Miss Congeniality

FT. LEE, N.J., IS DEEP HOWARD Stern country. Which is a disaster for the goateed MTV producer shooting a special promoting Stern's movie debut, ""Private Parts.'' The concept is to confront unsuspecting Ft. Lee residents who've never heard of radio's most infamous provocateur, or hate his guts, and then win them over. They crash a Korean supermarket, Stern looking like Beavis and Butt-head's idea of the Grim Reaper: 6-foot-5 freak in a black overcoat, shades and a mane of bad, heavy-metal hair. He accosts a sushi chef who barely speaks English but somehow knows Stern. An Iranian woman with a scarf on her head and a thick accent not only knows him but promises to see the movie, even after Stern asks her if she's a lesbian. A man in the street calls out, ""Howard, my hero! You're like a religion.'' Same story all day long. Stern calls his agent from the limo. ""The problem is,'' he explains with amused exasperation, ""everybody likes me.''

Not quite everybody. Skeptics might say that in a place like Ft. Lee, Stern is preaching to the perverted. ""Howard Stern is the ""motherf---ing Antichrist,'' thunders one character in the movie, a view shared by legions of Howard-haters nationwide. These are the masses he needs to win over if ""Private Parts,'' based on his best-selling autobiography, is going to be more than just a cult film for hard-core fans and fans of hard core.

The self-crowned King of All Media's loyal subjects guarantee that the movie will open big the weekend of March 7. Reviewers and word-of-mouth decide its fate after that. Paramount held test screenings in cities where Stern is not on the radio, and studio execs claim those audiences liked the movie better than ""Forrest Gump.'' At a press junket in New York two weeks ago, critics who thought they loathed Stern found themselves loving him. Vilified as a filthy, racist, sexist shock jock for much of his 20-year career, he seems dangerously close to winning a popularity contest. Not bad for the Antichrist.

""Miss America'' was the mocking title pose of his second best-selling book. But now Stern really is acting like Miss Congeniality. ""I swear to you, the goal of this film was not some sort of campaign for people to love me,'' Stern says. ""The goal for me was to make a funny movie.'' We're in his office, a small, hot room at KROQ, the New York alt-rock station where Stern does his five-hour morning radio show (and the half-hour version for his E! cable show), which is heard in 35 cities by 10 million listeners. The dEcor is unremarkable except for a few awards and a large black-and-white photograph of two lingerie-clad women in bed, cavorting with an 8-by-10 glossy of Stern. He's in his usual aging-rock-star get-up--ripped jeans, army boots, multiple hoop earrings--and, as always, talking faster than most humans think. ""There are people who hate my guts who will never go to see this film. And I know they would love it. That's what's killing me. You need to reach out in some way to those people.''

The last time Howard Stern reached out, it was to grab a handful of silicone, courtesy of one of his porn-star guests. But ""Private Parts'' reveals the sensitive Stern: the shy kid from Long Island whose father called him a moron, the beanpole geek who couldn't score a date with a blind girl--yet who somehow persuaded his college sweetheart to marry him and stick by him ever since. ""The movie is a little love letter,'' says Mary McCormack, who plays Stern's wife, Alison. This is not ""The People vs. Howard Stern.'' It's ""The Jewish Patient.'' Stern says that when his wife saw the finished version, she cried.

She probably wouldn't have, at least not for the same reasons, if her husband had followed through with his original cinematic vision: ""The Adventures of Fartman.'' In fact, ""Private Parts'' opens with Stern's disastrous, buttocks-exposing appearance on the MTV Awards five years ago as a flatulent superhero. Stern spent years rejecting terrible scripts (Richard Simmons baby-sitting his kids!), including his own. ""They'd go, "Wait, you're rejecting your own script? That's impossible.' I said, "It's s--t'.''

Word leaked out that Stern was ""difficult,'' afraid to make a movie. Not true, he insists: ""I'm the guy that showed his cheeks on MTV--and they're not pretty. I'm not afraid of anything.'' Ivan Reitman understood. The veteran director-producer took the project on and assigned his trusted scribe, Len Blum (""Meatballs,'' ""Stripes''), with the screenplay. They delivered a script that played up the romance with Alison and the ""Rocky'' story of a chump turned champ who battled the odds and FCC-sensitive station managers to become the No. 1 deejay in the country's No. 1 radio market. Naturally, there are also dirty jokes, lesbian sex scenes and Stern's proudest broadcasting milestone: the first naked woman on radio.

To direct, Reitman hired Betty Thomas, who'd made an edgy showbiz satire out of HBO's Letterman-Leno movie, ""The Late Shift.'' These were pros: everyone knew what he was doing--except the star. ""That first day I got on the set, I was in pretty bad shape,'' Stern says. ""I was like, "What do you mean, there's only one camera? Get five cameras in here, because what I want to do is work spontaneously. And I don't need a script. Get that script out of here. I'm just going to ad lib'.'' Thomas put an end to that. ""The second day, Betty sat down with me and said, "Look, Junior, this is how you make a movie'.'' After a week he got it. Paul Giamatti, a New York stage actor who almost steals the movie as the hated WNBC executive Stern nicknamed Pig Vomit, says, ""He was really good at playing himself, which is very hard to do.'' Unless you've been rehearsing all your life.

And Stern has been. In the movie, the long-suffering Alison defends Howard to her friends, saying that his on-air persona is ""an act.'' Her real-life husband says it's the other way around. The smart, respectable 43-year-old he plays the rest of the time is the act. ""People who know me go, "Gee, he's such a rational, nice guy off the air, so which one is the real guy?' I think the real guy is on the radio. That's my guess. I could be wrong. I'm not even sure. It gets very confusing. My wife at this point thinks I'm right, that that is the real me. So I'm more truthful on the air than any other time in my day.''

These and other existential dilemmas torment him. Like monogamy. Stern is a faithful family man who gets nude massages on the air and relaxes at an upscale Manhattan lap-dance joint called Scores. ""If he was a single guy on the make, he wouldn't be nearly as interesting,'' says Reitman. Or as funny.

The irony of Stern is that there are no private parts. He's a charming, lively but ultimately unrevealing interview, because he gives it all up on his radio show every day. When his wife had a miscarriage, he joked about it on the air--to her intense chagrin. Off the air, there's nothing left. He doesn't go out, also to his wife's chagrin. His idea of fun is watching videos at his house on Long Island with his hair guy, Ralph Cirella. He has few friends other than the people who work for him: Robin Quivers, Fred Norris, Jackie (The Jokeman) Martling--all of whom are in the movie. Occasionally the equally reclusive David Letterman calls to talk. They became friends when both were unhappily employed by NBC. But Stern describes their conversations as ""weird.'' After 20 years in the business, he's still not comfortable with celebrity, his own or anyone else's.

Insecurity and self-deprecation redeem Stern, and the movie. NEVER HAS ONE MAN DONE SO MUCH WITH SO LITTLE, the poster reads. On it Stern poses with the Empire State Building positioned to visually compensate for the star's reputedly inadequate manhood. He obsesses over his own ugliness, begging women to admit that the only reason they're attracted to him is because he's famous. On the set, Stern offered McCormack a bag to throw up in after their first make-out scene. The movie gleefully chronicles Stern's history of fashion and grooming errors. Most of the time he looks like a complete dork.

Radio embarrasses him; he calls it the domain of ""circus clowns.'' No matter how successful he becomes, he still feels like ""the same jerk.'' The idea that his three daughters, aged 4 to 13, will see the movie mortifies him. His nightmare is that one of them will grow up to marry one of his fans.

By ending abruptly in the mid-'80s, ""Private Parts'' begs for a sequel. But Reitman has another script, one that would require Stern to act, to play a character other than the one he plays best: himself.