Harvey Weinstein Finds Cinderalla for Chicago

Harvey’s Choice

After considerable searching and Sturm und Drang , even by film industry standards, Miramax Films co-chairman Harvey Weinstein has settled on a somewhat obscure director, mostly of TV films, for his high-profile movie version of the Broadway musical hit Chicago . The L.A. Observer has learned that Rob Iscove has been given a development deal to come up with a concept for the movie.

It’s an unusual arrangement, but sources said that the development deal would in all likelihood lead to Mr. Iscove directing the film, which will star Goldie Hawn and Madonna. Mr. Iscove’s agent, Steve Glick of the William Morris Agency, confirmed the Mr. Iscove had been hired.

What’s so surprising about Mr. Weinstein’s choice is that there was no shortage of veteran movie musical directors-including Stanley Donen and Herbert Ross-who longed to steer the movie. (There was even talk that Martin Scorsese wanted to produce and “godfather” the project, though not necessarily to direct it.)

By contrast, Mr. Iscove is inexperienced in the film world. Though his credits say he helped choreograph such feature films as Jesus Christ Superstar, Silent Movie and The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox , his TV credits consist of Romeo and Juliet on Ice , starring Dorothy Hamill, and telefilms like Terror on Track 9 and Mission of the Shark . Sources said that when Mr. Iscove’s name first surfaced in connection with the movie version of Chicago , he was resisted by both Ms. Hawn, who has director approval, and by the film’s screenwriter, Larry Gelbart, who does not. (Mr. Gelbart was executive producer on the TV series M.A.S.H. ) At the time, it appeared that Mr. Weinstein and his candidate had hit a major roadblock.

But Mr. Weinstein, in his inimitable style, persisted and persisted. Exactly why remains a subject of speculation. According to Mr. Weinstein, Mr. Iscove is in keeping with his penchant for offbeat director choices and, besides, “I did a tremendous amount of research on Rob.” He maintains that he considered Mr. Iscove’s handling of the darkly sophisticated Profit series-which was canceled after a few airings because of rotten ratings-“nothing short of great,” and laughed off the series’ blackhole numbers. Then, he says, he sneaked a peek at Mr. Iscove’s most recent project, directing the multiracial version of Cinderella for The Wonderful World of Disney . “I saw a rough cut, and I loved it,” Mr. Weinstein said. “I also spoke to Whitney [Houston] and Whoopi [Goldberg] and [producer] Craig Zadan, who really loved working with Rob.”

Mr. Weinstein insists he had already made up his mind to hire Mr. Iscove and was not at all influenced by the fact that Cinderella’ s airing during the November sweeps gave ABC its highest household ratings in the 7 P.M. to 9 P.M. time slot since the 1991 Super Bowl, attracting 50 percent of kids between ages 2 to 11 who were watching TV that night, and a 70 percent share of girls ages 2 to 11. Such statistics put Mr. Iscove in Disney’s Favorite Director Land, and, although he has no overall development deal with the studio, it couldn’t be lost on Mr. Weinstein that a project with Mr. Iscove attached might be looked upon favorably by Miramax’s parent company. Especially if the movie goes over budget.

Mr. Iscove is now working with Mr. Gelbart to come up with another draft of the script. Sources say Ms. Hawn’s initial resistance to the director eased after Mr. Weinstein pledged to bring in choreographic help and anything else that she felt was needed during the production with Mr. Iscove at the helm. Madonna, meanwhile, bonded with Mr. Iscove during a meeting and is enthusiastic about his taking over. And insiders say that Marty Richards, the original musical’s producer who also has director approval, appears ready to go along with whomever and whatever Mr. Weinstein wants.

But some on Broadway and in Hollywood are seething at the news of Mr. Iscove’s selection on such an adult and desirable project, which was first taken to Broadway in 1975 by none other than the late, great Bob Fosse. A source close to Chicago claimed that the real reason behind Mr. Weinstein’s championing of Mr. Iscove had more to do with Mr. Weinstein’s ego than with Mr. Iscove’s talent. “It’s pretty clear that Harvey’s looking at this guy as a hand puppet because Harvey wants to be the one who really directs the movie,” explained someone with knowledge of the situation. “He knows that another director with more experience and confidence wouldn’t let Harvey come near it.”

As proof of Mr. Weinstein’s intentions, another source pointed to the fact that Mr. Weinstein barely considered respected British director Nicholas Hytner as a contender, even though his candidacy was being pushed by several people involved with the project. One Miramax executive said that Mr. Hytner, who was eager to direct the movie musical, was knocked out of the box because of his “leaden” film adaptation last year of Arthur Miller’s stage classic The Crucible . Mr. Hytner’s adaptation was a box-office failure but a critical success with, among others, New York Times film critic Janet Maslin, who put the film in her list of the top 10 films of 1996. (Apparently, Broadway producer Garth Drabinsky, unlike Mr. Weinstein, thought Mr. Hytner worth taking a gamble on. It was announced this month that Mr. Drabinsky has hired Mr. Hytner to direct a musical adaptation of the film classic The Sweet Smell of Success , scheduled to debut in the fall of 1999.)

Mr. Weinstein took great umbrage when told about the reports swirling that what he really wants is to direct. “I don’t even pretend to be that egotistical,” he said. “I have no skills as a director, and I have no thoughts of directing. Ever, ever, ever. Now, if you’re talking about owning a baseball team, then mea culpa. “

But a Miramax insider seemed to contradict the boss. “Look, there was a time when Harvey did talk about directing, and he would have loved to direct Chicago . But he’s gotten over it. The guy is way too fucking busy now.… Though certainly Harvey will have tremendous input on this movie, like he does in everything.”

-Nikki Finke

Comedy Tonight

The invitation said “An Evening of Comedy,” and, thank God, most of the Home Box Office-employed comedians on stage in the Museum of Television and Radio’s auditorium on Dec. 15 stuck to the advertised theme. Because, the thing is, when comedians try to be serious, they aren’t funny.

Tracey Ullman was describing the great pains she has gone through to portray an “African-American” when Garry Shandling offered a critique.

“That’s wrong, the African-American,” said Mr. Shandling. He shook his head, disapprovingly.

The crowd laughed. Ms. Ullman said something about hating political correctness.

“Let’s make fun of the Jews!” said an enthusiastic-sounding David Cross, one half of the comedy team (the other half is Bob Odenkirk) behind Home Box Office’s Mr. Show .

“That’s simple,” replied Ms. Ullman. “They love being made fun of.”

Chris Rock put his hands in the air as if to show that he wasn’t armed. “I didn’t say that,” he said, looking in the direction of The Transom.

“Gee,” said Mr. Shandling to Ms. Ullman, “the English make great nannies.”

But it was HBO chief executive Jeff Bewkes who set the evening’s hilarity bar high when he said, in all apparent seriousness, that his boss, Time Warner chairman Gerald Levin, who was in the audience, was “someone whom I don’t think of as a suit.” He added that in private, Mr. Levin was one of the funniest people he knew, with the possible exception of the Museum of Television and Radio’s president, Robert Batscha.

Before Mr. Batscha got down to his moderating job, the lights were dimmed for a video that showed the numerous comedians who had performed or are currently performing on HBO. The video, which included shots of Paul Reiser, Howie Mandel and Bill Maher, also showed that stand-up comedians are especially gullible when it comes to choosing trendy, silly-looking hair styles.

Mr. Batscha then asked each of the six panelists to describe how they managed to come to work for HBO. After rambling on for a while, Mr. Shandling asked the audience, “Am I still talking?” Alas, he was.

Arliss star Robert Wuhl tried to get earnest there for a minute when he said that Billy Crystal was a normal guy who had been married for, “like, 24 years” or something, but Mr. Shandling put an end to that.

“And only recently has he, uh-oh …” The voice of Larry Sanders’ alter ego trailed off, leaving the audience to imagine any transgression they wanted.

Mr. Wuhl’s moment of sincerity was in response to Mr. Bewkes’ question to the panel wondering if comedians had “tortured psyches.”

“For me it’s just about, you know, trying to love everyone … and to be super-duper funny,” said Mr. Cross in his best Haight-Ashbury voice.

Mr. Cross’ partner, Mr. Odenkirk, attempted his own answer but was cut off by Mr. Shandling. “Shut up and let me tell you something,” he said. “I have a great fucking life.”

Minutes later, Mr. Shandling was asking Mr. Rock, “You’re in pain, aren’t you?”

“I’m hurtin’ right now,” replied Mr. Rock.

The discussion moved to Mr. Rock’s wife. “Where is she?” Mr. Shandling asked.

“Fuckin’ somebody,” replied Mr. Rock.

“That makes you happy?” said Mr. Shandling.

“It saves me the trouble,” said Mr. Rock.

Mr. Shandling then wanted to know if there was any way he could get in on the action. (And action seemed to be on Mr. Shandling’s mind, given his seeming captivation with actress Angelina Jolie-who also happens to be Jon Voight’s daughter-at the post-panel dinner at the “21” Club.)

When a journalist in the audience tried to ask another question, Mr. Rock wanted to know who the interrogator was.

“I’m your illegitimate son,” replied the journalist.

“I’m Chris Rock, not Bill Cosby,” said Mr. Rock.

Mr. Cross then asked the audience members if they had any questions about Real Sex or Sex Bytes , HBO’s titillating late-night programming, which Messrs. Cross and Odenkirk have lampooned in one of their Mr. Show promos.

“That stuff isn’t real,” Mr. Odenkirk guffawed with Midwestern disbelief. “People don’t have sex.”

As the discussion began to wind down, Mr. Odenkirk announced that he had a great idea for a sketch: “A museum about television!” he said. “It just treats it like it’s really somethin’.”

Mr. Batscha seemed to sense that the panel was beginning to turn, and he started to make his big closing speech. Too late. Mr. Shandling interjected. “Bob,” he wanted to know, “are you high?”

“Oh, my God, what’s wrong with the water!” Mr. Odenkirk shrieked and slammed down the beverage glass that had been put before him. “What the hell have you done!”

Earlier in the evening, The Transom had asked Mr. Cross-who was dressed in a tatty orange-and-blue striped sweater, beat-up Nikes and brown pants-what he might do if the “21” Club management forced him to wear the house jacket and tie in order to enforce its dress code. (Actually, it turns out that the dinner was in one of the upstairs rooms, where anything goes.) Mr. Cross had said that he would accept the jacket but that he would “shit” in one of the pockets before he gave it back to them. Just a little present.

Mr. Cross wasn’t totally unmannered, however. As the guests were finishing their dinner, he strode into the middle of the room, wearing a large trench coat over his sweater. He thanked them for coming and said of the elegant spread, “We redid it and we hope you like it.” Then, before leaving, Mr. Cross assured the crowd: “I talked to Gerard downstairs, and let me tell you, it’s on me.”

The Transom Also Hears

… After putting in a good word for one of the candidates for President of South Korea in a live video feed from New York on Friday, Dec. 12, Michael Jackson stayed in town long enough to do another weird thing. Three days later, at the Blue Velvet Boxing Club on West 24th Street (the place Daniel Day-Lewis and Naomi Campbell go to get punched in the face), Mr. Jackson sat for half an hour watching Prince Naseem Hamed spar in preparation for his featherweight championship bout Dec. 19 at Madison Square Garden. The soft-spoken pop star and Mr. Hamed are apparently friends; they met last spring, backstage after a show in Sheffield, England. But that doesn’t mean the germ-paranoid Mr. Jackson would let the sweaty bruiser touch him. Mr. Hamed took off his boxing glove to shake hands with the singer; Mr. Jackson kept his surgical glove on.

-Carl Swanson Harvey Weinstein Finds Cinderalla for Chicago