It's rare that a Steven Spielberg movie gets a "test" screening and it's even rarer when the famed director delays showing his latest creation to the press because he's still tinkering with it.
But these are dark and stormy times. And in a year when nearly everything that's come out of Hollywood has been sub-par, maybe "Uncle Max," as the Paltrows call him, knows best.
Spielberg was supposed to show "The Terminal," starring Tom Hanks and Catherine Zeta-Jones, to the press by now. It opens on June 18, no matter what, coming from his own DreamWorks Studio on the heels of the huge success of "Shrek 2."
But Spielberg suddenly delayed the advance showings of the film, saying he needed more time. Immediately, Hollywood's phones, beepers and pagers began ringing in snarky unison: It must be a bomb!
The truth is, I am told, Spielberg may not change anything at all once he's given "The Terminal" a new inspection. Or he may change things ever so slightly. The word was that he and star Hanks were not satisfied with the ending, and that "tinkering" was going on. Maybe that test audience didn't like what they saw, some guessed.
But the screening, according to paperwork I received from The National Research Group, was a pretty big success. A total of 547 people saw the film on May 26. Only one of them walked out (and you can bet Jeffrey Katzenberg is looking for that person now.) Of the whole, 531 of them bothered to fill out questionnaires, a very high 97 percent completion rate.
And what did these grand jurors say? According to the report, 55 percent (293 people) said it was excellent, 35 percent (183) said it was very good, 8 percent (42) said it was good, and 2 percent (11) said it was fair. At the bottom of the page, someone has written the number 85.7 and circled it, which I assume means the overall percentage that would recommend the film to friends. Since the whole page looks a little like a high school math test, I'm taking the 85.7 as B+.
Spielberg, who is a perfectionist, probably thinks he can get an A if he can have his paper back (this is an extended metaphor), so that's what he's doing.
Am I worried about "The Terminal"? Not in the least. As an unabashed Spielberg fan, I've seen him scale the highest heights, rarely stumbling. True, "AI: Artificial Intelligence" would be better without its last section. But "Minority Report" and "Catch Me If You Can" were each genius, and the bulk of the Spielberg oeuvre — from "Jaws" through "Saving Private Ryan" — forms a remarkable body of work that most directors would give up their mistresses, Xanax prescriptions, and their customized Mustang convertibles for.
A week and a day before the 10th anniversary of the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman — and O.J. Simpson is busy giving interviews proclaiming his innocence.
But there are a lot of people who worked on the case, in particular for the defense, just now starting to speak out to the extent that they can. Yesterday I told you about Dr. Rob Huizenga, Simpson's physician. Today, meet Dr. Saul Faerstein, the forensic psychiatrist who was Simpson's shrink during the summer of 1994, when he first went to jail.
Faerstein had worked on cases for "Dream Team" lawyers Robert Shapiro and Johnnie Cochran before, which is how he got called. He first saw Simpson on June 15, the same day as Huizenga. The next time he had a meeting with him was at Robert Kardashian's house on Friday June 17. He was in Kardashian's second floor library with several others including coroner Michael Baden and criminologist Henry Lee when Simpson slipped away in his Bronco.
Faerstein told me yesterday: "I saw O.J. two or three times a week that summer in jail until September when the trial" — really, preliminary hearings — "started."
Unlike Huizenga, Faerstein never testified in the trial. He could only have been called as a defense witness. But Faerstein's knowledge of Simpson's psyche would have made for explosive revelations under cross-examination.
"If I would have been helpful to O.J., would I not have been called?" he asked me rhetorically.
It's an observation that speaks volumes.
I told you yesterday that Huizenga testified that Simpson was limping when he first met him. He told the court that he walked like "Tarzan's grandfather." He told me that Simpson appeared to have been in the "fight of his life." The murders had taken place only three days earlier. Video of Simpson at his daughter's dance recital four nights earlier — just hours before the murders — did not show him in that condition.
I asked Faerstein, who saw Simpson for the first time on that same day as Huizenga, whether the former football star seemed incapable of having the physical strength to have viciously killed two people.
"I'm not aware of anything that would support that conclusion," Faerstein replied. Of the evidence introduced that Simpson was in poor physical condition prior to the murders, Faerstein — offering just an opinion and no tangible evidence — told me: "I would be skeptical."
Sometimes items from this column are worth a rerun, even when they're not very old. On March 29 I told you about a former Playboy playmate, Bridget Marks, who claimed in the New York Daily News that she was in danger of losing custody of her two kids to their father, St. Louis casino owner John Aylsworth, in a court battle in New York.
This week, Marks did lose custody to Aylsworth and his wife. In a bizarre twist, the judge ruled that Marks had poisoned the twin girls against their father, and that was reason enough to remove them. Mind you, the children were born from an affair that Marks had with a very married Aylsworth. Marks is the only parent they have ever known.
As far as I know, no one bothered to look into Aylsworth's background. So here it is again, just in case there's an appeal: Aylsworth, it was noted in the Daily News article, as owner of President Casinos, had defaulted on $100 million worth of bonds in 2000 out there in St. Louis.
What the Daily News didn't include: That Aylsworth and President Casinos, according to stories in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, were fined $107,000 by the Mississippi Gaming Commission for making $8,600 in illegal contributions to the re-election campaigns of St. Louis Mayor Clarence Harmon, his comptroller, and two aldermen — all Democrats — between September 1999 and August 2000. When the scandal broke in St. Louis, Harmon et al. lost their primary election and, consequently, became a one-term administration.
In exchange, Harmon lobbied the gaming commission to keep one of President Casino's competitors from opening a casino that might harm their business.
According to the Post-Dispatch, "the Gaming Commission voted to fine President $25,000 for the illegal contributions. It also fined President $82,000 for improper bookkeeping including improper check-cashing procedures, failure to properly log when cashiers began and stopped their work and not keeping proper track of jackpot payoffs."
The Gaming Commission's executive director also told the paper that President was the first casino in Missouri to be sanctioned for violating a law that bars campaign contributions to elected officials by casino operators.
But even the Post-Dispatch didn't catch the entirety of what was going on with Aylsworth and political donations.
This column has discovered, thanks to the Web site Opensecrets.org, that Aylsworth's outfit, President Casinos, donated another $14,000 in soft money over a six-week period from May 8 to June 27, 2000 to the Democratic National Committee Non-Federal accounts. Those funds could possibly have been distributed back to the Harmon campaign, or at the very least have been credited to Harmon's fund-raising abilities. (President Casinos also donated $2,000 in 1999 to the DNC Non-Federal account.) It's the only time in the last 14 years that President Casinos made political donations of any kind.
Meantime, back in New York, the advocacy group Lawyers for Children — which seemed, according to the Daily News, impressed enough by Aylsworth's lifestyle in Malibu to recommend moving Marks' children there — has its own problems. According to federal tax filings, the organization ran at a $108,000 deficit last year despite (or maybe because of) paying out over $2.5 million in salaries and compensation to its staffers.