Hell bent for leather

All I've ever wanted out of life was to be reassured that movie stars weren't enjoying themselves any more than I was. A simple request, but one that became harder to support last Friday night, as I made my way down a flood-drenched Orange Blossom Trail for my rendezvous with Bridget Fonda. As a friend and I stopped every few blocks to "wait out" the never-ending downpour (eventually giving up and soldiering on ahead through weather not meant for those with nonfunctioning windshield wipers), I became fixated on a mental image of Fonda traversing the same roads, toasty warm and dry within the confines of her limousine. My egalitarian fantasy was not working.

Fonda was in town to promote "Lake Placid," a horror vehicle that was having its premiere at Kissimmee's Gatorland reptile park. While sharing the screen with a mechanical crocodile in an old-fashioned "B" picture could hardly have been a career highlight, she had agreed to take part in a public debut that was perfect in its choice of venue. A downriver nightmare getting a showing at the South's leading haven for all things scaly -- what could be more fitting? "Boogie Nights" bowing at Parliament House, perhaps.

Just as I had surmised, the actress was crisp and unruffled when we finally arrived at the park. Standing on a bridge a few feet above Gatorland's murky depths, she sported a white dress and matching robe that were free of water spots and creases. Tungsten lights provided a halo effect around her hair as she smiled her way through a long series of interviews with Orlando's media flacks and camera crews, notable for their plastic rain gear and soggy, squeaking tennis shoes. Even from inches away, she was flawlessly beautiful. I think we all hated her a little.

Not to be outdone on the haberdashery front, another tastefully attired special guest soon joined Fonda at interview central. It was one of the park's gator mascots, outfitted in a black top hat for the auspicious occasion. As a wrangler handed him over for Fonda to hold, I noted that the miniature handbag-to-be was a dead ringer for the one that had shared my table at the previous weekend's Florida Film Festival awards gala at Universal Studios. Boy, does that little guy get around. One of these days, I may come home and find him waiting in my bathtub.

Working for scale

The starlet kept up a happy face throughout the leather-lugging ordeal, doing her best not to convey any disappointment at being sent on a promotional trip that had to lie between "USO tour" and "mall opening" on the glamour scale. But her patience appeared to reach its breaking point when she was called upon to assist in the "gator jumparoo," one of the park's traditional feeding-time attractions. In it, a whole, uncooked chicken was sent out over the water on a fishing line, giving the snapping animals a sitting-duck target at which to hungrily lunge. Called upon to launch the final bird, Fonda politely declined. Soon thereafter, she and her handlers disappeared into a conference room with a few Gatorland representatives. I could only guess at what was being said, but the chagrined expression one participant was wearing when he emerged tipped me off that it hadn't been "Can I feed the bears next?"

Inclement weather and a possibly sour celebrity: what a great time for an interview! Allowed into the inner sanctum for an overdue chat with Fonda, I found her in better spirits than I had feared, but somewhat hard to believe in her insistence that she had jumped at the chance to star in "Lake Placid" as soon as she had read a copy of its working script.

"God, I love this character," she remembered herself thinking, taken in by the lead role of a paleontologist whose "contradictions" made her "resistant to the very thing that's going to free her" -- not her pursuit of a mammoth, man-eating crocodile, but love with an equally obsessed fish-and-game warden played by Bill Pullman. (God, why does it always have to be Bill Pullman?)

"So what you're saying is that you'd recommend the introduction of a reptile to anyone who wants to make a relationship work?" I inquired.

"Yes," she grinned. "The croc unites us all."

I think I caught her drift.

Watch your luggage

A few minutes later, "Lake Placid" was screened before an audience of journalists and other special guests. And of course, nothing we saw on screen remotely resembled the Stanislavskian tour de force Fonda had earlier described. Closer to "Anaconda" in spirit, it told the tale of an Asian Pacific crocodile that somehow found its way to the waters of Maine, where it began devouring the unwary like nobody's business. The script's few stabs at wit could be attributed to writer-producer David E. Kelley, who had apparently supplied the movie's cast of squabbling hunters with all of the rejected insult lines he had red-penned out of his previous episodes of "Ally McBeal."

That said, it was pretty enjoyable for what it was: diverting cheese. I had to admire the nonsensical casting, which had resulted in the never-to-be-repeated teaming of Fonda, Pullman, Oliver Platt, "The General's" Brendan Gleeson and Betty White. My eyebrows went up in stunned admiration when White was seen feeding the voracious lizard an actual, full-grown cow; later, another bovine was strapped into a harness and flown out over the lake as living, mooing bait. Let's see Gatorland make a dinnertime show out of THAT.

As it turned out, the park was a decent place to see a movie. The makeshift screen that had been erected in front of the gator-wrestling pen was clear and clean, and the sound system boasted a stereo separation that easily equaled that of many THX-equipped theaters. I was slightly unnerved, though, by the inability to distinguish the animal grunts coming from the speakers with the ones emanating from the Gatorland holding pens in the distance. The audience is listening, and it's brought mace in its purse.

When the film was over, we all filed out past three director's chairs that had remained unoccupied throughout the screening. My guess was that one had been reserved for Fonda, who hadn't been seen since the preshow feeding. She might have been tired from her trip or turned away by the damp night air -- or busy looking for a new agent. It was her loss. She had missed out on a moviegoing experience of the sort that doesn't come along often. Who among us wouldn't count cow consumption, surround sound and free beer and popcorn among the finest things life has to offer? I may be over this star-envy business, after all.


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