Dreyfuss is back in New York, starring in an off Broadway play called The Exonerated. His co-stars in this remarkably moving enterprise at the 45 Bleecker St. Theater are Oscar-nominee Jill Clayburgh and the terrific Charles Brown.
Both Clayburgh and Dreyfuss, who turned out lots of hits in the mid '70s to mid '80s, should be making more movies. But Dreyfuss says he's not that interested anymore. "I'm looking for a play to do on Broadway," he said. "Got one?"
It's not like Dreyfuss -- who starred memorably in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jaws, The Goodbye Girl, Mr. Holland's Opus and lots of other good films -- is giving up. He's just not killing himself anymore to be in blockbusters.
Maybe he should ask Clayburgh's husband, the great playwright David Rabe (Hurlyburly). Their whole family showed last night, along with Janeane Garafalo and John McDaniel, the former Rosie O'Donnell bandleader. He attended with a male friend whose hair seemed to be dyed blue. McDonald's hair was somewhere in the red-gold family. I couldn't tell due to color blindness, but it was not natural.
The formidable character actor Bob Balaban directed The Exonerated, which is based on real life stories by innocent people who spent time on death row and were ultimately vindicated and released. The stories are interwoven beautifully and memorably. Balaban has done a remarkable job fitting the pieces of this jigsaw puzzle together. I think they're in for along run.
Like another downtown play The Guys, this one will also start rotating in star actors to play the different parts. Coming soon are Jeff Goldblum, Debra Winger, Arliss Howard, Marlo Thomas and many more.
Anne Rice's book editor is about to take a bite out of the Supreme Court.
Victoria Wilson has been one of the pre-eminent book editors in the country for more than two decades. She is the vice president, associate publisher and senior editor at Alfred A. Knopf, one of the classiest American book publishers. Some of her authors include William Gass, Alice Adams, Carole Gilligan, Peter Bogdanovich and the Queen of the Damned herself, Anne Rice. She's even writing her own book, a biography of the late great movie star Barbara Stanwyck.
A couple of years ago Wilson was invited to sit on the U.S. Civil Rights Commission by then President Clinton. She would replace Leon Higginbotham, who passed away in 1998. She accepted, but then had to be investigated by the FBI, a grueling procedure. In the end, the FBI turned her inside out to make sure she was kosher.
Wilson's first order of business was launching an investigation into what happened in Florida during the 2000 election. Everyone from Jeb Bush to Katherine Harris came and testified.
"The situation was a mess," Wilson recalls. "The ballot was like a take-out menu. There was no way of knowing who you were voting for."
The commission was the only federal organization to go to Florida to investigate the election. "We issued a 200-page report that was supposed to be the basis for a report (Senator)Chris Dodd was doing. Dodd was going to use our findings. And then Sept. 11 happened."
Wilson wound up writing a letter, still available on the commission's Web site, which said in part: "For today fraud is not provable, but there were an interesting confluence of circumstances."
The the Bush administration decided it wanted to replace Wilson with one of its own appointees. She was told her term would end on Nov. 29, 2001 -- the date Higginbotham's term would have expired.
On that day, two things happened: Wilson said she received a letter from President Bush thanking her for her service and "telling me goodbye, in effect," she recalled. She also received a letter from the IRS. She was being audited -- specifically for the year 1999, the only one the FBI had not bothered to check when they were investigating her for the commission job.
Wilson, backed by commission head Mary Frances Berry, remained steadfast. "You don't go through the whole FBI background check and everything else just to leave after a year and a half," she said. "The term was supposed to be six years."
When she didn't leave, Wilson was sued by the U.S. government, which lost. The administration appealed, and sent Ted Olson (the same Ted Olson who argued President Bush's election case in front of the Supreme Court and also lost his wife in the Sept. 11 Pentagon air crash).
"Usually it takes five months to get an answer from the appeals court," Wilson said. "But in five days they went against us." She was out. In her place the administration put lawyer Peter Kirsanow.
You might think the story ends there, but you'd be wrong. Wilson and her attorney Leon Friedman (no relation to this writer) have filed a petition to argue her case in front of the Supreme Court. The answer should come shortly.
As for the IRS audit, they came up with nothing. Although, like the initial FBI background check, it was a pain in the neck.
So in honor of that, see you again next Tuesday with a report from the Chicago Film Festival. And don't forget: Garland Jeffreys plays the Bottom Line twice on Saturday night. And don't miss Jerry Butler and friends tonight in Newark, N.J. and Saturday at the Beacon Theatre here in New York City!