Houston a No-Show? No Way, Says Gala Producer

Watch this week to see if organizers of an upcoming Arista Records gala find themselves saying, "Houston, we have a problem." Twice in recent weeks, R&B; diva Whitney Houston has missed high-profile performances on short notice--the most recent at the Oscars, where producers scrambled to get country singer Faith Hill to cover for Houston on the global telecast. Sources close to the show say Houston was ill-prepared during a rehearsal and was ejected from the lineup, but Houston's handlers insist the singer bowed out on her own because of throat problems. Either way, Saturday marks the start of rehearsals for the Arista 25th anniversary concert, and Houston (along with Carlos Santana, Aretha Franklin, Barry Manilow and others) is slated to perform at the show one week from today. Are the producers worried about Whitney? "I was out of town for the Oscars, and all I know is I come back to tape my little show and everybody's talking about this," says Larry Klein, producer of the Arista gala, which will air May 15 on NBC. "I'm not worried about it. I anticipate a great performance from her. She'll be there. This is for her label and this is for Clive [Davis, Arista founder]." But Houston was also scheduled to sing for Davis at his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last month, and she canceled on the eve of the show, citing voice problems. She also canceled concerts in six cities on her last tour, some within minutes of the stage time. That track record, Houston's erratic behavior during a recent interview with Jane magazine and the singer's near drug arrest at a Hawaii airport (she boarded a plan that took off before police could cite her for alleged marijuana possession) has triggered a wave of industry rumors about the veteran singer. But Houston's publicist calls the whispers unfair and untrue. "If you're a public figure, there's always going to be speculation," spokeswoman Nancy Seltzer said. Houston is in New York this week working on her first greatest-hits album, a double disc due May 16--but will she be voice-healthy and in Los Angeles for the Arista fete? "Yes," Seltzer said, "she will be there."

Diversity Campaign a Backdrop to Image Awards

The National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People spent months chiding the major networks for a lack of racial diversity in their new television programs, culminating in historic agreements this year seeking to address the issue in front of and behind the camera. Those negotiations provide additional context for the 31st annual NAACP Image Awards, which were presented in February and will be televised Thursday on Fox as a two-hour prime-time special. As recipients such as Halle Berry and Denzel Washington took the stage, many made reference to the diversity issue, both seriously and in jest--including a spoof by comics Steve Harvey and Cedric the Entertainer about their outreach program to find "young, talented white folks." The NAACP's long-term hope, of course, is that the campaign will pay off in more roles for minorities, providing next year's Image Awards a wider spectrum of candidates to consider honoring on network TV. In the interim, the ceremony could use some more viewers: Audience for the telecast has steadily declined over the last three outings, from nearly 8.5 million viewers in 1997 to less than 5.5 million last year.

Downey, Tyson Mix It Up in 'Black and White'

One of the cast members, Robert Downey Jr., is incarcerated at a California state prison. Another, boxer Mike Tyson, is an ex-felon who spent time behind bars for rape in Indiana. So, for curiosity alone, the scene in the new film "Black and White" when Downey and Tyson mix it up might be worth the price of admission. In the film, writer-director James Toback takes a searing and likely-to-be controversial look at race, sex and hip-hop in the melting pot of New York City at the dawn of a new millennium. Downey plays a bisexual Lothario of a husband whose wife (Brooke Shields) is filming a documentary about a group of privileged uptown teenagers who find themselves drawn to the hip-hop lifestyle. One of the film's more memorable scenes involves an altercation between Tyson and Downey. In the scene, a smitten Downey approaches the unsuspecting Tyson, who's calmly gazing out at the New York night. Toback told Tyson that Downey was just going to come over and talk to him. Meanwhile, the director had instructed Downey to go over to the boxer and make sexual advances toward Tyson until he got a response. "But what if he kills me?" Downey asked the director. "Look at it this way," Toback replied, "firstly, I'll get it on camera and we'll have a great scene, and secondly, if he does kill you, what more dramatic way is there to go?" Tyson's on-camera reaction is violent--if not quite that dramatic. The film has an eclectic cast that includes Ben Stiller, Elijah Wood, Oli "Power" Grant, Bijou Phillips, Claudia Schiffer and Marla Maples, with appearances by Tyson and "Rush Hour" director Brett Ratner as themselves. Screen Gems will release the film Wednesday.

--Compiled by Times staff writers

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