- The Washington Times - Friday, December 15, 2000

LOS ANGELES — Mel Gibson and Sandra Bullock are staking their popularity on rival comedies this Christmas season. In a manner of speaking, each has chosen an "undercover" pretext.

"What Women Want," which opens today, relies on Mr. Gibson as a playboy Chicago advertising executive, Nick Marshall, who acquires a miraculous ability to eavesdrop on the thoughts of women after surviving a cartoonish brush with electrocution. He uses this inside dope caddishly, to brain-pick and undermine a new boss, played by Helen Hunt. Better instincts persuade Nick to make a clean breast of things slightly before the fade-out catches him permanently short of honor.

"Miss Congeniality," which opens next Friday, deploys Miss Bullock as the dedicated and somewhat asexual FBI agent Gracie Hart to be a ringer in the Miss United States beauty pageant in San Antonio, Texas.

A killer appears to be stalking one or more of the contestants, whom Gracie is expected to befriend and protect while disguised as a very late replacement for Miss New Jersey.

Mr. Gibson and Miss Bullock promoted their new pictures to the press recently in interviews at the Four Seasons Hotel. Coincidentally, they also double as producers for their movies — but the situation is hands-off for Mr. Gibson, who shares producing credits with eight other active or absentee associates.

Mr. Gibson made a point of not pulling rank on writer-director Nancy Meyer, who talked him into trusting her project to begin with.

"Plenty of actors have terrible reputations, but Mel has the greatest reputation," Miss Meyer says. "I would have been gun-shy with the bad eggs, but I was told nothing but encouraging things about Mel. I can't imagine anyone else in the part. Who would be better? Mel delivers on a lot of levels. Once you start working with him, you can't be nervous. He doesn't act like a know-it-all, or like he's impressed with himself for winning an Oscar for best direction."

Miss Meyer insists that her star did not take a lot of persuading to join her comic fantasy. "He really responded to the script," she says. "He told me he usually doesn't get romantic comedies — I mean get what they're all about. I think he believed he could pull it off in this case."

Mr. Gibson says he has the impression that few comedies "are steered my way." He says he is cautious about selecting roles.

"I'm very judicious when I go into anything," the actor says. "If it wasn't for Nancy, I probably wouldn't have done this. I thought it was a funny script. The premise was outrageous, but there's more to it than sheer comedy. She engineered the ways to hit some deeper spots. It was her passion for it that made me think, well, maybe there's something special about this."

Does he have any particular wisdom to share about what women want — or men for that matter? "I think they want the same thing: happiness," he says. "They have different methods of pursuing it. I got raised with four older sisters and one younger sister. I've been married for 20 years and have a daughter who's 20. I've had a lot of women in my life and plenty of time to figure out a few of the answers, but I'm no expert."

Mr. Gibson hasn't directed a movie since winning his Academy Award for "Braveheart," but he intends to resume that role sooner or later.

"It's the most fun you can have standing up," he says. "Sure, it's more fulfilling than acting. It's storytelling. You're just a component as an actor. I don't want to do both at the same time ever again. It confounds you; it's too much."

Asked about his approach as an actor-producer, Mr. Gibson waxes hyperbolic. "'What are you gonna do, steal the director's job? I wait till I'm invited to comment on a scene, then I'll throw in my 2 cents," he says.

The term "America's Sweetheart" kept surfacing in interviews concerning the two movies, most often when Miss Bullock's name came up. Nevertheless, testimonials from Miss Meyer and "What Women Want" co-stars Helen Hunt and Marisa Tomei suggested that Mr. Gibson could be in the running.

Confronted directly with the endearment, Miss Bullock replies: "I guess it's a sweet thing for people to say, if it means what I hope it means — that I enjoy where I am and what I do."

While playing the leading lady in "Miss Congeniality," Miss Bullock also shouldered duties as active producer. She apparently is anticipating an alternate career in the movie business should the public ever tire of her performing charms.

"Miss Congeniality" happened because Miss Bullock was looking for "a physical comedy." Marc Lawrence, a writer friend, supplied one, though he kept it to himself until a first-draft screenplay had been completed.

"I had Sandy in mind but didn't tell her," Mr. Lawrence says. "It was my fondest dream and hope that she'd like it. I had the idea back in 1995. I have no idea if 'Drop Dead Gorgeous' and 'Beautiful' were also percolating at that time. But we were determined not to lampoon beauty pageants, which are so easily lampooned."

Once offered the script, Miss Bullock spent several months developing it with Mr. Lawrence and two other writers. "Eventually, it was time for us to get a director. Selfishly, we wanted to protect the film we wanted to make," she says.

"It's a certain type of humor rooted in reality. Even when Gracie's behavior seems far-out, she has to have a good reason for doing everything she does — in her own mind. FBI agents exist. Beauty pageants exist. Both of them can be outlandish, and the people in them might have certain things to prove. That makes them ripe for jokes.

"I like to think of it as smart dumb comedy. Every character is sort of a failure, and the audience is more likely to sympathize with all our misfits because their failures derive from something real, from genuine drives and passions."

Miss Bullock parted company with one director before hiring Donald Petrie, who joined the project only seven weeks before shooting began. Mr. Petrie arrived with considerable experience, however: "Mystic Pizza," "Opportunity Knocks," "The Favor," "Grumpy Old Men" and "My Favorite Martian."

The son of venerable director Daniel Petrie, Mr. Petrie also cuts a reassuring presence. Big and jovial, he would be hard to rival as Mr. Congeniality.

"We had the entire crew and most of the cast on board when the original director seemed to decide that he wanted to make a different movie than the one we wanted," Miss Bullock says. "I wasn't going to let go of a top-flight cinematographer like Lazslo Kovacs or production designer like Peter Larkin. We had the best. We needed a best who could work with the other best. Donald was the luck of the draw. He was a perfect fit."

Mr. Petrie recalls the route to his hiring. "I read the script a year earlier. I wasn't available, and I wasn't asked when I became available. When the opportunity knocked on the rebound, I fought hard to get it," he says.

Although the pageant takes place in San Antonio, most of the picture was shot in Austin, where Miss Bullock is living. "I wanted my off-time to be my off-time," she says.

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