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Alec Baldwin's flop

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”I’m starting all over again,” says Alec Baldwin. ”The Marrying Man was the biggest mistake of my career.” A critical and commercial disaster that came and went a month ago, The Marrying Man continues to plague its star. The making of the film — described by all parties as intensely difficult — whipped up a maelstrom of bad press that tarnished Baldwin’s previously impeccable reputation and continues to this day. On this frigid April afternoon in Chicago, where Baldwin waits for a knock on his trailer door that will call him out to shoot the next scene in the forthcoming Prelude to a Kiss, the 33-year-old actor with the matinee-idol good looks is not in a forgiving mood. ”I’m not some psycho — which the press and Disney would have you believe,” he says.

If Baldwin sounds bitter and angry, he is. The Marrying Man, a frothy Neil Simon comedy about a millionaire playboy who falls — repeatedly — for a sultry Vegas chanteuse, was troubled from the start. Baldwin’s now-notorious battles with Disney executives and the widespread depiction of him and costar Kim Basinger as spoiled prima demons helped make the movie a professional and personal crisis unlike anything he had ever thought possible. ”I was so naive,” Baldwin says. ”Never in my wildest dreams…”

The experience left him deeply cynical about the movie industry and so disgusted with the press, he says, that this article will be the last interview he ever gives. But in a series of 11 extraordinary conversations that began even before The Marrying Man had finished shooting, Baldwin poured out his feelings and frustrations, talking at length about the troubled production and his controversial relationship with Basinger, 37. Concerned with getting all the details in this story correct, Baldwin would call often to amplify a point, take issue with whatever new report of his behavior hit the press, praise an ally, or eviscerate an enemy:

Disney Studios: ”Totally evil, greedy pigs.”

Disney Studios chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg: ”He’s the eighth dwarf — Greedy.”

Pulitzer Prize-winner Neil Simon: ”About as deep as a bottle cap.”

Basinger: ”I love her. And I get carried away over the things that I love.”

Baldwin came to the volatile production with a résumé that was a textbook of smart career moves. After getting his start on the soap opera The Doctors, he was noticed in strong supporting roles in Working Girl, Talk Radio, Married to the Mob, and Great Balls of Fire!, then leads in Beetlejuice and Miami Blues. But it was his big role in last year’s The Hunt for Red October that moved him onto Hollywood’s short list of major male stars. A warm romantic comedy seemed a logical next step to consolidate his reputation as a hardworking, versatile actor. Then, along came The Marrying Man.

In the wake of the film’s poor reviews and worse box office (it earned a disappointing $11.5 million in four weeks before vanishing from most movie screens this month), the dispute over responsibility for this poor showing has intensified. Baldwin puts the blame squarely on Disney, a studio known for its ethic of economy, and on studio head Jeffrey Katzenberg. In the famous (and gleefully parodied) ”Katzenberg memo” earlier this year, the executive argued that stars and directors would have to get used to even leaner budgets. As Baldwin sees it, that’s part of the problem. ”A Disney movie is cheap, and looks cheap,” Baldwin says. ”A Disney movie is Pretty Woman, a movie about a hooker and a corporate raider — in the age of AIDS and the savings and loan crisis. Disney is about a bunch of guys who took the real creative beauty of a legendary studio, and in 10 minutes strip-mined the shit out of it and lined their own pockets. I think their products are dismissed.” Reminded that Pretty Woman made close to $200 million, he is unshakable. ”So what? Ronald Reagan was President. There are freak accidents.”

And The Marrying Man, Baldwin says readily, was the biggest accident he has ever been a part of. Hints of trouble first appeared in two dramatic Premiere articles that called the movie a ”production from hell.” According to the magazine, Basinger caused countless delays; Baldwin threw chairs and swore at crew members. It’s true the set was troubled. The two stars had ”an us-versus- them mentality,” as one actor on the film put it to Entertainment Weekly, and even such Baldwin allies as Marrying Man editor Michael Jablow concede that ”Alec can be a hothead when pushed.” Baldwin himself doesn’t deny that his behavior on the set was explosive at times, but he claims — and other informed sources agree — that the calamitous press he and Basinger received was overblown. His temper skyrocketed, he maintains, because he simply wanted to make a good movie and was thwarted by a studio that cares about money more than art.

Now he wishes he had spoken up sooner in his and Basinger’s defense. ”I wasn’t going to, you know, go on Oprah, because I never dreamed that people would actually believe these lies that were printed about me and Kim,” he says. But the charges hurt. ”Do you think I’m an ass—-?” he asks me during another interview, not altogether facetiously. ”Because I read all these articles, and I think, ‘Jeez, this guy is a real ass—-”’

On the Chicago set of Prelude to a Kiss, much nicer words come up when crew members are asked about their film’s leading man. ”Alec is only thinking about what is good for the movie,” director Norman Rene says. Echoes costar Meg Ryan, ”He’s a real actor. He’s extremely involved in what he does, yes, but he just wants what’s good for the film.” In the movie based on the Obie-winning play now on Broadway, Ryan portrays a woman whose body becomes inhabited by the soul of an old geezer, to the great dismay of her husband (Baldwin).

A stiff wind is blowing off Lake Michigan and the mercury is hovering in the 30s on this late April day, but in the scene Baldwin and Ryan are shooting it’s supposed to be balmy. Baldwin stands uncomplaining in his beige tweed jacket and marmalade-colored silk shirt, his hair gelled into a leading-man helmet, while a technician wires him with a hidden mike.

”I love the cold,” he says. ”This movie is like night and day, compared with what I went through on The Marrying Man.” He often says he’s sick of talking about all that, yet he returns to it again and again. ”I spent a year and a half working hard,” he says, ”and all I have to show for it is The Marrying Man.”

To make up for that lost time, Baldwin has put his career in overdrive. After Prelude, he begins shooting Walter Hill’s The Fugitive in July, and in the fall comes Patriot Games, the sequel to Red October. He also plans to produce as well as star in an adaptation of James Lee Burke’s A Morning for Flamingoes, about a Louisiana detective. But there will be no more movies for Disney.

Three hours later, the scene wrapped, Baldwin strides through the alley toward his trailer, back again on Disney: ”Jeffrey Katzenberg is a short, bald, uppity, greedy megalomaniac,” he says with a certain relish. And what would he do if he came face-to-face with the man some call the most powerful in Hollywood? ”I will never see him again,” he sniffs. ”I believe God would protect me from that — just like I wouldn’t get AIDS.”

Katzenberg is a bit more restrained: He simply calls Baldwin and Basinger ”a couple of irresponsible actors” and declines to comment on the details of Baldwin’s charges. As for the actor’s vow never to work with Disney again, Katzenberg tells Entertainment Weekly, ”I’ve learned in this business never to say never.”

The first punch in the Katzenberg-Disney-Baldwin fight was thrown, sources from the film say, by Katzenberg: When Baldwin waffled about signing his contract, Katzenberg supposedly said, ”Are you in, or are you out? I could get the guard at the gate to do this role, because the material’s that good.” According to Baldwin, the material wasn’t good at all, and he agreed to sign only if specific changes were made. He felt Simon’s characters were caricatures, and he was also concerned that the budget for the many musical numbers was inadequate. Katzenberg, he says, swore the problems would be solved, and he apparently wanted the two stars. Novice director Jerry Rees preferred Julia Roberts for the singer, but Disney insisted on Basinger.

”That’s what’s so strange about this whole affair,” says one of the production’s senior crew members. ”They wanted Kim and Alec so desperately, and got them because they promised them things, and then they walked all over them. It just doesn’t make sense.”

Baldwin says he and Basinger knew they were in for a rough shoot when they met with Simon and Disney executives at the Beverly Hills Hilton for the first read-through and ”not a word had been changed. We got into the room, and everything was about kissing Neil’s ass. The only changes he wanted to do were to add more jokes. Which were not funny.” The executives, he says, sided with Simon. ”We were expected to shut up and do it, which is how Disney works. I could have called it in, taken my money, and said, ‘F— you.’ That’s what most people do.” Including, he adds, Simon. ”That’s why I’m down on him. He got his money and split. He hung us out to dry.” His anger is building now. ”Neil Simon,” he concludes, ”is the Antonio Salieri of the American theater. You can print that.” (Simon refused to comment for this article.)

The eldest of six children from a working-class Massapequa, Long Island, family, Baldwin traces his uncompromising work ethic to his father, whose death from cancer in 1983 devastated the close family. During the filming, he remembers thinking of his father, a schoolteacher denied promotions because he stubbornly refused to bow to a supervisor he detested. ”Don’t be like Dad,” Alec’s younger brother Billy (who stars in the upcoming Backdraft) warned him. But Baldwin kept fighting. He fought over the budget, the script, even the poster. Disney, he says, wanted him to pose lifting Basinger triumphantly in the air. They refused, because it was ”silly” and Disney had used the same idea in the ads for Pretty Woman and Green Card (and more recently One Good Cop); the poster Disney ultimately chose was a drawing that little resembled the stars.

Frustrated and enraged by such tactics, Baldwin says at times he punched holes in walls. Film editor Jablow says, ”The only sin Alec and Kim really committed was that they cared too much.”

Other veterans of the battles are less sympathetic. One actress remembers Basinger pushing aside Rees and all but directing a scene herself. Others say Baldwin smashed a cellular phone to the ground and treated the crew rudely. He doesn’t deny the phone episode — he calls Disney executives ”phone monkeys” and laughs that the destruction of a phone was a metaphorical response — but says he was abrasive only to ”spies.” ”Disney is…very blame-centered. Somebody turns to somebody and says, ‘The budget is a million dollars over for two weeks! You find out where you can cut it, or you’re fired!’ And it goes down the chain. The art directors came to me and told me that. Set designers.”

Baldwin isn’t the only star to have gripes about Disney’s penchant for penny-pinching. Madonna says she is interested in doing the musical Evita for the studio, but she’s holding out for a bigger budget, which she believes is needed to do the material justice. ”I’ll do it if everybody can agree how much money they’re going to spend on it,” she says. Michael Keaton, who stars in Disney’s current One Good Cop, also butted heads with the studio: ”They have a tendency to be cheap. It’s important to mention that if I were in business, I would absolutely not spend money unnecessarily. The big mistake they make is being cheap in the wrong places.”

Baldwin says he got so frustrated that at one point he offered to pay $150,000, ”one-tenth of what I was making,” to reshoot a scene he believed was crucial, and Disney refused. He made another offer after the film wrapped, when he and Basinger were needed for reshoots he felt were unnecessary. The money proffered was $250,000, and this time Disney countered with its own offer: Do the reshoots or be sued. ”They are lawsuit maniacs,” says Baldwin.

But the worst was yet to come.

Shortly after the reshoots of The Marrying Man were completed, Premiere ran its articles. Baldwin and others believe some of the damaging anecdotes were leaked to the magazine by participants in the film who were outraged that he and Basinger refused to toe the Disney line. Premiere editor Susan Lyne says the magazine talked to more than a dozen sources who confirmed the stories. Baldwin says he and Basinger were warned by Disney executives to keep their mouths shut. ”Someone called (us) up,” he says in an Italian restaurant near the Prelude set, ”and said, ‘If you take us on, you’re going to be sorry.”’ He claims Disney waged a ”misinformation” campaign he compares to ”Hitler’s big lie” — and to make the point that by then he and Basinger were fed up with the whole affair, Baldwin sweeps his menu off the table. It slams into a wall and hits the floor with a thud.

”The idea that I did these things to hurt the movie — this is bullshit!” he fumes. ”I’ve never had a problem like this in my life. This was a contrived smear. There are movies that have 10 times the problems we had. Actors with drug and alcohol problems, directors with drug and alcohol problems, and those people are directly responsible for ruining movies. And I never hear about them. And you know why? Because if that stuff gets out, it’s because the studios want it to.”

He feels the picture of Basinger — including the notion that she would wash her hair only with Evian water — was particularly mean-spirited. ”They wrote that she had these people walking around her with umbrellas, like Arabian slaves. But she has it in her contract that she can’t shoot in the sun and they know that.” He says she’s prone to sun poisoning.

Jablow agrees that much of the press coverage was overblown and says someone connected to the production was indeed leaking damaging stories about the stars. (Director Rees won’t talk about production specifics but says he enjoyed working with Baldwin and Basinger, whose on-screen chemistry he likens to that of ”Tracy and Hepburn.”) Jablow heard one particularly bizarre fable: Before her nude scene, Basinger took off all her clothes, walked in front of the crew naked, and cooed, ”Here it is, boys. Come and get it!”

”Which is ridiculous,” Jablow says, ”because Kim didn’t even have a nude scene.”

Baldwin believes the bad press doomed the movie. He and Basinger were in his Chicago hotel suite the day it opened and had the reviews faxed in. ”That day was the worst,” he says, because nearly every review mentioned reports of their bad behavior.

”We just sort of sat there and thought it was sad. And unfair…In Disney’s zeal to get me and her, they killed the movie.”

The Marrying Man had one white-hot bright spot: It made possible the relationship that Baldwin calls ”the most important thing in my life.”

One of Hollywood’s most talked-about romances started before its participants even met. ”Kim came into my office before we started shooting,” remembers Rees. ”I had a picture of Alec and one of her pinned next to each other on a wall so we could see how they looked together. And Kim looked at them and broke out into a smile and said very softly, ‘We are going to make a terrific couple…”’

Their travails, Baldwin says, only solidified their relationship. Over the past year, he has steadfastly refused to talk about the romance, but on the Prelude set he spoke about it freely. ”This is not some Hollywood romance that’s played out between ‘action’ and ‘cut,”’ he says. Eventually, they hope to marry and add children to their already crowded household: They have 12 dogs, including a boxer (the new mother of six pups) they rescued after the dog had been hit by a car. They recently bought a large apartment in New York with a view of Central Park and plan to move in later this year.

When the couple is in public, as they rarely are, they capture all eyes. ”They look like Aphrodite and Dionysius,” says Prelude author Craig Lucas. When the line is relayed to him, Baldwin bursts out laughing. ”That’s true of her. She’s like this thing. She’s striking; her hair, her skin color, her bone structure, her body…” But the perception of them, he says, is all wrong. They are homebodies who prefer quiet nights alone, reading and watching favorite movies. Does that mean two of the major sex symbols of our time lead a monkish existence? Baldwin smiles. ”Look at her. Look at me. We are both healthy. What do you think?”

Two weeks after the Prelude interviews, my phone rings one Thursday at twilight. It is Baldwin calling, once again, to clear things up. During some of our discussions, the actor was explosive and seething; in others, upset and melancholy. Today he is all of the above. Another interview has been published, and he again feels misunderstood by a writer. He is beginning to think he talks too candidly. And for what? Reporters print his incendiary comments without the context, and he’s going to stop talking to them after we finish. ”Does that mean this is your last interview?” I ask. ”Absolutely,” he says.

One of Baldwin’s most recent zingers reads as though it was aimed at CAA chairman Mike Ovitz. ”I don’t give a shit about what Mike Ovitz thinks of me. I care what Mike Ovitz’s gardener thinks of me,” he was quoted as saying. What he meant, he says, is that he makes movies thinking not of execs but of the average Joe who treks to the cineplex once a week with his wife. ”I feel like I’m in the audience with everyone else,” he says emotionally. ”I love movies. As a child, I watched every movie in the world. I remember my passion as a viewer. And I don’t want that to die.

”The picture that has been painted of me has been of this cocky wiseass. And I feel so unlike that. In many areas, I feel so insecure.”

In conversation, Baldwin seems anything but insecure. With no prodding, he offers astute, considered opinions on everything from the environment to the contras. But he wants it known that ”as much as I’m ambitious, I don’t think I’m cut out for the movie business. I really think that for my own sanity, I’m not cut out for it. Don’t rule out the idea that one day I might just chuck it all and open a tree farm somewhere.” Or that he might run for office: Baldwin, a true-blue Democrat who studied political science at George Washington University, has always been drawn to politics and is very involved in the Creative Coalition, an advocacy group that fights against censorship.

Baldwin goes back to a day during the Marrying Man reshoots when costar Robert Loggia remarked that ”’the light has gone out of your eyes.’ Which was very true at that point.” And, he says, that gleam of energy and concern is the greatest gift an actor can have.

But these days, with Prelude going swimmingly and his life returning to normal, Baldwin feels he’s finally putting The Marrying Man behind him.

”You know,” he says softly, ”I feel like I’m getting the light back.”

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