COVER STORY : Is She the Villain--or a Victim? : To some, Kim Basinger is a sacrificial lamb. To others, she's a symbol of Hollywood dealmaking run amok. After a difficult year in court and on the screen, she tries to rebuild a stalled career and embarks on a new marriage

Judy Brennan is a regular contributor to Calendar.

No one could be happier to kiss '93 goodby than Kim Basinger. Last year at this time, the actress was facing a multimillion-dollar civil suit over a role that changed her life forever. Ironically, it was a role she never performed.

As the new year rolls in, Basinger finds herself focusing on her new marriage to Alec Baldwin, thinking of starting a family and rebuilding her shattered career--all in the midst of wiping out everything she owns.

"I feel as though I have been through a crash course in life," Basinger says. "It's been an incredible ride. I've had the highs of meeting my soul mate, but the lows of having my life ripped apart for something I didn't do. I wouldn't change the knowledge I've gained for anything. Just don't ever ask me to repeat it."

Basinger's crash course in the school of hard knocks came to a head last spring. In May, 1991, she had decided to pass on playing the lead role in a small Jennifer Lynch film about a woman whose arms and legs are cut off by a doctor obsessed with her. Basinger had considered taking the role in "Boxing Helena," but reconsidered on the advice of her agent because of the dicey subject matter. The film's producers then sued her for breach of oral contract. On March 24, 1993, a jury in Los Angeles Superior Court told Basinger to pay the producers $8.9 million in damages. (The judge later reduced the award to $7.4 million, but with attorneys fees added, it currently stands at $8.1 million.)

The film, with Sherilyn Fenn in the lead role, was ultimately released in September and bombed badly at the box office.

Stunned and, she says, with no way to make such a payment, Basinger filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on May 24, which her lawyers converted to a Chapter 7 just last Monday. The change now means that her estate will be subject to immediate liquidation and distributed to creditors.

Now, at 40, she finds herself grappling with uncertain finances and a very bruised reputation.

"What has been done to this woman is so unfair, I can't even find the right words to describe it," says Baldwin, who has been Basinger's companion for several years and married her last summer. "After what I watched her go through in that courtroom day after day, I believe there is no justice for people like her in this country. These people are trying to destroy her."

Baldwin remains undaunted in his devotion to his wife, boosting her morale daily and helping her rebuild her career, even as his own career flourishes. "I will not stop until she gets her fair shake," he says. It was Baldwin who planned and prepared their beachfront wedding in East Hampton, right down to the surprise fireworks and the white baby roses in her tiara.

"Alec and I want lots of kids everywhere--a big family," Basinger says. "I never want to give up my work, don't get me wrong. But he is my life's focus. After all of this, sometimes I think there would be no Kim Basinger without Alec. Some days, during this insane ordeal, I would look at him and ask, 'Who is Kim Basinger?' "

*

There is a crisp December breeze blowing as Basinger strolls through her Woodland Hills back yard to a place she calls sanctuary, Shih Tzu puppies nipping at her heels. The small structure holds two sun-filled rooms: downstairs a gym and upstairs an entertainment area with a white piano, a TV and stereo system atop a cinder block-and-board shelf (the kind most students have in college) and the chaise longue keepsake from the set of "The Marrying Man," the 1991 Disney film where Basinger met Baldwin.

Clad in a white T-shirt and baggy overalls and sitting cross-legged on the lavender carpet, Basinger settles down to her first lengthy interview since last year's monumental events, her voice rising as her tale unfolds. It's a tale of a verdict that shocked much of Hollywood and includes, she and her lawyers say, some questionable actions on the part of the judge and clerk in the case. It's a tale of facing bankruptcy after being one of Hollywood's most visible and successful actresses--a bankruptcy that her creditors have tried to use to prevent her from becoming pregnant (a pregnancy, they say, would interfere with her ability to work for at least several months; that in turn would affect income that would ultimately go to them).

One bright spot: After a gap of several months since her last movie, Basinger's career is showing signs of life. Branded the co-stars from hell during the filming of "The Marrying Man"--a set allegedly disrupted by tantrums, broken and hurled equipment, fights with the crew, producer and director, and cellular phones being ripped out of studio executives' hands by the stars in fits of pique--she and Baldwin are back on screen in Roger Donaldson's action-packed remake of "The Getaway" for Largo Entertainment, due Feb. 11. It couldn't come at a better time.

*

"You know, after all of this, I've become sick of the sound of my own name," Basinger says, referring to the seemingly endless publicity surrounding last spring's "Boxing Helena" trial.

The saga actually began in January, 1991, when Jennifer Lynch, daughter of director David Lynch, walked into Basinger's production office off Coldwater Canyon Road with what Basinger thought might be an interesting, albeit twisted, script. It was the first of what would be three fateful meetings with Lynch.

"When I read it, I looked at the imagination," Basinger says. "I remember thinking, 'Was this story somebody's bad dream?' Like most actors, I always look for new writers with different material and I thought this was another woman trying to make it in this town. 'Give her a chance' (I thought). She seemed to know what she wanted. It was refreshing to see her enthusiasm.

"But everything went sour after that."

Basinger insists she never committed verbally to playing Helena, the woman who is dismembered, and ultimately backed out on the advice of her ICM agent, Guy McElwaine. Lynch and Main Line Pictures producer Carl Mazzocone contend she did commit. Basinger says she never even met Mazzocone--who pre-sold the movie to overseas distributors based on her anticipated involvement--until her pretrial deposition. Mazzocone actually negotiated with Basinger's lawyer, Julie Philips of Bloom, Dekom, Hergott and Cook.

"What I want to make clear is that this was no handshake deal or some agreement scrawled on a cocktail napkin," Mazzocone says. "On Feb. 27, 1991, all deal points were reached and memorialized on a deal memo. After the deal memo, we started to exchange long-form acting service agreements. After seven drafts of long-form agreements, we reached the execution copies. Her agents and lawyers were authorized to act on her behalf.

"What I stood up for is the 'deal memo.' That is what this town operates on."

But Basinger insists that her agents and lawyers were not authorized to sign off on any project, only to negotiate on her behalf. She never signed any deal memo, which is basically considered a working document in progress between a producer and talent.

While "Helena" was Mazzocone's first feature to produce, it wasn't his first round with a star on deal memos or on deal memos with "Helena," for that matter. Madonna preceded Basinger, with discussions falling apart in December, 1990, one month before Basinger was approached. In fact, Madonna had been further along in the process.

"Madonna left these people in wardrobe fittings! When I met Jennifer for the first time, I didn't know who was walking into my office that afternoon," Basinger says. "I didn't know a woman (Jennifer) and a man (Mazzocone) had just been essentially fired by somebody else . . . that they were coming from such desperation."

But Mazzocone didn't sue Madonna. The difference?

"Madonna solicited us ," Mazzocone says. "We relied on her because she wanted the part and then she bailed," four weeks before shooting. "We didn't sue her because we found Kim." Because Basinger was a bigger film star overseas, her casting meant more money upfront from foreign distributors.

"Not that I would wish this on Madonna or anyone," says Basinger, but she stills feels like a scapegoat. "The point is this whole thing is absurd, especially when you consider I never even met Mazzocone, never even talked to him until the deposition."

Philips, Basinger's attorney, says: "I knew there was no agreement (then), just as I sit here today. Main Line, like any small independent producer trying to raise money, wasn't in any position to commit $600,000 to Kim Basinger," her salary on the film. "The irony of this whole nightmare is that as the negotiations dragged on, I remember being concerned that Main Line would throw in the towel and Kim might be disappointed."

Mazzocone, 34, who says he's been in the business 12 years, meanwhile feels vindicated for taking on a big star and the Hollywood infrastructure--and winning. "I beat those people," he says. "I think the catalyst in this whole thing was (ICM's Guy) McElwaine, the big shot, grandfatherly agent who thought I was just some moth he could flick off his shoulder." But Mazzocone proved too big a moth. "He underestimated his opponent. McElwaine sank this ship and he got off the hook, because under the law agents are bulletproof in these deals." ICM was eventually dismissed as a co-conspirator in the case. Basinger is now represented by another ICM agent, Andrea Eastman.

"These people were wanna-bes," Basinger says. "They needed someone to go after and it ended up being me. I just can't believe I'm caught up in the middle of this. It has made me a nervous wreck. I don't see myself as some victim or martyr--I hate those words, they're so pathetic. People ask me, 'Why didn't you settle? Pay them $600,000 and get rid of them.' At no time did it ever cross my mind to settle. This town is all about settling. I didn't do anything wrong. Never, ever will I settle."

*

How Kim Basinger ultimately fares in the legal system remains to be seen, as her case is far from over. Lawyer Irving H. Greines is already shaping her appeal, which will probably not be resolved until sometime next year.

In a 38-page appellate motion for a new trial filed a month after the verdict, Basinger's lawyers attack the jury's damages as excessive; cite prejudicial error on the part of Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Judith C. Chirlin, who presided over the case, and her refusal to instruct the jury properly; allege failure by the judge to advise the jury of ICM's dismissal as a co-conspirator in the case, and point to what they say is insufficient evidence to determine that an oral agreement existed.

"As an appellate lawyer I see the disasters. But in the 26 years that I have been practicing appellate law, this case ranks at or near the top," Greines says. "This one is an appellate dream case because some of the errors are of the most elemental type."

First of all, Basinger's team believes the jury's verdict demanding Basinger to pay Main Line a massive damage award based on gross revenues, not net profits, was excessive and against the law. They say the jury ignored the court's instruction to award net profits--which would have fallen between $895,000 and $1.1 million--and went for the higher gross amount.

Secondly, her lawyers say the jury had insufficient evidence to conclude that an oral agreement existed. Not directly considered was the Screen Actors Guild rule demanding that a written contract--not oral--exist for a producer (in this case, Mazzocone) to require a star (Basinger) to perform nude, as dictated in the script of "Helena." An oral agreement cannot supersede the SAG nudity rule. Basinger's lawyers say Chirlin never instructed the jury about the SAG rule.

On this subject, at least, they seem to have a point. Juror Chawn Sanders says: "The SAG rule never came up when we were in (verdict) discussions. It's kind of funny because they were talking about the nudity issue during the majority of the trial. Now that I think about it, (consideration of the SAG rule) probably would have affected the outcome."

Basinger's lawyers also contend in the appellate motion Judge Chirlin erred in failing to inform the jury that ICM had been dropped from the case or to instruct them on Madonna's aborted involvement; refusing to allow Basinger's attorneys to provide evidence regarding the industry's customary practices to a jury unfamiliar with such, and, dropping the critical words "and agreed upon" in telling the jury that preliminary negotiations may result in a binding contract when material terms are understood.

"This judge gave jury instructions that were absolutely wrong on the law," Greines says.

For her part, Judge Chirlin says her instructions were performed properly. And, she adds, "The fact of the matter is that throughout the trial, a significant portion of my rulings were in favor of Kim."

While Basinger's appeal will be fought on points of law and evidence in the case, allegations of Chirlin's other missteps can play no part in appellate strategy. But Basinger and her attorneys believe Chirlin's behavior had a subliminal, if not direct, effect on the minds of the jurors and their verdict.

Specifically, they say other court clerks held a baby shower for the judge's clerk Syndy Scaife-Richard in the courtroom next door during a noon break in the trial. Both Basinger and Baldwin, inexplicably, had been invited to the shower by Scaife-Richard, and Basinger says she felt compelled to attend, under the peculiar circumstances. She spent part of the time at the party signing autographs and chatting it up with the judge, and some of the judge's employees and relatives.

"They were all very nice, but I felt very uncomfortable being there," Basinger says now. "To be honest, I wasn't sure what to do. Nobody came from the (plaintiff's) side. We took pictures with the judge's mother. I felt like I had signed up for an episode of 'Night Court.' What it turned out to be was a kangaroo court."

Trial attorney Howard L. Weitzman put it another way. "Look, this was very improper. Kim shouldn't have been invited because it made her feel she had to show. This woman was a defendant in a case, on trial for her financial life. She shouldn't have been put in that position. Imagine the implication if Kim hadn't gone: 'Check out the pretty star snubbing us.' "

Chirlin says that's not the case. "My staff is very friendly and they asked Kim to the shower. I had no idea she would be there. You have to understand the courtroom is the workplace for these employees and they held a shower there, just as any office would for a co-worker."

Then, after the verdict was announced, Weitzman says, Chirlin hugged Lynch and Mazzocone in the courtroom for all to see. "I've never, ever seen a judge come out and hug parties after a verdict," Weitzman says. "Most judges at least try to maintain an appearance of objectivity."

Counters Chirlin: "I don't remember being embraced, but it is not something I would initiate. I do remember them (Lynch and Mazzocone) being ecstatically happy."

Chirlin does recall Lynch and Mazzocone hugging members of the jury. "I would have hugged a tree, anything, anybody. I just made nearly $10 million," Mazzocone says.

"I remember after the trial, Jennifer and Mr. Mazzocone told us (the jurors) they were inviting us to the premiere," juror Sanders says. "I remember walking out of the courtroom thinking, 'That's strange. How can they have a premiere, when they kept saying during the whole trial they didn't have enough money to finish the movie?' We had been under the impression they couldn't get it sold and now they were having a premiere? Oh, well--I didn't go."

But Chirlin did attend the premiere. Her attendance also sticks in Weitzman's craw.

"I did go to the premiere and in retrospect I probably shouldn't have gone, if they perceive it as a problem with my fairness," Chirlin says. "But by the time of the premiere, the trial was over." The appeal, she adds, was not weighing on her mind.

*

On Aug. 19, the day Basinger married Baldwin, a strange letter was being written to the star. A week or so later, it turned up at Basinger's office. She didn't know what to think; her attorney Julie Philips had the same reaction. "I think Julie fell on the floor when I read it to her. She couldn't believe her ears. I still can't."

Sent by clerk Scaife-Richard, the letter read, "Dear Kim: I have a really big favor to ask of Alec, but out of respect for you and your relationship with him, I thought it would be better to convey my request through you. Besides, soon you will be Mrs. Baldwin anyway. Right??? (smile)

"Initially, I thought of you first, but I would not want to place you in a compromising position and add to your legal problems in light of your bankruptcy filing. I don't know if you should be flattered that I thought of you first or relieved that I decided to ask Alec instead. (smile)"

Scaife-Richard goes on to talk about a family friend, an unnamed professional basketball player, and his wife who promised to loan her $125,000 to buy a house. But then the couple decided to divorce and rescinded their offer.

"You and Alec are the only other individuals I know who might have and be willing to loan this large amount of money," she wrote. "Having had the opportunity to meet you both in person, I know that you are 'down to earth' and hopefully have a sympathetic ear," Scaife-Richard continued. "Hopefully, I have not tarnished your opinion of me by making this request. It was very hard for me to set aside my pride and write this letter. I have great respect for you both and will respect your decision whatever it may be. All transactions shall be CONFIDENTIAL." Then she spelled out the terms: The clerk would issue Baldwin and Basinger a promissory note of $131,250 ($125,000 principle plus 5% interest) to be paid in full over 22 years at $497.15 a month. The postscript was a picture of the clerk and her three children, including the baby she had been carrying during Basinger's trial.

Asked by The Times why she didn't consider a bank loan, an embarrassed Scaife-Richard--who is still clerking for Chirlin--said the interest was too high.

Chirlin had no part in the letter. In fact, she was shocked when Philips wrote her about it on Oct. 19, following a second missive from the clerk (dated Oct. 4) detailing her intended use of the loaned funds. That letter, Philips says, followed numerous calls to Basinger's office.

Chirlin's words in a letter to Philips were "stunned and appalled" and have been duly noted in the Basinger file. She said the clerk would be admonished. She was.

*

"I hate the lawyers," Mazzocone rants. "I hate the system. Who knew I was dealing with a Kamikaze case?" Mazzocone is miffed that Basinger converted her Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization, filed May 24, into a Chapter 7 liquidation last week. She converted primarily because Mazzocone and his lawyers had insisted on a third party being brought in to determine what movie roles she would take.

In other words, instead of stalling payment to Mazzocone and her other creditors--under a Chapter 11 reorganization, there are more options in how assets can be distributed to creditors, over a more flexible time period--she now faces one-time liquidation of the assets she has right now, which then would be distributed to creditors, ending the process. Her bankruptcy lawyer, Leslie Cohen, says Basinger had had enough.

"It became apparent there was no plan she could provide that would satisfy them," Cohen says. "They just had to keep hounding her. They wanted a third party to exercise control over her decisions over whether or not to accept work, which movies to make. That's involuntary servitude. They wanted her to reveal her plans about having a baby. That's against her constitutional rights--it was ridiculous. It was the last straw."

Basinger still bristles at the demands, pacing as she talks. "Just imagine them saying that to a man--telling him he couldn't have a family. They wanted to know if I planned to take out a life insurance policy. What does that mean? What do these people want from me--my arms, my heart, my soul? What? This goes beyond any civilized demands . . . any human decency."

"Even though our (Chapter 11) plan provided much more than the law required and much more than Main Line would have gotten in a Chapter 7, nothing was good enough for them," Cohen says. "Kim would have escrowed three years of earnings and all of her assets until the appeal was resolved under an 11. She would have kept $10,000 a month to live on, plus the $9,000 a month she has to pay in alimony (to her first husband, Ron Britton).

"Now her assets will be liquidated by a court trustee and they'll have to take what they get in the pecking order of creditors. It shouldn't have come to this, but Kim had no choice."

Bankruptcy documents show Basinger, who can command a $3-million salary on some films, had net earnings of $7.9 million for 1988 through 1992. She projects her net income this year to be $846,429, which includes income from the upcoming "The Getaway," proceeds from a bit part as Garth's girlfriend in the current "Wayne's World 2" and a fee from an appearance in a Spanish commercial for the champagne Freixenet.

Basinger has asked the bankruptcy court to consider several factors beyond her control: That her films, except for "Batman," have not performed well at the box office; that actresses over 40 are offered fewer roles, and that the "relentless" trial coverage has damaged her reputation with potential employers.

Mazzocone counters that Basinger could get plenty of work. He sees her Chapter 7 conversion as completely self-destructive. "I just want my money, what she owes me. This is their grand way of stalling." After a court-appointed trustee liquidates Basinger's assets under the Chapter 7, any money due Mazzocone would be put into an escrow account until the appeal is resolved.

Mazzocone and his lawyers have accused Basinger in court documents regarding her bankruptcy of hiding assets, saying their value was closer to $5 million and up than the $3 million she has claimed. They've challenged the 5% interest she says she has had in a partnership since 1989, which bought the town of Braselton, Ga.

They believe she has squirreled away valuable antiques and probably holds more property interests than she's letting on. That includes her Coldwater Canyon production company, Porch Swing Productions.

"Look around. This is what I have," Basinger says. "This" is a modest tract home--at least by movie-star standards--that she paid $150,000 for 14 years ago that her appraiser now values at $600,000. It has three smallish bedrooms. A row of chipped-paint Georgia rockers in varying sizes are lined up in front of her living room fireplace. A white couch and matching chaise that look as if they came from Stylus are in the den.

Special touches include a stained-glass window at the entry way, a room-separating bar that has been turned into an aquarium, a carousel horse and a long pine table covered with vanilla candles. There's a fenced-in pool in the back yard where she and Alec take evening swims. And of course, there's her sanctuary.

*

"In some ways, I'm more famous for the things that I haven't done than for what I have done," muses Basinger. Perhaps.

As a shy girl in Athens, Ga., young Kim would while away the hours with a girlfriend, dreaming of becoming an actress and having her friend be her "dresser." As a teen-ager she became Athens' Junior Miss beauty queen. At age 16 headed for New York to become a Breck girl and eventually a model. The camera loved her blond mane and sensuous features, a product of Swedish, German and Cherokee bloodlines.

Her dream of acting started to unfold in 1979 with the TV movie "Katie: Portrait of a Centerfold," with Basinger playing the centerfold, and then the 1980 NBC miniseries "From Here to Eternity." Her motion picture debut happened in late 1980, opposite Jan-Michael Vincent, in "Hard Country." The next year, Basinger co-starred with Charlton Heston in "Mother Lode."

Her breakthrough was playing Domino in the 1983 James Bond film "Never Say Never Again." That same year she starred for Blake Edwards in "The Man Who Loved Women" and played a femme fatale --Robert Redford's mistress--in Barry Levinson's "The Natural."

Then her career careened off into more controversial parts: Adrian Lyne's "9 1/2 Weeks"--what Basinger considers her toughest role to date--and "Fool for Love," with Sam Shepard. A few other forgettable roles preceded what would be her biggest part to date: that of reporter Vicki Vale in Warner Bros.' 1989 blockbuster "Batman."

Her favorite role, though, was the lead in Robert Benton's 1987 quirky romantic comedy "Nadine"--"the most beautifully written role I've read," Basinger says. She has also played more than her share of truly ridiculous parts in such films as "My Stepmother Is an Alien" and the animated feature "Cool World."

The turning point in her career--and life--was 1991's "The Marrying Man." Basinger had just ended an unhappy eight-year marriage to Britton, her makeup artist. She describes her wild fling with pop star Prince that followed as a "pit stop, post divorce."

In fact, she was in Minnesota with Prince when she first talked to Baldwin, who rang to ask her about co-starring in "The Marrying Man." Many phone conversations followed. Finally they met on the set. They went to dinner at Morton's the first night to discuss the film. They came in two cars. They left in one.

"He actually had car trouble. We came back to the house. We were talking, up here" in the sanctuary. "He kissed me and then asked me if I wanted kids. That was the beginning," says Basinger.

It was also the beginning of what some cast and crew on the set called a journey into bedlam. Reports began to surface that Basinger and Baldwin pulled outrageous shenanigans, cursing at the producer and director, hurling chairs in the air, grabbing phones out of Disney executives' hands. Producer David Permutt, who had worked with Basinger on "Blind Date," had some of the biggest rows with the stars. While 1987's "Blind Date" had been a positive experience with Basinger, Permutt says he'd "never ever" work with Basinger or Baldwin again. Disney Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg also grumbled at the time about the pair and his difficulties working with them.

The feelings are mutual, say Basinger and Baldwin. In fact, both say the accounts were blown out of proportion. They also say they were promised things by Disney that never happened. They write it off as an unpleasant experience that had a great ending.

"That film was a media mad-dog frenzy," says Basinger. "I can say that a lot of that stuff wasn't true, but what's the point? It's over. Do people treat me different after 'The Marrying Man'? Some do.

"One thing I learned from that experience was how to stand up for myself, which was hard for me in the past. I look back and have to thank Disney and Jeffrey Katzenberg," she adds. "If it had not been for Jeffrey I wouldn't have met Alec or had a chance to sing. I always wanted to sing."

Several films followed, including "Final Analysis" and last fall's "The Real McCoy." The latter was another box-office disappointment.

"This film was originally a love story that turned into a caper movie," she says. "I blame myself in part for this. I fought to get Val Kilmer in the movie, but he just wasn't into it. It just fell apart."

The film's producer, Martin Bregman, also grouses about Kilmer. "He almost tried to destroy the picture. We had to rewrite it because of him," says Bregman. "But Kim was terrific, a real pro. Never late, always very prepared, always very helpful and never an ounce of trouble. She was a classy, nice woman, who always brought cookies to the crew.

"With 'The Marrying Man' they had a director who never made anything but an animated picture and didn't know how to handle stars. Stars need strong directors. I'm working with Alec now on 'The Shadow' and I would say the same about him.

"I have recommended Kim to other producers around town," says Bregman. "And I would say unequivocally she is the most misunderstood talent in Hollywood."

Producer Frank Mancuso Jr., who worked with her on "Cool World," and Chuck Roven, who produced "Final Analysis," say the same.

Producer Larry Gordon, who just wrapped "The Getaway," says he got calls from colleagues asking about his experience working with the couple. "Zero problems. I mean it--zero. And this was a tough shoot, six days a week in the (Arizona) desert. Lots of action. But they were total pros and I love them both."

*

Testimonials aside, none of Basinger's films have been big moneymakers except "Batman," as duly noted in her bankruptcy filing, though she and Baldwin have high hopes for the steamy, action-packed "The Getaway." She passed on "T. Rex," about a cop who has a dinosaur as a partner, last year, which Whoopi Goldberg picked up and then tried (and failed) to forfeit.

"You know what's funny: I've become the example. When Whoopi tried to bail, they threatened to sue her and pointed to me as What Could Happen," says Basinger. "Now think about this. They can make her act in the movie, but how good of a performance will they get? Will she promote the picture when they need her to? Who can say? But those things have to be weighed and the smart people in this town know that.

"What do you expect when you force people against their will? In a way my trial was a movie, one that everybody watched."

Basinger, for one, is still waiting for the final cut.

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