Billy Crystal's Ode to Lasting Marriages : Movies: 'Forget Paris' was a way to thank his wife for their 25-year marriage, and it recaptured some of the darndest things that have happened to his friends.

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"Look at the light here," Billy Crystal implored, holding his palms aloft and gazing at the skies. "Will ya just look at the light?"

It was one of those perfectly clear, cool, autumnal Parisian days, the massive Arc de Triomphe glowing in the pale noonday sun. You'd need a great Impressionist painter to do it justice.

"These buildings!" Crystal went on with childlike, genuine enthusiasm. "The Arc de Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower. They're monumental. They're straight out of Page 52 in your school history book. I'm really excited to be shooting here."

Crystal was here for two weeks directing "Forget Paris," which he co-wrote. The ode to marriage, which cost about $30 million to produce, opened May 19 and so far has taken in more than $20 million.

He stars as an NBA referee, Mickey Gordon, who arrives in Paris to bury his father, a World War II veteran of the European campaign. In an oblique nod to another romantic comedy classic, Billy Wilder's "Avanti," the old man's coffin goes missing; Ellen Andrews (Debra Winger), an airline representative, helps Mickey sort out the mess. The couple--and don't say you didn't see this coming--hang out together in Paris, fall in love and eventually marry.

"But that's where most romantic comedies end. It's happily ever after, and most people walk out of the theater feeling good," Crystal said over lunch at a brasserie 100 yards from the Arc de Triomphe. "This story's about what happens later. Because happily ever after's a lot of work.

"I'll have been married 25 years this year. [He and his wife, Janice, have two daughters.] And I really wanted to do a pro-marriage movie. Because marriage can be romantic and sexy and all the things people want romantic comedies to be. It's more romantic to be together and stay together."

The genesis of "Forget Paris" occurred when Crystal and his wife were talking in a restaurant surrounded by friends--his co-writers Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, and his longtime collaborator Rob Reiner, a partner in Castle Rock Pictures and director of "When Harry Met Sally . . . ."

"We were sitting around telling stories about couples," Crystal recalled. "And we were laughing really hard about the things that happen to people--the way they got together or argued, or whatever. Afterwards, I said to Rob--here's the movie. And we tell it the way we just told it."

Thus "Forget Paris" is set partially in a restaurant, where Mickey's best friend (played by Joe Mantegna) and his bride-to-be are having their wedding dinner. They're about to get married, but they do not know if Mickey and Ellen, who have had problems in their five-year marriage, will join them together, separately or not at all. As various friends join the party, each has a tale to tell about Mickey and Ellen's roller-coaster relationship.

"All the stories about Mickey and Ellen in the film are true," Crystal insisted. "I hate to sound like Art Linkletter here, but people do the darndest things. . . . All these things happened to my friends."

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The film's title springs from the fact that Mickey and Ellen get together in the high flush of romance--then have to adjust to a more mundane life back in America. "They both suddenly realize, who is this person, why did I make this jump?" Crystal said. "Now they're in a different life. And it's not Paris, forget Paris, this is what's real."

The inclusion of pro basketball stars such as David Robinson, Shawn Kemp and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar "gives this movie a great counterpoint and relief from the tension of the romance," he added. "I go from a shot of the Eiffel Tower to a slow-motion shot of Karl Malone slam-dunking the ball, then arguing with me. It's a scene where I'm missing Ellen because I'm on the road, and calling more fouls than I should."

The diminutive Crystal played basketball in high school on Long Island. "I've known Kareem since I was kid," he said. "He lived in Manhattan, but my best friend used to go to high school with him, and he was in my house the day I graduated from high school in 1965."

Crystal has also attended Clippers games regularly for years and became interested in referees' lives when one approached him before a game and sheepishly asked him the significance of a scene in "Schindler's List" when rocks are placed on Schindler's gravestone as a kind of calling card.

"These three guys were trying to figure it out, and obviously thought, hey, we'll see Crystal at the game tomorrow, he's a Jew, we'll ask him," he recalled. "But it intrigued me. I asked these guys: Do you see a lot of movies? And they said, yeah, that's all we do. It's true. They have lots of down time.

"So I went backstage later and got to find out about their lives. During the season they're away from home 25 days a month. They make their own travel arrangements, rent their own cars. They're required to wear ties and jackets to arenas, they get police escorts in every arena. It's a tough life, but when I asked how long they'd been married, one said 27 years, one said 18. Well, that's some strong bond, which keeps them together when they're gone eight months a year."

Crystal learned refereeing techniques from longtime NBA referee Jake O'Donnell and officiated in an informal game of college players and retired pros. "It's a good feeling to tell a 6-foot-8 guy to shut up," he said. "I don't get that a lot."

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All this seems far removed from Crystal and Winger's scenes in Paris, many of which were for montage sequences. In the morning, they were filmed driving along Avenue de la Grande Armee in Ellen's Mini Cooper, and Mickey stands and admires the Arc de Triomphe through the sunroof; then he ascends the Arc and waves at her joyously from the top. Later they press his camera on Parisians and urge them to take their picture in front of noted landmarks.

Crystal immersed himself in the city, wandering around its boulevards, hanging out in its sidewalk cafes with Winger and screening videos of movies located in Paris--notably Stanley Donen's mystery "Charade" and Vincente Minnelli's musical "An American in Paris," starring one of Crystal's personal heroes, Gene Kelly.

He loves the city with only one reservation: "Everyone smokes. You sit in a restaurant here, I tell you, it's like being in a Dutch Masters painting." He was recognized by Parisians who shouted "Harry" at him, from his role in "When Harry Met Sally . . . ."

Winger said "Forget Paris" is a film in which she felt "aptly cast." "Since my first meeting with Billy, I've felt in pretty good hands. I loved where the story was coming from--the fact that he's been married 25 years and this was his Valentine to his wife. That was a strong influence on [taking the role]. I hope someday I'm old enough to be married 25 years and have my husband dedicate anything to me--other than the deed to the house."

Winger agreed "Forget Paris" is about making love last, rather than falling in love. But she admitted to an agenda of her own: "My personal theme is, how does it happen that women reinvent themselves for men? And five or 10 years down the line when that invention fades, what happens then?

"We're socialized to invent ourselves for men, to be whatever they want. You see women go from man to man, and God bless 'em, some of the staunchest figures in women's liberation do it. Look at Jane Fonda: With Roger Vadim she was Barbarella, with Tom Hayden she was in Vietnam, now with Ted Turner she's on the farm. I don't mean anything disparaging--I've done it with every man I've been with to different degrees. Hopefully, as we get older we do it less."

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She said she pressed for this subtext to be brought into the story, and Crystal readily agreed. "He really understood it when I brought in this element, and one of my favorite lines in the film came out of it. Ellen says: 'I've got to get back to Paris, I don't even know who I am anymore. I know I'm in here somewhere--I can hear myself screaming from a distance.' " She beamed. "Good line, isn't it?"

Winger conceded she has mixed feelings about romantic comedies: "I love to watch them, but they're hard to do. It's hard to smell a winner, the ones that crackle when you're inside the scene. But this one feels good, it's about character, not just a story when everyone's on all the time. Some romantic comedies, it's about who has the sharpest line."

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