Clueless, senseless

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Hollywood -- EDITH WHARTON WILL never eat lunch in this town again.

She was hot here, until "The Age of Innocence" drooped at the box office. Then scripts for "The Custom of the Country" and "The House of Mirth" expired on the shelf.

Now there's a new hot writer who likes happy endings. "Clueless" transports the 19th-century novel "Emma" to a Beverly Hills high school, with cell phones replacing card games, malls replacing villages, and "an overwhelming sense of ickiness" replacing "a continual state of inelegance." Several other Jane Austen movies are on the way, including "Sense and Sensibility."

The head of Columbia/TriStar Pictures is impressed by the buzz. Mark Canton invites the flavor of the minute to lunch at Cicada.

Miss Austen orders a joint of mutton, mince pie and elderberry wine. Canton orders barely charred line-caught tuna (no net), yellow bell pepper soup (no dairy products), and Fuggi water (no bubbles).

"So, Janie, I like your stuff. 'Clueless' was a terrific book and an even better movie. When I saw that you did $10.6 mil opening weekend on a movie that only cost $12 mil, I had to meet you myself."

"I deserve neither such praise nor such censure, Mr. Canton. 'Clueless' is not one of my own darling children."

"You got kids? Me, too. You're from England, right? Do you know Merchant Ivory? I'd love to meet that guy."

"You take delight in teasing me, Mr. Canton."

"Joan, let me be straight with you. I care about art. And I'm prepared to pay for it. This town is sick of junk. I'm doing 'The Sisters Karamazov' myself, and Whoopi's interested. I hear that Demi is very hot in 'The Scarlet Letter.' And they're showing the sin and getting rid of that depressing ending, so now she and Reverend Drysdale ride off into the sunset."

Miss Austen looked at him archly. She wondered what Demi was half of.

"So I saw a copy of your sister's book, 'Wuthering Heights,' at Winona's pool, and I was thinking, what if we 'Clueless'-ed it? Alicia Silverstone is Cathy, a snotty Brearley girl on an Outward Bound trip to the moors of England. Johnny Depp is Heathbar, a loner in a leather jacket who keeps roaring up to the Grange and complaining that she's been way harsh."

A vexed Miss Austen interrupts him. "Your entreaties are carried to a point of perseverance beyond civility. My sister is named Cassandra, not Emily."

"Look, hon, I revere writers."

Miss Austen is startled by the incommodious bleat of a cell phone.

Canton picks it up, listens a moment and screams: "That hack screenwriter ended it how? I don't care if it is 'Anna Karenina.' Julia Roberts is not lying down on no railroad track." He puts the phone down. "Now, Jane, where was I? Oh yes, you have a gift for character. And character is sacred. But maybe a little action? A high-speed buggy chase? A gauzy Brad Pitt tush shot? And if you gimme a scene with corsets, I can promise you a Victoria's Secret tie-in. Do you like L.A.?"

"Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies do divert me, I own. Hollywood puts me in mind of Bath. A monstrous deal of stupid quizzing and commonplace nonsense talked at parties, but scarcely any wit. A propensity to vanity, condescension, and to ignoring the rest of the world. I am favourably disposed to dwell here, if I could find a cottage by a parsonage."

"How about a bungalow by the pool? Ask Alicia Silverstone what $10 mil feels like. She's just a kid. I can do better for you. We could do a two-pic deal: 'Emma 2: Judgment Day' and Sandra Bullock as 'Abbey Northanger,' a governess who falls for a ghost."

"It is a truth universal --"

"Those sleazeballs at Universal are calling you? OK, OK, you get a personal trainer, too. Got to watch that mutton, sweetheart."

"Do not be discomposed, sir. I wish to say, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a writer in possession of a good property must be in want of pecuniary emolument. In other words, I'd like my back-end points to kick in early."

Maureen Dowd is a columnist with the New York Times.

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