SNAP JUDGMENT: BOOKS

A Great Improvisation by Stacy SchiffThe rage for books about the Founding Fathers is turning into a rage for one founder in particular, Benjamin Franklin. Reading Pulitzer Prize winner Schiff's absorbing account of Franklin's crucial attempt to win French support for the American Revolution, you see why. Droll and sly, Franklin--now the subject of five books in three years--charmed and outmaneuvered his decadent European hosts at every turn. Time has only burnished his charisma.Nice Big American Baby by Judy BudnitzBudnitz is a riveting young short-story writer whose weird fairy tales burrow toward truths we may or may not want to see. A pregnant woman, presumably Mexican, is so desperate that her baby be born in the United States that she carries him for years until she can finally sneak across the border. A woman's parents get lost on the way to visit and career into an unnamed evil. Budnitz has misgivings about America's place in the world. But she avoids even the names of...

Grecian Formula

Brad Pitt's quest for credibility has been only a qualified success, so his first scene in Wolfgang Petersen's epic "Troy" is not just the movie's most titillating--he is revealed butt-naked, sleeping off a threesome in a tent--but its most nervous-making as well: he opens his mouth and starts acting. Given Pitt's fascination with subverting expectations, it's easy to imagine why he was drawn to Achilles. Here's a warrior, taken from Homer's Iliad, of course, who's supremely arrogant yet roiling in self-loathing. Still, it took guts for Pitt to sign on for the role. With his flowing locks, helmet and breastplate, Achilles could look to audiences every inch the tragic hero--or like a guy about to deliver a kinky strip-o-gram.Either way, no one's going to complain. "Troy" is a fun, energizing piece of summer entertainment, even if it doesn't have the depth or the sustained intensity of "Gladiator." The story, as Homer proved, does not lend itself to paraphrase, but here goes. The...

Grecian Formula

Brad Pitt's quest for credibility has been only a qualified success, so his first scene in Wolfgang Petersen's epic "Troy" is not just the movie's most titillating--he is revealed butt-naked, sleeping off a threesome in a tent--but its most nervous-making as well: he opens his mouth and starts acting. Given Pitt's fascination with subverting expectations, it's easy to imagine why he was drawn to Achilles. Here's a warrior, taken from Homer's Iliad, of course, who's supremely arrogant yet roiling in self-loathing. Still, it took guts for Pitt to sign on for the role. With his flowing locks, helmet and breastplate, Achilles could look to audiences every inch the tragic hero--or like a guy about to deliver a kinky strip-o-gram.Either way, no one's going to complain. "Troy" is a fun, energizing piece of summer entertainment, even if it doesn't have the depth or the sustained intensity of "Gladiator." The story, as Homer proved, does not lend itself to paraphrase, but here goes. The...

Secrets Of 'The King'

Can't Break This Hobbit: Will Frodo Destroy The Ring? Will Aragorn Wear The Crown? An Exclusive First Look At Director Peter Jackson's Exhilarating 'Lord Of The Rings' Finale, 'The Return Of The King'--And At The Battles The Cast Waged On-Screen And Off

TURKEY TIME: BENNIFER GETS BASTED

For months, there was talk of trouble--a calamitous test screening, an altercation between a director and a studio exec, a chemistry worse than Cruise and Kidman's, a movie in search of an ending. In fact, reports about the making of "Gigli" were so toxic that you began to wonder if they could really be true. Surely no movie could be that bad.As it turns out, "Gigli" is not as wretched as Madonna and Guy Ritchie's "Swept Away," but after the schadenfreudian thrill of watching beautiful people humiliate themselves wears off, it has the same annihilating effect on your will to live. Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez will survive "Gigli." But it will be interesting to see what becomes of the director, Martin Brest. He's made good movies-- "Beverly Hills Cop" and "Midnight Run"--but his last outing, "Meet Joe Black," was so godawful that it and "Gigli" seem like the first two parts of a trilogy. What you see to the right is what lawyers like to call parody sprinkled with "fair use." The...

Who's Afraid Of Virginia Wolf?

Meryl Streep walks into a hotel suite high above Central Park, with Julianne Moore and Nicole Kidman close on her heels. It is, of course, a sight to behold. There are worse ways for journalists to spend an afternoon. The women have converged to discuss Stephen Daldry's "The Hours," which opens later this month and which is based on Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. The film interweaves what are essentially three miniature movies about three women who live decades apart and who, despite mourning for something they can't quite name, actually have a lust for life--just not for the ones they're living. Kidman (with a custom-built nose) plays a suicidal Virginia Woolf, who seems to want to live only long enough to write "Mrs. Dalloway." Moore is a '50s housewife, who wants to live only long enough to read it. And Streep plays a modern-day Manhattanite, who seems to have actually become Mrs. Dalloway and realizes she's lost the thread of her life as she plans a party for...

Newsmakers

Some Seins of LifeJerry Seinfeld believes in nothing like nobody's business: he devoted his sitcom to it, not to mention the past few years of his life. These days, however, he is clearly up to something. The funny, revealing new documentary "Comedian" follows Seinfeld--as well as a promising and tightly wound comic named Orny Adams--as he heads back to the clubs with the agonizing, electrifying task of creating a new stand-up routine from scratch. Seinfeld is one of the most unflappable celebrities in history. Still, there are moments in the film--when he forgets his train of thought in the middle of a bit, or groans offstage about lousy audiences--when he looks very nearly flapped. Just hearing him use the F word is a revelation of sorts.Not for a second, of course, do you believe somebody as brilliant as Seinfeld could fail. The comedian is doing his new act in theaters around the country now--he'll hit Minneapolis, Detroit, Buffalo, Chicago, Tampa and St. Louis before...

In The Company Of Victorian Poets

Neil LaBute's "Possession" is bad, but not spectacularly bad, which is disappointing. It's tempting to think that having made his name with two smart, unpleasant movies about misogyny and misanthropy ("In the Company of Men" and "Your Friends & Neighbors"), LaBute took on A. S. Byatt's romantic best seller because he wanted to destroy it from within and demonstrate once and for all what a lie and a nuisance love is. Sadly, his "Possession" isn't some brilliant act of sabotage. It's just an ordinary failure.The movie concerns a crass American researcher (Aaron Eckhart) and an uppity British academic (Gwyneth Paltrow) who plod through the love-hate mating dance while attempting to prove that a legendary Victorian poet and famously devout husband (Jeremy Northam) actually did some bodice ripping on the sly with a minor poet (Jennifer Ehle). LaBute hurries between love stories. Paltrow and Eckhart do some Nancy Drew sleuthing and some wooden emoting. The dead poets come to life, but...

Out Of This World

Hollywood Is Fat And Happy With Its Summer Of Sequels. Meanwhile, In A Galaxy Far, Far Away -Philadelphia--Director M. Night Shyamalan Is Proving Himself To Be Our Next Great Storyteller. A Close Encounter With The Man Behind 'Signs'

Luminous Novel From Dark Master

Ian McEwan began his career in the mid-'70s in Britain with a series of short, sharp shocks. His dark, chilling stories and novels made "Lord of the Flies" look like a weekend retreat and were consoling only insofar as they were lean, brilliant and addictive. McEwan wrote a story about a 14-year-old boy who loses his virginity by molesting his 10-year-old sister ("Homemade"). He wrote novels about kids who bury Mother in a trunk in the basement ("The Cement Garden," later a movie from which Madonna plucked the dialogue sample that opens "What It Feels Like for a Girl") and young lovers caught up in an older couple's murderous sex games ("The Comfort of Strangers," later a movie with Rupert Everett and Natasha Richardson).McEwan has long since left the macabre behind--in 1998 he won the Booker Prize for a knowing, mordantly comic novel about creativity, morality and middle age, entitled "Amsterdam." But no one could have predicted how far afield he would travel for his latest novel, ...

The Heart Of Her Matter

Alice Munro's latest collection of stories, "Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage," isn't as good as her best work, but then virtually nothing is. For 30-odd years, Munro's been writing about the hungry hearts and thwarted lives of rural Canadian women with an X-ray vision approaching Chekhov's. She's the least showy of writers. Often, as in her masterful 1994 collection "Open Secrets," you don't realize how gripping and transporting her stories are until you finish one: re-entering the real world is like trying to step out of a moving car."Hateship, etc."--the title grows on you, but only a little--is a moving, if uneven, collection about the pain people carry around. About their neediness and their denial. About how they expect you to save their lives when you're too busy drowning. In the fine title story, a lonely maid writes to a man she hardly knows. Two teenage girls intercept the letters and write such steamy replies ("My darlingest Johanna...") that the maid...

Books: Errors And 'Corrections'

The one thing that Jonathan Franzen and everyone else agree on is that Jonathan Franzen should have kept his big mouth shut. Franzen's new novel, "The Corrections," had gotten an extraordinary parade of glowing reviews, though NEWSWEEK's Malcolm Jones begged to differ. It had topped The New York Times best-seller list, been nominated for a National Book Award and chosen for Oprah's Book Club. Wait a minute. Oprah's Book Club? Franzen wasn't sure he liked the sound of that. He told interviewers that he felt uncomfortable having her "logo of corporate ownership" on his book. That being chosen for her Book Club made him feel "misunderstood" ("I feel like I'm solidly in the high-art literary tradition"). And that he knew there were people who boycotted books simply because Winfrey had endorsed them ("She's picked some good books, but she's picked enough schmaltzy, one-dimensional ones that I cringe, myself, even though I think she's really smart and she's really fighting the good fight"...

Six Degrees Of Alienation

Elizabeth Benedict's new novel, "Almost," has a wonderfully blithe, carefree first sentence: "I have this boyfriend who comes to visit me--it's mostly a sex thing." That's also the last blithe, carefree sentence in the novel, incidentally. It's the last time our narrator, a middle-aged writer and recovering alcoholic named Sophy Chase, will ever believe that anything between two people can be simple--or even that anything can be between just two people. Early in "Almost," Sophy and her married lover are busily having their great sex ("The current surged through me and flooded my brain, and I thought, What would I give up for this? My first edition of 'To the Lighthouse'? My twelve Billie Holiday CDs? A husband who used to tell me how sweet it was to see my sheepskin slippers next to his on the floor of the closet?") when the phone rings. It's the police, informing Sophy that her depressed husband, Will, whom she'd finally walked out on a few months earlier, has been found dead in...

When We Were Kings

Bill Murray is working the room: enter at your own risk. It's a drizzly morning in New Jersey, and director Wes Anderson is shooting "The Royal Tenenbaums," a comedy due in December about one deeply eccentric family's attempt to survive divorce, heartache, the '70s and each other. A vast old WPA building has been transformed into a hospital, and between takes Murray rambles around the set. He pretends to scold Gwyneth Paltrow ("Hey, are you in character?"), then pretends to comfort Ben Stiller ("You're our rock. You gotta keep it together"). He pretends to be furious with the soft-spoken director ("Bill?" "What?! You're riding us too hard, Wes!"), then complains to producer Barry Mendel that Anderson's turned into a gonzo taskmaster like the man who directed "Pearl Harbor" ("Hey, Barry, who died and made him Michael Bay?"). In a quiet moment Murray reflects on his chances of winning an Oscar someday. "My only hope's a Hersholt award," he says. "It's a humanitarian thing. I gotta...

Rock 'N Roll Mama

Before you judge Bebe Buell--before you dismiss her as merely the mother of Liv Tyler, or the ex-girlfriend of Steven Tyler, or the ex-girlfriend of Jimmy Page, Mick Jagger, Iggy Pop, Rod Stewart, Elvis Costello and Todd Rundgren--you really should see her rock. "Come to one of my shows!" she'll tell you. "Let me beat you up! Then make up your mind." Fair enough. On a July evening Buell, 48, and her band take the stage at CBGB's in New York. Buell is playful, magnetic and clearly exhilarated at being the rock star for a change. She belts out some bright punk tunes, dances and struts like Tyler and Jagger, strokes the microphone stand suggestively and shakes her hair (among other things). Liv looks on proudly from the crowd. Later, when you ask if her daughter is ever embarrassed by the Bebe Show, Buell reflects for a moment. "I think she would prefer it if I didn't take my pants off when I performed," she says. "I don't do it all the time, but sometimes the Iggy does enter my blood...

Revenge Of The Nerds

Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) hate everyone, except for the people everyone else hates. They've just graduated from high school and are forgoing college in order to concentrate full time on rolling their eyes and making withering comments. Early in Terry Zwigoff's "Ghost World," Enid and Rebecca read a personal ad from a man trying to track down a blonde he thinks he had a "moment" with. They think it'd be hilarious to call the guy, pretend to be the blonde--"Oh, we totally have to"--and then watch him sit for hours in some diner waiting for a rendezvous. It turns out that the man is named Seymour (Steve Buscemi), and he's a sad case: a total misfit, an obsessive collector of blues 78s, a guy who hasn't had a date in years. Enid is touched and befriends him. "In a way, he's such a clueless dork," she says, "he's actually kind of cool.""Ghost World," based on the comic book by Daniel Clowes, is a funny, deadpan tribute to adolescence, to improbable friendships...

The Trouble With Hairy

The apes in Tim Burton's "Planet of the Apes" look tremendously regal, but the heavy makeup makes the actors sound thick-tongued and muffled: it's like they're all wearing retainers. Fortunately, you can follow the plot without subtitles. An Air Force pilot named Leo Davidson (Mark Wahlberg) gets knocked into the future by an electromagnetic storm, and crashes onto a planet where humans are caged and apes give boring dinner parties. Even if you've never seen the 1968 Charlton Heston flick--which Burton updates with broad and playful strokes--you'll have no trouble understanding what a screenwriter might call Leo's "motivation." He wants to get the hell off the planet.Thanks to Burton, you will want to stay awhile. "Planet of the Apes" has its flaws, but at its best it's a fleet, fun action movie--and certainly one of the cooler blockbusters that Hollywood will cough up this godforsaken summer. Shortly after being captured, Leo stages a jailbreak, and leads a small band through the...

The Wizard Of Oddities

John Irving's "The Fourth Hand" manages to be both entertaining and unpleasant: you turn the pages faster and faster, in part because you're dying for it to be over. The novel concerns a bland, studly TV reporter named Patrick Wallingford. Wallingford deplores the crass, ratings-driven news business but can't seem to climb out of a rut doing cheesy disaster segments for a lame 24-hour news network. Then, as if in punishment for his lack of moral courage, he becomes a disaster segment himself: circus lions eat his left hand on live TV.What follows is a pretty standard Irving romp about crisscrossing destinies. This particular romp, though, is polluted by the author's snide portrayal of the female characters, who are almost universally manipulative and shrewish. The women in Wallingford's life are all desperate to have a baby with him--or to chop off something other than his hand. There's Wallingford's wife, who dumps him after the accident, saying, "Missing a hand... you're nothing...

Hustler Chic

J T Leroy's first novel, "Sarah," was a story of innocence not just lost but kicked, beaten and shot through the heart. The book, which was at least partially autobiographical, concerned a boy who idolized his addict-hooker mother so much that he began dressing as a girl and turning tricks at a truck stop when he was 12. "Sarah" was dark and freaky, but unapologetically entertaining. It included what has to be the most rip-roaring rescue mission ever pulled off by transvestite prostitutes in a tractor-trailer. The book made the best- seller lists in San Francisco and Los Angeles last year. LeRoy is now 21 and something of a cult figure. The acknowledgments page of his new story collection, "The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things," cites his friends Courtney Love, Dorothy Allison, Mary Gaitskill, Mary Karr, Gus Van Sant, Suzanne Vega and John Waters, among others. Anybody who's lived the life that LeRoy has needs a support system--and, between them, the folks on that page have...

'A.I.'? Ay-Yi-Yi!

This is an emergency message to moviegoers who've been reading rave reviews of Steven Spielberg's new film, "A.I.," and who, as a result, may be under the mistaken impression that it's good. "A.I." is, in fact, a cold, muddled, endless spectacle that attempts to be both a Spielberg movie and a Stanley Kubrick movie and ends up being neither. You certainly shouldn't take your children-despite the presence of Haley Joel Osment and his deeply annoying walking-talking teddy bear, the film's much too violent and unsettling for kids-and you should think long and hard about taking yourself.So why are so many critics so mesmerized? Well, why did Time magazine put "Eyes Wide Shut" on the cover and call it a "masterpiece"? Why did the New York Times pretend that "Phantom Menace" didn't stink? Critics are a strange breed of people who love to be contrary and who are so sick and tired of formulaic Hollywood garbage that they tend to overcompensate by raving about movies that have anything...

You Need Some 'Schooling'

Your first impressions of Heather McGowan are that she's funny, smart, solitary and, at the moment anyway, sort of freaking out. She wants her first novel, "Schooling," to speak for itself. She declined to pose for a book-jacket photo, and her about-the-author blurb says virtually nothing about the author. Now you've called her in Providence for an interview, a photographer's on the way and McGowan has an endearing case of stage fright. You ask her who she reads, and there's an epic pause: "Oh, God, that's such a dangerous question." You ask her about her hopes for "Schooling." She knows whatever she says will be quoted, and she pauses again, then laughs at herself: "God, I'm just so fearful right now I can't even speak."That's OK, you can talk for a while. "Schooling" is a moving, challenging, almost bewilderingly beautiful novel about 13-year-old Catrine Evans. Catrine's American, but after her mother dies her father dumps her at an English boarding school. She's lost. Her accent...

Arts Extra: Here, There And Everywhere

Time was when Beatles fans were starving masses. First, they hungered for a reunion-a dream that died along with John Lennon in 1980. Next, fans pinned their hopes on the Beatles's legendary archives, fantasizing that the band would start releasing secret treasures. Oddities. Rarities. Studio banter. Original takes of "Strawberry Fields Forever" (when it was just a beautiful little folk song) or "The Long and Winding Road" (before producer Phil Spector slimed it with all those sickly strings). Something. Anything. ...

Interview: Ben Affleck

Ben Affleck plays a pilot who volunteers for the Battle of Britain. He spoke with NEWSWEEK's Jeff Giles. ...

Jonesing For Miss Bridget

It's late July in England, and it's been as hot as 120 degrees on the set of "Bridget Jones's Diary." Today, gratefully, the heat has broken on the soundstage. It's 106 degrees. The frazzled, lovelorn singleton works in publishing--actually, "works" might be too strong a word--and it turns out that reproducing the flat, fluorescent glare of an office is something of a special effect, requiring three times the usual lighting. Between takes, Renee Zellweger clumps about un-self-consciously in black stiletto boots, her cheeks flushed from the heat, her hair tumbling out of a barrette, her nylons pushed down to her knees. "The boys won't know," she whispers, in her newly acquired British lilt. The temperature must be getting to Zellweger because when asked if she's nervous about her accent, the native Texan launches into a standard-issue, PR-savvy reply --"I don't think about it," etc.--then suddenly puts her head in her hands and wails, "Oh, God, I hope it doesn't suck!" Nearby, Hugh...

Cool So Is Thriller This

You are a young, independent-movie director, and Oscar nominee Steven Soderbergh has just left a screening of your new film absolutely convinced that the independent-movie scene is dead. Surely this is not a good thing. But wait. Slow down. Soderbergh actually loved your movie--he's just flabbergasted because every distributor in town has seen it, and apparently nobody's had the guts to buy it. "If somebody had sent me that script, I would have asked if I could have directed it," he'll say later. "I mean, it's exactly the kind of movie I love. I sat there in the audience and felt like he made that movie for me. Personally." Soderbergh doesn't even know you. Still, he calls some distributors and demands to know why they haven't picked up your movie. "Some of them claimed not to have seen it. Others said, 'We just couldn't figure out how to sell it. It's too smart'." So your film made even independent-movie types nervous. What's your name, by the way? And what the hell kind of movie...

A Great New Aerosmith Cd?

Aerosmith's latest offering, "Just Push Play," comes on so strong--with such flashy, swaggering, Zeppelin-esque bravado--that you've got to listen to the CD several times before you realize how deeply terrible it is. Hectic. Overproduced. Desperate to sound edgy and newfangled. And the lyrics? Part of Steven Tyler's appeal has always been his childlike obsession with jive talk and wordplay--it's hard to think of anyone in the history of rock who's sung more gibberish--but the empty-headedness of the songs here will disappoint even longtime fans. On the title track, Tyler recycles his famous directive "walk this way." Apparently, he couldn't think of anything else that rhymed with "f--kin' a!" ...

Arts Extra: Unreviewable

Recently, NEWSWEEK's film critic, David Ansen, went on vacation, and it fell to me to review movies for three weeks. Initially, it struck me as odd that David had chosen to take time off so soon after the holidays. Then I looked at the schedule of upcoming movies, and the blood drained from my face. David is not only a graceful, analytical writer, but also a shrewd son of a bitch. What garbage the studios release this time of year! In December, they deliver the movies they're proudest of, flooding the theaters with their highbrow fare and their socially conscious epics, so as to be eligible for Academy Awards. Then, in January, they begin releasing junk almost without exception. The rest of the winter season has become such a giant dumping ground that you can hear the seagulls wheeling overhead. ...

Cate Expectations

Cate Blanchett is everything you expected--and so much more bald. The actress recently shaved her head for a role, and when you first see her, emerging from a hotel elevator in Portland, Ore., she's got a shaggy red wig stuffed into her handbag and looks like someone trying to sneak a dog onto a plane. She greets you warmly, but warily. As you anticipated, Being Interviewed does not appear on her Top 10,000 List of Favorite Things. Blanchett is carrying half a dozen videos from Blockbuster--"Some Like It Hot," "Roman Holiday," etc.--and as an icebreaker you say, Do we have to watch all those? She smiles. "We could. It'd save us having to talk." Blanchett gets tongue-tied when forced to hold forth on the subject of Cate Blanchett. She'd rather discuss art, theater, Jane Fonda, the geological history of various continents--even the T shirt on that guy across the street. Before submitting to the interview, Blanchett transfers her wig to her assistant's handbag and deadpans, with a kind...

Geek Love

In a recent interview, Amy Heckerling said that she always got a kick out of being referred to as "'Clueless' director Amy Heckerling," and that she named her new movie "Loser" in the hopes of being called "'Loser' director Amy Heckerling." Be careful what you wish for. "Loser" is a disappointingly slack, hackneyed comedy. It squeaks by only because its stars are so endearing and because the whole enterprise is such a manifestly sincere, if stumbling, paean to underdogs that the movie itself becomes one more loser you're rooting for.Paul Tannek (Jason Biggs) is a sweet, klutzy rube entering his freshman year in Manhattan. His roommates--comically nasty, glammed-out posers--mock him at every turn, then get him booted out of the dorm. Paul winds up living in a veterinary hospital and falls for the only other nonevil human being in New York City, a broke alterna-babe named Dora (Mena Suvari). Unfortunately, Dora is having an affair with her increasingly loathsome and supercilious...

The Unfriendly Ghost

This first paragraph is specifically addressed to the most pragmatic moviegoers: people who want to see something on Saturday night, and just need to know if "What Lies Beneath" is worth $8.50. Given what else is out there, sure. Robert Zemeckis's Hitchcockian ghost story has a couple of movie stars, a couple of jokes and a couple of jolts. If that's all you need to know, stop reading here because what lies beneath this paragraph may spoil a few plot points.OK, now that they're gone, let's really talk. "What Lies Beneath" is a slick but surprisingly empty genre movie that builds to a not particularly shocking shock. As the movie opens, Claire Spencer (Michelle Pfeiffer) packs her daughter off for college and prepares to deal with empty-nest syndrome. Only her nest isn't empty. Her second husband, a workaholic scientist named Norman (Harrison Ford), may be in the lab night and day, trying to work his way out of his famous father's shadow. But a pretty young ghost (model Amber...

It's A Mutant, Mutant World

Puberty can make anybody feel like a mutant. But young Rogue (Anna Paquin) has got it particularly bad: she recently discovered that if she touches people for too long, she drains their life force and they die quaking in pain. Dating, clearly, is a problem. "The first boy I ever kissed ended up in a coma for three weeks," Rogue tells her fellow mutant Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) early in Bryan Singer's smart, sleek and mordantly funny "X-Men." Wolverine, a furtive and menacing loner with a motorcycle jacket and Civil War sideburns, understands completely. He can make footlong blades flash out from between his knuckles; ordinarily he uses them to keep enemies at bay, but once in a while he stabs a friend by accident. Human contact is not his specialty either."X-Men," adapted from Stan Lee's enormously popular Marvel Comics series, spins out a complicated story, but all it really wants to know is, Why can't everybody just get along? Mutants can pass for regular folks. Because their DNA...

Young Wonder From Down Under

It was a storybook moment--or at least it was meant to be. A young Australian actor, so broke he's been bumming money off his agent, finally snags an audition that could jump-start his career. And, man, does he screw it up. "I had two scenes prepared," says Heath Ledger, 21, of his first meeting with the makers of "The Patriot." "Halfway through the second scene,I stood up and left. I said, 'I'm awfully sorry and I'm awfully embarrassed, but I'm wasting your time. I'm going to get up right now, and I'm going to walk out that door. Thanks for your time, but I'm giving you a bad reading. Catch you later'.'' Ledger pauses. "I wasn't comfortable being there. I wasn't comfy in my own skin. It had been a long and hard year. I was dead broke. I was starving... So I left. I walked down the hallway with my tail between my legs and my head sunk."Fortunately, Ledger's agent begged for another audition, and the rest is American history. Despite mixed reviews--and some sniping from British...

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