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THE ENVELOPE

Lipton at the Movies

As Hollywood gears up for the Big Night, the view from the other coast with the Bravo host.

February 21, 2007|Paul Lieberman | Times Staff Writer

New York —

'SHE'S going to give us good popcorn, fresh," James Lipton announces, "because she loves the show."

He's right on both counts: The young woman behind the snack counter goes to the popper to fill two bags with the most freshly popped corn, then says that yes, indeed, she adores "Inside the Actors Studio," especially his interview with Angelina Jolie. Told that Lipton is about to have Diana Ross on, she asks if he's seen "Dreamgirls."

"Twice," he reports, "but she hasn't -- she won't," meaning Ross, thus giving the young clerk a scoop of sorts, and something else she doesn't expect, a $2 tip. "Are we allowed?" he asks.

We are, and off we go into the dark theater where he will have to endure endless previews before we see Clint Eastwood's "Letters From Iwo Jima."

"I can't believe it," Lipton says. "I'm a real movie-goer. "

A varied career

THAT was the whole idea of what he calls "our double date," to get him out to a theater, like an Average Joe. Not to his usual invitation-only screenings or home viewings of studio-provided DVDs. Out. Among his people.

Lipton is so busy, putting in 14-hour days preparing for his Bravo network interviews, and working on his memoir, "Inside Inside," that he's not been out like this since June, when he and Kedakai, his wife of 36 years, caught some flick in the Hamptons.

My wife and I meet them at their East Side town house where he says, "You want a tour?" and, of course, we do, for the walls are filled with stuff: his collection of whaling artifacts; photos of him piloting a plane and show-jumping a horse at the Hamptons Classic; a poster from a film he starred in back in 1953, "The Big Break," whose tag was, "He Stops for Nothing in His Lust for Power and Women"; a poster from a play he directed in 1956, at the Westport Playhouse; a caricature from the 1967 musical "Sherry," whose book and lyrics he wrote; and photos with President Jimmy Carter, whose 1977 inaugural gala he produced, and with Bob Hope, whose birthday specials he also produced ... all that long before he burst into the public consciousness in 1994 as the sonorous drama school dean turned TV talking head, so earnest and solicitous as he invited actors and directors to speak about "craft, not gossip." His show has since become a favored destination for Oscar hopefuls; this season's lineup includes nominees Eddie Murphy and Forest Whitaker.

Thus has Lipton become an unlikely celebrity himself, and a target of satirists, to whom he's like those stuffed-shirt foils in Marx Brothers movies, except he has always understood that it's wiser to play along than harrumph from the sideline. So his walls proudly display the parodies, like Will Ferrell playing him on "Saturday Night Live," making as if TV's "Saved By the Bell" was high art; or him in a scene from "The Simpsons," in which he was killed off, naturally.

That said, the walls also show his 12 Emmy nomination certificates and a countertop is covered with thank-yous from the likes of Barbra Streisand and Sharon Stone ... and a note from some kid in Florida who found that Lipton's autographed picture went for $30 on EBay, so maybe he'd send something, like, for free? "It reminds me what I'm worth," Lipton says, and off we go to check out one of this year's contenders for best picture.

A rave review

FOR all our intentions, it ain't the average guy's night at the movies. Right off, Lipton spots two couples he knows at the Cineplex near Lincoln Center: Lena Horne's daughter with her husband, and historian Arthur Schlesinger with his wife. And a man who takes the seat in front of Lipton gives it up when he notices who's behind him. "You'll be able to see better," the stranger says.

Some 2 1/2 hours later, the lights come on and Lipton begins gushing about "the astounding tour de force" we've seen, how he's "never rooted so hard for anyone to survive" as the befuddled Japanese baker seemingly doomed in the caves of Iwo Jima amid his country's ill-fated defense of the island, and how this fits "like torn pieces of a tapestry" with Eastwood's earlier "Flags of Our Fathers," which shows the battle from the American point of view. On Lipton goes, down the escalator, about how Eastwood here gives only a glimpse of the famous American flag planted on the island, and never calls attention to it. "Astonishing," Lipton says as we climb into the cab to Elaine's.

He's got stories

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