Box Office | Tom Cruise | 'Borat'

'Borat' Beats 'Santa' by $30 Million

Santa Claus might have to re-evaluate his popularity after losing a box-office duel this weekend. He's been handily beaten by the raunchy, raucous and often ridiculous Borat — by miles.

Sacha Baron Cohen's outrageous comedy looks like it will earn $30 million by tonight, making it an unparalleled smash hit. According to showbizdata.com, "Borat" has already taken in about $19 million since Friday.

All of this becomes a rebuke to the anti-Borat sentiment that tried to rear its ugly head in the last week. Several pundits, including a couple of online bloggers, pronounced Santa the winner in advance with the Tim Allen movie "The Santa Clause 3," saying that that movie was tracking better than "Borat."

Unfortunately most bloggers don't leave home often. You'd have to have sat through three different screenings of "Borat" with audiences to know how big this movie was going to be. It produces rolling waves of laughter, screams and shrieks, and brings delight to shocked onlookers. It doesn't matter whether you're in Manhattan, Beverly Hills or Akron, Ohio. "Borat" hits a grand slam with its humor.

Now look for lots of verbiage from those who "always knew it." But you can check this column from last May at the Cannes Film Festival when we were among the first to see the Larry Charles-directed hit. I hate to say I told you so, but I did.

This also means we're about to be oversaturated in the media by Borat. Already HBO is scheduling repeated broadcasts of Borat's appearances on "Da Ali G Show." The only question is, why didn't Baron Cohen host "Saturday Night Live" last week instead of just making a cameo? Maybe now Lorne Michaels will have him back to help his ailing show.

Tom Cruise's Next Movie: A 'Jerry Maguire'

Tom Cruise isn’t going to run United Artists — that’s what his partner, the savvy Paula Wagner, will do.

So what’s Cruise doing now that he and Wagner have their own little fiefdom? In the next week or so, sources say, Wagner and Cruise will be announcing that their first film for United Artists is a dramedy in the vein of "Jerry Maguire." Apparently the folks at MGM have stressed to Cruise that doing that kind of film instead of an overblown action adventure is a better idea.

All of this comes on the heels of the announcement that Wagner and Cruise are moving into United Artists to make four films a year under their banner. Those films will be funded by MGM. At the same time, Cruise/Wagner still have a deal with Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder to fund other movies, sources tell me.

There are a couple of scenarios at play here. One is that MGM entertained proposals from several different producers for how to revive the UA label. At the same time, Cruise is said to have pitched a similar idea to Universal chief Ron Meyer recently. Spies in Hollywood say they saw the two lunching in the Universal commissary.

Whatever the case, MGM is betting on something that no one can predict right now: Tom Cruise’s future viability. While few stars have actually ever permanently tanked their own careers, Cruise is at a crucial juncture in his. His name is the punch line of several cruel jokes. A whole younger generation now thinks of him as a couch-jumping maniac who pushes Scientology and has a really strange personal life.

Will any of this matter, though, if Cruise gets hold of a terrific script and director? Maybe not. Movies are all about chemistry, and Cruise still has the potential to find it again onscreen. If so, MGM comes out the winner in this odd new plan. But it will all rest on Cruise’s immediate public relations. For example, the handling of his Nov. 18 wedding to Katie Holmes in Italy now takes on a whole new importance. If the thing looks screwy, or if it becomes a Scientology-fest that cuts out Holmes’ family, Cruise will be in bigger trouble than before.

'Borat': Hilarious and a Little Harmful

"Borat," is a wildly fun, brilliant comedy. If you see it this weekend, keep a close eye on Azamat’s refrigerator in a later scene. There’s something on a platter that should not be missed. It’s just one of the visual tricks that will have you screaming with laughter. As Larry David apparently said when he first saw the uncut version, "Stop the movie. I’m going to have a heart attack if you don’t.”

But as I told you Thursday, "Borat" also has its victims. One of them is Dharma Arthur, a 35-year-old television news producer who lost her job after Baron Cohen as Borat appeared live on her show in Jackson, Miss. Arthur is now working in Panama City, Fla.

But her tale of how Borat wound up on WAPT, and the consequences, is an unhappy one. If it’s true — and there’s no reason to believe it isn’t — Baron Cohen needs to send her a check from his first weekend proceeds.

All Dharma Arthur wants, though, is an apology.

Like all the others who were spoofed and conned, Arthur tells me she got a call from a publicist in July 2005 from something called One America Productions. Their Web site checked out, and Arthur welcomed “a little blond guy who looked college age” to her studio. He said they were shooting a documentary called “America: Behind the Propaganda” to show foreigners that Americans weren’t “evil.”

She had never seen “Da Ali G Show” on HBO nor had she ever heard of Borat. “I don’t have cable. I have two mortgages,” she said.

But Arthur did a little research. Thinking Borat was Muslim, she greeted him with deference. “Women aren’t supposed to touch men in public, so I didn’t make physical contact,” she said. She put Borat on the air with anchor Brad McMullan, she said, “and then things went haywire.

“He started acting crazy. For a minute I thought he was going to open his shirt and pull out a gun. I thought, 'Oh dear, I’ve let a lunatic in.'”

Arthur tried to abort the live interview and switch to a commercial, but there was a problem. “The equipment had frozen up. We tried to do it, but couldn’t.”

McMullan managed to end the interview, and Arthur — as you see in the movie — thought that was it. But as an intern escorted Borat out, he headed into the live weather segment and continued to upset the apple cart, so to speak. The weather guy pushed Borat off his set toward the female anchor, who was offstage. “She panicked slightly,” said Arthur.

“They kept it up until they were out of the station. His crew just looked on and said, 'He never goes out of character.' That’s when we knew it was a hoax.”

But it was too late. The brass at WATP, an ABC affiliate owned by Hearst-Argyle Broadcasting, immediately ceased all live interviews on the station. Arthur was moved to the 5 o’clock news. “Every decision I made was questioned and second-guessed," she said. "Everything I wrote was re-worded.” The female anchor was put in charge of the show, overriding Arthur.

“There were closed-door meetings about this. I was left completely out of the loop.”

Then, luckily, Hurricane Katrina hit. “That saved me, ironically,” she said, because Jackson was so hard hit. But when the Katrina emergency subsided, Arthur and the station reached a mutual agreement and she was gone in March 2006.

She didn’t get a new job until June, three months later. Her new station manager in Florida told me, “We wouldn’t have taken this so seriously.”

The three months of unemployment was a disaster. Thanks to Katrina, Arthur’s home in Jackson had substantial damage. She moved to another small home in Panama City, where she grew up. But she missed mortgage payments on both. “I had to borrow money to get out of foreclosure,” she said. “My credit cards were cancelled.”

All told, she was in the red for about $6,500. “That’s not a lot in New York,” she said, “but here it’s everything.”

Arthur still cannot get a home phone in Panama City, and of course she has no cable. She says she has a hole in her car “the size of a serving tray” that’s patched with tape. She’s relieved, at least, that her own image didn’t make the final cut of “Borat,” but she won’t be seeing the movie anyway.

“I can’t afford it,” she said.