After Oscar, a Dream Project

Sean Mitchell is a regular contributor to Calendar

Kim Basinger appears almost nervous as she presents herself in a finely tailored dark suit that would remind no one of how lushly available she looked in "L.A. Confidential." She can't really be nervous, this woman of independent means and mythic cheekbones who walked up the aisle and took home an Oscar for best supporting actress two years ago. But you understand immediately how becoming it is for someone so glamorous to act this way as she extends her hand in an unguarded greeting.

"I'd like some ice tea," she says when the waiter appears at the table here in the nearly deserted hotel lounge in Beverly Hills. It is early afternoon, and she has just flown in from New York the night before. "We always had ice tea when I was a kid. I began drinking ice tea as far back as I can remember. Did you ever try it with pineapple?"

That was in Georgia, some time ago, before she went to New York to be a Ford model at the age of 17, before she posed for Playboy, before she let Mickey Rourke stimulate her with ice cubes in "9 1/2 Weeks," before she met Long Islander Alec Baldwin in "The Marrying Man" and then married him. They live in Amagansett now, at the end of Long Island, but in many ways she remains a Southern girl, ice tea and easy charm, openhearted and holding nothing back, ingenuous somehow, still at 46. Is there anything more ingenuous in Hollywood than not lying about your age? Or is it, rather, a mark of an actress who lives on the East Coast?

"For me I just don't see the point," she says. "I've never had that much of a relationship with a number. I've never let it be such an important thing in my life anyway."

Suffice it to say her relationship to her current number is vague, at best. She still looks like the babe Robert Redford squired in "The Natural." OK, she's wearing a little makeup.

"God knows, I'm jittery out there a lot of times and I'm very self-conscious, but when I come home and throw off my shoes I want to be me," she says. "I don't want to have anything that anybody else has. A lot of people in our business spend a lot of time wanting something that somebody else has. And you can't. You've got to have your own path."

She is in town to let people know where her path has been taking her lately, specifically that her first film since 1997's "L.A. Confidential," a movie called "I Dreamed of Africa," directed by Hugh Hudson, is about to open. In a notable departure from her vixen roles, she plays a dutiful wife and mother who gives up the comforts of home and privilege to risk the wrath of nature in the outback of Africa. It's both an emotionally tough film and dramatically low concept, essentially an episodic account of one woman's trials and transcendence in the face of tragedy and loss.

The film is based on a memoir of the same title, published in 1991 by Kuki Gallmann, an Italian, who has been Americanized by Basinger and the filmmakers. "It was a very fragile time for me," Basinger says, meaning after the success of "L.A. Confidential," which restored some of the faith she had lost in herself.

"I wondered, can I do this? My confidence got built back up on that film and I recognized the piece of me that I had sort of shut down, that piece that needs to create and go between 'action' and 'cut.' And I knew too that I wanted to do quality stuff, not just movies for movies' sake. So I said, I'm just going to wait. Something emotionally had to touch me. And then this came my way."

Hudson gives her high marks for trying something like "I Dreamed of Africa" after winning her Oscar. "Definitely. She could have done something easier," the director says. "But she's a fighter in real life, and she's playing a fighter here. I thought she was absolutely perfect for it. When I met her, I realized she had the same kind of determination as Kuki Gallmann."

When she hears of this endorsement, Basinger takes a moment to respond. "A fighter? I don't always like to refer to things as surviving, but yeah, there are certain lessons that you're supposed to learn in this life and, Lord knows, I've had my ups and downs. But I've certainly learned from all of them. I fight for things I believe in, trying to find the truth in all this mess that we're living in."

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Unspoken but unforgotten in any discussion of adversity with her is the "Boxing Helena" case from five years ago when a judge ordered her to pay more than $8 million for backing out of a verbal commitment to star in a picture for an independent company called Main Line Pictures, after which she filed for bankruptcy. She later reached an out-of-court settlement with the company.

"I have become strong in recent years, but I'm still naive in certain ways, and I think that's good," she says. It hasn't hurt the performing part of her that seems fueled by spring fever and a taste for something wild. "My husband thinks I'm naive. He'll say, 'Are you kidding?!' But I've always been a child in a lot of ways. That's why I now have the greatest friend in my life now in the daughter I gave birth to. When I buy tiny little things for her, I'll want one too!

"It's so weird. But in this life when you mention naivete, there's hope in that. I think it means you still give a lot of credence to dreams and you don't let people steal your soul. There are people in this life who will stick a straw in you and try to slurp you up."

Probably others will observe that Basinger's casting as Gallmann marks a farewell to her long line of lusty roles and a step into something more mature. While "I Dream of Africa" is in part a love story, pairing her with actor Vincent Perez, who plays her second husband and partner in the African adventure, their physical passion remains largely off camera, by choice.

Says Hudson, "I was torn in the beginning as to whether to show more of the sexual nature of their relationship--they couldn't keep their hands off each other is the truth. But it would have signaled Kim doing the same thing again. And so I became slightly chaste about it. She has no fear of sharing her sensuality on the screen, as you know, but we chose to show a more internal side of the woman."

"I think there was just enough," Basinger says. "I don't think 'sexy' is quite an appropriate word for this film. It's not about that."

Battling the elements, poachers, lions and poisonous snakes takes center stage. It's reminiscent of stories about the settling of the American frontier, only this frontier comes with elephants, Zulus and cobras.

Africa itself is very much a character: grand, overpowering, scenic, thrilling and deadly. "It's raw, the unexpected happens, you're thrown up against things you're not prepared for," says Hudson, who first came to Africa to make 1984's "Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan," but is perhaps best remembered for his first big feature, "Chariots of Fire" in 1981. "I think one is affected by the country. It's a tough place."

Making the decision to spend four months there, on location in Kenya and the Republic of South Africa, was difficult for Basinger, who was worried about taking her daughter, Ireland, to a remote place where there would be lots of scary creatures, little electricity and no running water.

"Everything in Africa has teeth," Basinger says. At some of the locations, puff adders, cobras and green mambas--snakes that travel across the top of sugar cane--were so plentiful, animal wranglers simply caged them for use in the movie.

In the weeks before departing in the fall of 1998, she would wake up in the middle of the night sweating and crying, telling Baldwin she wasn't sure she could do it. "He said, 'Not only will I go over with you, but it will be an adventure. You've got to do this part. You know you've got to do this part.' "

And so they went, as a family. "That was a really good decision," says Hudson. "And Alec was fantastically discreet," meaning he didn't meddle in the affairs of the film.

"In the morning you could just see him in his shorts and his big boots going across the property," Basinger recalls. "It was the funniest thing in the world. I had no water to take a bath. No water. Some days you could take it." She boiled water for her daughter's bath. "The freedom was intoxicating, though." Ireland started to learn Zulu. "Such gifts," she says.

I asked her if she thought moviegoers with working-class incomes could relate to her high-born character's decision to forsake a life of luxury to thrust herself into the dangers of the African bush. She finds the question odd. "If you've ever loved at all, anybody could relate to this film. Basically that's what I saw in this," she says.

"There's nothing in the world like being lost and then being found. And that's what happened to Kuki Gallmann. She found who she was, she found her soul in Africa."

Acknowledging the movie has emotional moments that are hard to take, Basinger says, "Yes, but it's also a beautiful lesson in how much a human being can endure."

Gallmann had never seen Basinger on screen when she learned that the actress was going to play her. "I live in a part of the world where I don't have a telephone," says Gallmann, speaking by phone from New York, where she had come for the premiere. "I never see films except on airplanes. I knew she was beautiful, but I was completely unbiased about her."

Gallmann has stayed in Africa, devoting herself to conservation and ecological issues. She now runs her own foundation directed at preserving the Africa she loves. She first saw the film at a special screening in London set up by producer Stanley Jaffe, who bought the rights to her book. "It was desperately difficult to watch it. I sat there with my daughter, holding hands and crying," Gallmann, 56, says. Jaffe asked her what she thought of the movie and she said, "I thought Kim was very good. I thought she was a real person. I thought she cried real tears."

"The role was the hardest thing I've ever taken on in my life," Basinger says. "Any actress would probably say that because it left nothing untouched. Every emotion you'd want to play in any kind of role you had to do there."

Remarking on the film's linear structure, Hudson says, "It is a memoir. In a way that's what it is: moments in her life, over 15 to 20 years. Chapters really. You can't get away from that." The film relies on five important sequences in which Basinger provides voice-over narration, the director says. "We had to get away from theatrical convention, but there's not only one way of doing things. 'American Beauty' was episodic--that man's journey. Here, we've got $30 [million] to $35 million at stake on something that's episodic by nature."

Since the low point of her "Boxing Helena" experience, Basinger seems to have been blessed by her marriage to Baldwin and then with the Academy Award for her part in Curtis Hanson's "L.A. Confidential," playing a sad prostitute made up to look like fetching 1940s actress Veronica Lake.

"L.A. Confidential," she says, taught her a lesson. "Initially I turned it down. I had just had my baby. I hadn't been on the screen in a long time and I was so in love with being a mom. I was like June Cleaver, seeing Alec off to work every day. 'Bye, Ward!' Then, my agent said, you ought to look at this again. I said, 'No, it's playing a call girl, I'm not doing that. I've been there, done that.' Then, when I reread it, I thought, 'I have to do it.' "

And now this. "I tell you what, that trip with my family changed my life. We were out of the country for six, seven months. It was a phenomenal experience. It was like Africa came to my door to remind me of the things that are truest in my heart. And you'll never be the same once you go there. You just inhale and you can never release it again. I know I'll go back to Africa, I know I will, one day, absolutely. And I'll take Ireland with me, too."

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How much has Baldwin influenced her? He of "A Streetcar Named Desire," "Glengarry Glenn Ross," politics and cerebration? "You know what Alec is," she answers. "Alec is a very solid soul in a lot of ways. The things I most admire about Alec are his passion, his devotion to the things he cares about: the underdog, this world, the environment. I don't know if he'll ever go into politics, if he really aspires to do that anymore. Pieces of him definitely do. We don't talk much about that now. He's focusing on his career now, and he needs to do that."

As we speak, Baldwin is back on Long Island, working out with a personal trainer to prepare for a role in fire-and-pain producer Jerry Bruckheimer's "Pearl Harbor."

"We are so different, so different," Basinger says. "He and I are two very strong-willed people. We argue, we fight, but you know what I've learned? To accept his way of getting to where it is he has to go. Because we realize that our goal is exactly the same.

"He's inspired me to go on my own journey and do what I need to do, what my heart tells me that I need to do. Verbally the man is extremely gifted. That can go both ways: You can use that gift as a weapon sometimes and you can use it so brilliantly. When he uses it that way, I'm his No. 1 fan. On the other hand, I've heard the other way, too, and I don't go there, OK?"

She laughs easily at her own remark.

"The man who people know in public, who speaks up on so-and-so and makes these remarks about so-and-so and everything? I can't keep up with all that. I don't even listen to it. When these things happen, I'm the last to find out. 'He did? He said what?' I am the last to know. And he's always going off here or there to make a speech. It's not that I choose not to keep up with it, I can't keep up with it. I know the real him, who had to make up for what he thought he didn't have.

"I've opened his eyes a little bit to the animal kingdom and the atrocities that are going on in this world when it comes to animals. I think he was very unaware of that. But we go back and forth on this political stuff because, Lord knows, if he runs, I'm running, too, in the opposite direction. It's been an old joke with us. When he starts having these conversations about politics, I run in the bathroom and turn up the radio as loud as I can."

Fortunately, he was seated next to her at the Shrine Auditorium the night of the Academy Awards in 1998. "It's still surrealistic to me," she says. "There's not much I remember about it all. I barely remember walking up there. We had resolved that Gloria [Stuart] was going to win. So when they called my name--you can't ignore the physical thing that happens. I mean my seat got hot. I felt my seat getting hot. But I couldn't move. Then I looked at Alec and he was looking back at me and he mouthed the words, 'Get up.' "

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