Word Perfect

Here in the land of Aimee Semple McPherson, there are more than a few gurus offering to lead you to your higher self. All of them want your higher self to have a happy home, but you may have higher sights for your higher self--a home with a swimming pool.

In that case, there's a special kind of guru just for you. And, oddly enough, there's a Macpherson who lives in this leader's beckoning realm: You know her as Elle.

Of course, Elle has select company in her special world. There's Tom and Nicole. Also Dustin. And don't forget Jack.

"Jack Nicholson said, 'I know people don't like me, but they sure want me at their parties.' We have a new aristocracy we call the cultural elite. At the top of the pyramid are filmmakers. So you want to go to those parties? What are you willing to risk?"

How about your weekend off?

We are sitting at the feet of the storied Robert McKee, who conducts the EST equivalent of screenwriting class--a 30-hour, three-day marathon of McKee holding forth on story structure, nonsmoking prisons, character arcs, annoying cell phones, seven-part television formats, annoying auteurs, "Casablanca," annoying critics and annoying film schools. (Unlike EST, you may go to the bathroom, but be quick about it.)

Oh, yes. The prince of screenwriting gurus also deconstructs movie stars' looks: Michelle Pfeiffer's ("proof of the existence of God") and Paul Newman's ("handsome in an unfair way").

We are here because we are taking the McKee Challenge. We had crossed his path while Out & About and presented him with our impossible reality: We write for our supper, we live in Los Angeles and yet we do not have a screenplay in us.

We don't write fiction. No matter what they say.

"Biography is fiction," says McKee, newly wed to former L.A. district attorney spokeswoman Suzanne Childs. "Autobiography certainly is fiction--any statement about the self is self-serving. Documentary is fiction. Wherever you place the camera creates a whole new meaning. What shots you cut, what you eliminate, gives a whole new meaning to the experience."

Ouch. Like any smart perfect master, McKee has distilled his wisdom into a bible, "Story: In Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting" (ReganBooks). The 466-page doorstop recently dropped off the L.A. Times bestseller list after 18 weeks of healthy sales.

And after 15 years teaching his "Story Seminar" here, as well as there and everywhere (particularly New York and London), McKee has become enough of a bushy-browed icon to play himself in Fox Searchlight's upcoming "20 Dates." The romantic comedy was written and directed by novice indie filmmaker Myles Berkowitz, who took McKee's course three times.

The Myles Berkowitzes of the world take the course in the hope of becoming the John Cleeses of the world, to mention one famous follower who is much mentioned by the not-shy McKee (along with Kirk Douglas, Griffin Dunne and a cast of thousands).

Kinda funky for someone who's only now, at the tender age of 57, seeing his first feature film go into production: "Hayfever," a $5-million adaptation of a Noel Coward play starring Joanna Lumley and Greta Scacchi, films in Ireland this summer. It's McKee's lucky 13th sold script--the first dozen options bit the dust.

"In a way, it's expected, because on average, for every 20 screenplays optioned, they only produce one," McKee says after class. "So I'm ahead of the game."

Perhaps. But McKee's unwavering claim to be the font of screenwriting truth still irks some alums.

"If people have a complaint about Robert McKee, it's that he's teaching you the rules," Berkowitz says. "But he also teaches you how to break the rules so you're fresh.

"When I'm giving notes [on someone else's script], I'll say, 'I think your inciting incident comes too late.' And they say, 'That sounds like Robert McKee, and I'm not a follower.' So I say, 'Let me put it in other terms. You don't have a beginning.' "

After absorbing one-third of McKee's course at the Pacific Design Center recently (hey, a girl needs her weekend), we maintain our Ripley's Believe It or Not status. Still no screenplay in us. Just tasty hors d'oeuvres.

Nonetheless, we are practicing our McKee-isms. Repeat after us:

* "We do not make movies about life. We make movies about movies. We are losing the war on cliches."

* "If the Japanese ever figure out how to make a Hollywood film, Hollywood will know the agony of Detroit."

* "In the history of film, every time we come up with revolutionary technology that approximates reality, audiences flock to see it. . . . Now we're suffering through the period of CGI [computer-generated imagery]. We're going to suffer through awful films while the audience knows you don't have to make a good film as long as there's a spectacle. But that will pass. Audiences will say, 'Been there, seen that.' "

* " 'Art movie'--isn't that a ridiculous expression? You don't hear 'art novel' or 'art play.' Because after a century of filmmaking, we're not convinced film is art. Can you imagine a top 10 novel list? A top 10 play list? No. Because they know it's art. There is no necessary contradiction between commercial success and art, and no guarantee of art in an art movie."

* "People come to Hollywood with a chip on their shoulder: 'I'll write action / adventure, because Hollywood won't let me make my art movie. Then I'll Larry Kasdan my way to the top.' Action / adventure is the single most difficult genre to write today. What are you going to do that hasn't been done before?"

* "I am a script doctor, but I cannot resurrect the dead."

For that, see the guru down the hall.

*

Dodi's Dream House: Dreams for sale.

In a postscript to the deaths of Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed, well-heeled shoppers are quietly treading the blond floors of the Malibu retreat Fayed had bought as the couple's California nest. The five-acre compound overlooking the ocean went on the market shortly after their tragic accident nearly 10 months ago. Now the lush property is displaying the ultimate for-sale sign: a 10-page spread in the July issue of Architectural Digest.

Ron Wilson, the architect-to-the-stars who designed the home for its former financier owner, said he doubts that potential buyers are leery of the home's association with a misfortune that rocked the globe.

"Properties of those price ranges often take time," he says. "There's no stigma behind it. Actually, it would be just the reverse: People love things like that."

The Sotheby's International Realty rep couldn't be reached for comment.

Three months before his death, Fayed spent somewhat less than $10 million on the Tuscan-style villa with a private beach, intending it as a secluded backdrop for his new life with Diana. Fayed was so taken with the interior's neutral palette and California comfort that he persuaded the seller to throw in the furnishings.

"Fayed wouldn't have it any way but left intact, down to the last ashtray," Wilson says.

Wilson, who has also designed 19 houses with Cher, may move easily through the world of celebrity, but he's still troubled by his lost opportunity to work with the supernova princess.

"My God, I don't even have words to express what that would have meant," he says.

People assumed Wilson was close to the couple anyway, and they flooded him with calls. One after-death experience was particularly odd: A well-known psychic insisted that Wilson knew Diana and the Fayeds personally, and asked him to pull strings so the psychic could get into the Fayed homes in London and Malibu. He wanted to chat with Diana on location.

"There was a lot of craziness, because I certainly didn't know the Fayed family. He was very off-base."

*

Still Dancing: Sweet Charity? How about indestructible?

Broadway legend Gwen Verdon showed her trouper colors at the Museum of Flying last week. The senior hoofer practically did pirouettes to appear as the guest of honor at a Tony Awards benefit for the Actors Fund of America and Aid for AIDS.

"I flew out [from New York], I watched them, I accepted the award and I got on a plane that night. I flew back and went to rehearsal at 10 o'clock in the morning."

It helps to be a flexible 73.

"I got in the limo going to the airport, and I changed in the back seat like Holly Golightly. I was wearing just a suit, without the spangles and sparklies."

It may have been Verdon's first time watching the Tony Awards outside New York, but she was in good company--fellow past Tony winners June Lockhart, Beatrice Arthur and Julie Newmar, and Broadway legend John Raitt, among others.

It was hard to beat Verdon's own record as a four-time Tony winner, thanks to her stage partnership with her choreographer and ex-husband, the late Bob Fosse.

Verdon is still tapping to Fosse's tune. She's rehearsing for another AIDS benefit, Monday's New York revival of Fosse's "Sweet Charity" with Verdon in the title tough-gal role she created 30 years ago.

On Tuesday, Verdon flies to Toronto for rehearsals of the new musical "Fosse: A Celebration in Song and Dance." Verdon is the artistic advisor to the production, which comes to the Ahmanson Theatre in October.

"I've never stopped dancing," says the Culver City native. "I thought I retired 12 years ago, but I didn't. I kept doing movies with a little bit of dance, or I was coaching people or teaching in China or teaching in Russia.

"So after July 16th, after the preview, that's it. I'm going to retire, because I want to grow flowers and have a dog. And you can't just leave a dog."

*

Tuned In: Everywhere you looked, there were famous faces playing whack-a-mole and doing the rubber ducky dash. But anyone who booth-surfed at the ninth annual Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation picnic in Brentwood last week would have noticed a trend: a critical mass of actors from hot TV comedies. Jennifer Aniston and Courteney Cox pulled their weight for "Friends." Laura San Giacomo and David Spade showed up for "Just Shoot Me." "Ally McBeal" was represented by Peter MacNicol and Gil Bellows; and Michael Richards weighed in for "Seinfeld."

We bounced our trend theory off of evidence--Spade. He chewed on it a bit and explained that his ilk is enjoying the summer off, making this prime time for ducky dashing. Spade also added someone to our list.

"Dustin Hoffman's going to be on 'Growing Pains' this year, so he kind of fits in there too."

You heard it here.

Round up that many TV Guide covers in one place, and people start doing crazy things. Richards, who appears publicly only for Pediatric AIDS, was still reeling from his brush with a novice reporter for a TV entertainment news show, who stalked him with the question: "Yesterday you were on the hottest show in television. Now you're throwing baseballs. How does that feel?"

Would you like your mole whacked, young lady?

In the end, a good benefit was had by all. Nearly $1.8 million was raised for pediatric AIDS research with the help of People magazine and the Milken Family Foundation, which underwrote the $200,000 event.

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