Carly Simon's Jailhouse Rock | Madonna Wants Britney This Much | Liza Almost Didn’t Make It | Kate Winslet Brings Sexy Back — and Reading

Carly Simon's Jailhouse Rock

Thanksgiving was such a happy day for legendary pop singer songwriter Carly Simon that she had to lie down. She was wiped out. For eight years she’d campaigned for a new trial for, if not the release of, musician John Forte.

This week, President Bush came through with the pardon. Forte, who’s served seven years of a 14-year sentence, will be released on Dec. 22.

Often identified in the press as a member of the Fugees, Forte in fact is a versatile musician-producer who had won the respect of his colleagues when he was arrested in July 2000 at Newark airport, arriving from Houston.

Forte was charged with accepting a briefcase full of liquid cocaine in part of a DEA sting. At trial, held in Houston, the jury was presented with damning evidence that made it seem like he was involved in drug trafficking in the U.S.

Co-defendants who had turned state’s evidence fingered Forte and got off with little penalty. Forte maintained his innocence, but bad lawyering and judging helped do him in.

He stood trial in Houston, not exactly the most sympathetic place for a dreadlocked black hip hop musician, and received a mandatory 14-year sentence even though it was his first offense.

The musician didn’t squander his time in jail. Over the last several years he’s studied for and received a couple of advanced degrees. He’s become an articulate advocate for prisoners in his situation, and has been a popular and dedicate teacher of other inmates. Ironically, though he was convicted for drug trafficking, he’s not a drug user, has never sold drugs and had no prior connections to them.

He’d already met Carly Simon before his arrest in July 2008 through her musician son, Ben Taylor, whom he’d met through Simon’s cousin.

Forte was a regular around the Simons’ Martha Vineyard compound, participating in studio sessions with Carly and others. Simon immediately posted his bail when Forte called after his arrest.

From them on, because of her celebrity and access to the media, she was catalyzed into being his advocate. She and everyone he worked with knew he was innocent.

But even Simon’s media contacts didn’t always help. The very good writer Peter Wilkinson wrote a piece about Forte in Rolling Stone in 2002. But since then, sources say, Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner has ignored pleas from Forte’s friends for a follow-up. In the 1970s, Rolling Stone would have been all over this sort of case, declaring Forte’s innocence.

The tale of how Forte got his pardon will be one for a book, maybe Simon’s memoir when she writes it. It took action on several fronts, with Simon campaigning among many different elected officials over the years.

Here’s one twist: After being spurned by everyone in the Clinton administration, Simon finally turned to Republicans for help. Among them was Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, himself a musician. With the enthusiasm of Hatch and others, Simon kept pushing, hoping this day would come.

When Forte is released, a few days before Christmas, he will probably go straight to the Vineyard where scads of supporters will be waiting to welcome him home. He shouldn’t have any trouble getting music and book contracts, which means by the end of 2009, we should be hearing an enthralling saga.

If I were Mario Van Peebles or Terrence Howard, I’d be picking up the rights to the movie right now.

Madonna Wants Britney This Much

Madonna’s processed voice makes a cameo appearance on a track on Britney Spears’ new album, Circus.

The song is called "Kill the Lights," and Madonna’s trademark voice comes in at exactly 50 seconds, when she sings a whole verse including the line: "There’s more to me than what you see." The song is about paparazzi, one of the least interesting subjects known to man.

Later in the song — which should be a big dance hit in clubs — Britney makes a throwaway reference to Madonna. "Is Madonna gonna get the best of you?" she teases.

In fact, Madonna may want Spears back in her Kabbalah fold. She’s made what may be her first ever guest appearance on another pop singer’s album, maybe even for free.

"Circus" hits stores on Dec. 2, but it’s all over the Internet in different forms. You can hear the whole thing on Britney’s Web site.

It includes her lead single, "Womanizer." It’s a surprisingly well-produced, well-made album with lots of catchy dance tracks and tons of production tricks to make Spears sound like a singer of some kind. All of her vocals are run through a processor similar to the one Kanye West uses on his new CD. It makes "singers" out of warblers, the way CGI creates huge armies of soldiers or realistic tsunamis in new movies.

It’s so fake, it’s real!

Do many of Spears’ songs sound the same as others? Why yes! Does it matter that the sixth track, "Amy," and "Radar," the closer, strongly resemble "Womanizer"? In fact they’re the same song or made to sound that way. No!

And she does have a pair of superior pop recordings on there, called "Unusual You" and "Blur." Each sounds more like Madonna than Britney. If only the surgical team of producers who put this "Circus" in its tent would talk!

But whatever, whoever, how ever: "Unusual You," written by Sean Garrett and Candace Nelson, is a melodic gem, better than most post-teen popsters could hope for. It’s a sweet achievement. Let’s give her that.

I’m putting it on my Zen X-Fi MP3 player today, right alongside Aimee Mann and Julia Fordham. Now, that’s high praise!

Liza Almost Didn’t Make It

If it looked half as good on screen as it did Wednesday night in the Little Shubert Theater, then Rosie O’Donnell’s live, one hour variety show is a hit.

Looking at it later on tape, even Rosie was relieved. Maybe it was because Liza Minnelli nearly didn’t come through.

Sources say that Rosie and the crew were more than a little alarmed at dress rehearsal for the opening number, Liza’s "City Lights" number from the 30-year-old musical "The Act."

For one thing, the number is not part of Liza’s new Broadway show that arrives on Wednesday at the Palace Theater from a tryout in Rhode Island. She hadn’t done it in at least two decades and wasn’t totally certain about reconstructing all its parts.

At 62, Minnelli is a kind of living miracle-slash-soap opera. She’s been addicted to and recovered from everything, had both hips replaced, and suffered a bunch of husbands and bad relationships including the famous one with David Gest.

Still, there she was, right on the money on live television, with everyone waiting for her to fail. And she didn’t. "I’m amazed," said one member of the production. "If you’d seen her at dress rehearsal, you’d never think we’d be here."

Meantime, the guests came and went in orderly fashion, the skits were funny and Rosie mostly stayed out of trouble. She promised no politics, but did a little riff on Barack Obama. "It was three weeks before I stopped hugging every black person I saw," she said, crossing a TV line since race is never, ever discussed or mentioned, especially in the family hour.

When recently un-closeted Clay Aiken appeared on stage in his "Spamalot" costume, Rosie good-naturedly suggested that they had something in common. "We’re both fans of Gay-briel Byrne," she said, winking as she leaned on the first syllable. Aiken galloped off one, two, three.

A more important issue might have been what he revealed: that he’d spurned the "Spamalot" audience to be with Rosie, and that his understudy was filling in until he returned to this theater.

In the audience of more than 500 were many of Rosie’s friends and family including partner Kelli and their four fast growing beauties of kids: Parker, Chelsea, Blake and Vivian. What a brood!

And guess what? Rosie truly cracks them up! I’ve never seen kids so amused by a parent. They really enjoyed themselves. When I remarked to Kelli what a great job they’d done, she gave me the standard suburban parent’s reply: "I spend all my time driving carpool!"

Rosie’s pal, the salty and sultry actress Sharon Gless, flew in from Chicago, where she’s shooting a movie, just to be supportive. (And yes, she’s still married to "Cagney and Lacey" producer Barney Rosenzweig after all these years.)

Our hero, Liz Smith, was front and center, along with ABC’s Cynthia McFadden and her son, Spencer. Cosmetics mogul and famed Republican Georgette Mosbacher and her sister Lyn Paulsin were also among those who applauded Alanis Morissette, Jane Krakowski and Gloria Estefan loudly.

The best number of the night: Alec Baldwin, looking like an unmade bed in a rumpled jacket and pants, brought with him "special guest" Conan O’Brien, who got a pie in the face. Later, I found out that Alec had actually borrowed the jacket from an audience member at the last minute. Now, that’s Live TV!

The break out star of the night was Ne-Yo, the hot hot hot R&B singer who’s written and produced hits for countless artists from Jennifer Hudson ("Spotlight") to Beyonce ("Irreplaceable"). His performance was totally live and unadorned, unusual these days. It was also so real and honest that he probably got a big boost for his album, called "In My Own Words." A star isn’t born, maybe, but found!

At the after party down at the Palm’s new swanky outpost in Tribeca, Ne-Yo — real name Shaffer Smith — proved to be charming, articulate, and knowledgeable about the crazy music biz. He also seemed not just a little surprised to have gone over so well.

So where is Whitney Houston’s new album, I asked, begun in 1821? Doesn’t he have a song on there?

"She wants it to be right," he said diplomatically.

So now: Rosie and crew wait for NBC’s Ben Silverman to green light a season of shows. The good news: everyone involved has already signed five year contracts. I say, put them on every Sunday at 8pm, or after football, from February through the end of theater season in May, and watch Rosie take over New York!

Kate Winslet Brings Sexy Back — and Reading

This is Kate Winslet’s year. She’s got two Oscar performances in "The Reader" and "Revolutionary Road."

The good news is each of these films is top notch. It’s a total win-win situation for Winslet, who shows such an incredible breadth of talent in these two polar opposite films that critics and fans are going to start calling her "Meryl Streep Jr."

Stephen Daldry’s "The Reader" has a lot going for it, not the least of which is some sexy material. In a dry season "The Reader" benefits not just a little from Winslet’s cougar-esque Hanna’s many naked tanglings with Michael, played by 18-year-old David Kross, a German actor who had to learn English for the movie. (He’s supposed to be 15 on screen.)

"The Reader" is based on the novel by Bernard Schlink, which was highly praised, a best seller and a choice of Oprah’s Book Club. The subject is serious, since after Michael’s summer fling with Hanna circa 1964 he discovers that she’s on trial in Berlin as a war criminal.

Hanna and several other women are being tried as Nazi guards who caused the particular death of 300 Jewish women. A big element of their affair has been Michael reading to Hanna in postcoital moments. At the trial, he learns that she is illiterate, and on that point the whole story turns on her embarrassment and humiliation.

Winslet and Kross have sizzling chemistry in the film, and Ralph Fiennes — as the adult Michael — could not be better. Daldry is unsparing of Hanna as a villain, and makes no apologies for her participation in the Holocaust. Neither, frankly, does Hanna, and that’s what makes the movie so fascinating. There is no tendency to cliché. Rather, "The Reader" has also the earmarks of a Best Picture nominee, a movie about an intimate relationship set against the backdrop of an Important Issue.

Winslet is a revelation in "The Reader," and quite different than in "Rev Road." That she could have both movies in one season is really the achievement.

In "The Reader" she not only ages drastically, but she manages to convey with depth the emotions of a sexually voracious 40 year old and an embittered, incarcerated 60 year old. And, as it turns out, each of these personas also shares one more: a concentration camp guard with no regrets.

"The Reader" has its own strong foundation in a David Hare screenplay, not to mention a vibrant musical score by Nico Muhly and a gorgeous palate supplied by cinematographer Chris Menges. The only problem now is convincing Academy voters that Winslet should be considered "supporting" here instead of lead since she’s on screen most of the time. She will go into competition with Penelope Cruz, Viola Davis, Amy Adams, Marisa Tomei and Rosemarie Dewitt — just to name a few.

One thing about "The Reader" — unlike, say, "Valkyrie" and "Defiance," you will not see any swastikas or Nazi uniforms. You will hear much discussion of the Holocaust, however, which makes it itself the opposite of "Valkyrie" in its subject matter and intentions.