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Year In Review 1997 | MOVIES

After 'Blade,' Billy Bob Carves a Wide Path

December 21, 1997|Steve Hochman

In many ways, 1997 was a Billy Bob Thornton kind of year. Before Jan. 1, there were a grand total of 13 stories mentioning the "Sling Blade" writer-director-star in The Times. During 1997, there have been 102--um, make that 103 now. That's just slightly fewer than one every three days. Here are some highlights:

Hobnobbing: Nothing like an Oscar to get you an all-access pass in life. Thornton's 1997 social calendar included a "reunion" with legendary director Billy Wilder (who ages ago gave Thornton career advice when the latter was his waiter), a visit to Elizabeth Taylor while she was recovering from brain surgery (he got to see her even before Madonna), hanging out backstage with the Rolling Stones at Dodger Stadium and a tee time at the star-studded Los Angeles Police Department charity golf tournament honoring retiring Chief Willie Williams.

Here's Your Oscar, the Tabloids Are Waiting: What a sweet picture of Thornton and his fourth wife, Pietra, at the Oscars in March--he with his ever-present baseball cap covering his bald spot, perhaps to compensate for her very exposed cleavage. Weren't they just the happiest couple alive?

Nobody but their lawyers and tabloid editors were happy a couple of weeks later, though, when Pietra filed for divorce, complete with charges that he'd stalked and beaten her since 1992 and with accompanying his-and-hers restraining orders. Reports even circulated that he'd taken a swipe at her with his Oscar statuette after the awards ceremony, though her ex-publicist later said that wasn't true.

Now Pietra is showing that cleavage (and more) in the January Playboy--to expose the evils of domestic abuse, she says.

Prime Time: Not only did Ellen DeGeneres and Laura Dern imitate Thornton's Karl character from "Sling Blade" during the ballyhooed coming-out episode of "Ellen," but Thornton made a cameo appearance as a grocery clerk during a dream sequence. It was a return to sitcom roots for Thornton, who was a regular on the 1990 Fox TV series "The Outsiders" and the 1992-95 CBS show "Hearts Afire."

Casting: He also had a small part in Oliver Stone's fall release "U-Turn" and has filmed the role based on fellow Arkansan James Carville in "Primary Colors," the film version of the Joe Klein book skewering the Clinton administration and due in March '98.

Hollywood Swingin': You know you've made it when you're in line for outright parody. Our man Billy Bob got his with "Swing Blade," a trailer for a nonexistent film in which Karl is transformed into one of the denizens of "Swingers." Not only did Thornton himself reportedly get a good laugh out of it, but filmmaker Nicholas Goodman got a feature deal with Paramount from the three-minute clip.

Politically Incorrect: Thornton and fellow Oscar acting nominee Geoffrey Rush became targets for anti-smoking zealots when they appeared holding cigarettes in a photo on the cover of the Los Angeles Times Magazine previewing the Academy Awards.

The Next Billy Bob: Prognosticators lined up to tab who could be the next left-field sensation to sweep Hollywood.

Among those singled out by interviewees in Sunday Calendar's Whatever column were "Boogie Nights" writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson (named by "Money Talks" director Bret Ratner, himself a hot property) and "A Midnight Clear" director Keith Gordon (picked by actress Sheryl Lee).

But Keith Samples, who resigned as chief executive officer of Rysher Entertainment to concentrate on writing and directing (his "A Smile Like Yours" came out in August), said what many others were probably thinking: "I hope it's me!"

Restraining orders and all?

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