- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 9, 2002

Hollywood royalty took a back seat to the real thing Her Majesty Queen Sirikit of Thailand at Monday's world premiere of "The Legend of Suriyothai" at the Kennedy Center.

"Godfather" auteur Francis Ford Coppola attracted his fair share of stares, even if one State Department staffer blankly asked who the Oscar-winning director was. But the heavily bejeweled queen and her children, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn and Princess Ubol Ratana, along with the royal entourage, definitely stole the scene.

The royals' graceful presence attracted both a battalion of photographers and an impressive list of Washington's elite, including Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer; Sens. Patrick J. Leahy and Richard C. Shelby; Alma Powell, wife of Secretary of State Colin L. Powell; and fashion designer Mary McFadden.

Mr. Coppola edited director Chatrichalerm Yukol's production of "Suriyothai," originally more than three hours long, to make it shorter and more comprehensible for American audiences.

"It's like Shakespeare. It's a story of succession, murder, conspiracy, sex, war, all the stuff that's universal to every ancient culture," Mr. Coppola observed while striking a playful sartorial tone in his tuxedo and bright blue bow tie.

Tom Bernard, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, which will distribute the film this spring, said he sees "Suriyothai" as a good fit in the domestic film market.

"There are more and more films coming out of Asia playing everywhere from art houses to mainstream theaters," Mr. Bernard said.

"Suriyothai," the highest-grossing Thai film of all time, earned the rare privilege of being presented in the Kennedy Center Opera House, an honor afforded to a select group of films such as 1927's "Napoleon." Mr. Coppola's Zoetrope Films assisted in the latter's re-release.

The Thai film proved as spectacular as advertised. The sweeping epic paints a heroic portrait of the country's past. We watch an impetuous young princess (Suriyothai) mature into a radiant queen who later leads her people to war astride an elephant. Her subsequent death in battle rallies her troops to victory against the Burmese.

Thai Ambassador Sakthip Krairiksh said he hoped the film gave American audiences a more accurate vision of his country's rich culture than "The King and I," a 1950s play and film considered insulting to the Thai people because of their cartoonish depiction of the royal characters.

"The fact that Francis Ford Coppola came in and edited it makes it more marketable" to U.S. audiences, Mr. Krairiksh said.

At a dinner at Democratic hostess Esther Coopersmith's Kalorama manse Sunday night, the royal guest of honor didn't mind mentioning that the film's heroine was a personal favorite of her own, as well.

"She is my favorite character in Thai history," Queen Sirikit said before joining 180 guests, a cross section of Washington's political, diplomatic and social sets, on the terrace for Alaskan salmon, roast lamb and a chocolate bombe glace.

Her majesty's devotion to the film about her long-ago predecessor undoubtedly is genuine, and she seemed delighted to speak about the project despite the often nervous glances of ladies-in-waiting and security officers hovering nearby.

She did the same last night at a particularly exquisite dinner for 80 guests hosted in her honor by German industrialist Henry Barth and his wife, Celina, at Georgetown's Cafe Milano (which was closed for the occasion). Tonight she will return the favor and receive many American friends at her own Library of Congress event.

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