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September 09, 2003
"OK, sure ... but I don't know if I can get the apartment ready and cook enough for 50 people."

That was Oscar winner Frances McDormand, responding to a request last week from Fox Searchlight to host a post-screening dinner for her friend Holly Hunter and the film "Thirteen." (Holly stars in Catherine Hardwicke's movie about teens that is sending shock waves through audiences.)

Of course, the studio assured Frances that a restaurant would be secured, professional chefs would cook and a car would pick her up. But is McDormand a regular type or what? I (ITALICS) love (END ITALICS) this story!

HOW HOT is Beyonce? So hot that nobody seemed to mind -- or notice -- that she lip-synced her steamy number at the MTV Music Video Awards two weeks ago. (The girl was lowered writhing, upside-down from the ceiling, in hot pants and a halter top -- then performed a dance the likes of which hasn't been seen since the salad days of Salome. A microphone would have gotten in the way of that action. And, we all know, she has a magnificent real, live voice.)

We'll see Beyonce act a bit and sing a lot in the new movie "The Fighting Temptations," with Cuba Gooding Jr. and a clutch of R&B legends such as Faith Evans, Melba Moore, Angie Stone, Montell Jordan and the O'Jays.

The rising-higher-every-second star wants to put together a "tour with all women ... I'd like to go out with Mary J. Blige, Ashanti and Monica, but right now, everybody's schedules are filled." Nothing seems beyond Beyonce, so don't be surprised if all the ladies suddenly become available for what would be a history-making melding.

STUDENTS of popular musical history know the name Arthur Schwartz. He wrote some of our most loved melodies with collaborators like Howard Dietz and Dorothy Fields. His natural heir is his disc jockey son, Jonathan Schwartz, a fixture in New York radio.

In 1951, Fields and Arthur Schwartz turned the famous Betty Smith novel "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" into a musical starring Shirley Booth, with a book by Smith and George Abbott. This had an extraordinary score that included "Make the Man Love Me," "Growing Pains" and "I'll Buy You a Star." But it ran less than a year. (The novel had been successfully translated onto the screen in 1945, starring Dorothy McGuire, Joan Blondell and Peggy Ann Garner as the wistful child, Francie, who so adores her father, played by Oscar winner James Dunn.)

Now, the estate of Arthur Schwartz has released its hold on the music, and the book has been rewritten magnificently by Elinor Renfield, who just happens to be Jonathan Schwartz's wife. None other than producer Hal Prince vetted it and pronounced it a work of "genius." So we'll be seeing the new version of this wonderful story at the Goodspeed Opera House in East haddam, Conn., in October. (Elinor will direct as well.) And, of course, that's where "Annie" got its start, so there is always hope for Broadway again.

HAS YOUR tongue been hanging out waiting for the next romantic comedy from the team who gave us "Four Weddings and a Funeral," "Notting Hill" and "Bridget Jones's Diary" Mine has!

The new one is "Love Actually," starring, again, Hugh Grant. He plays a single prime minister who arrives for his first day at 10 Downing St. and promptly falls in love with the tea lady, played by Martine McCutcheon.

There are big stars in this romp -- Emma Thompson, Colin Firth, Liam Neeson, Alan Rickman. Hugh's cousin Thomas Sangster has a role. And Billy Bob Thornton does cameo duty as ... the president of the United States. (Let's just hold onto that thought for a moment, shall we?) "Love Actually" features innumerable interwoven plots and is directed by first-timer Richard Curtis, who also wrote the screenplay.

SPEAKING OF FILMS we love, how about all the great Merchant-Ivory productions? (This season's "Le Divorce" is one of my top picks of the year.) Now, the prestigious Criterion Collection is putting out its Merchant-Ivory DVD series starting with "The Bostonians," "The Europeans," "Bombay Talkie" and "Maurice." The last has a very young Hugh Grant. (How enduringly popular is Hugh? He's Premiere magazine's cover guy for its Style issue, wherein he is his usual charming blend of self-deprecation and wicked wit. Asked about his own style, Grant says he wants to look, "inadvertently fetching.")

IT WOULD BE premature to reveal her plans, but let me assure admirers that Elizabeth Taylor, currently embroiled in one of those disgruntled ex-employee lawsuits, is not moping, depressed or otherwise laid low. She is vigorously looking forward to autumn and winter projects revolving around her AIDS work and her fragrance empire. Taylor's latest scent, Gardenia, has surpassed the expectations of Elizabeth Arden and will get a bigger boost as the holidays approach.

Nothing ever douses Liz's spirit and inner strength. Certainly not the accusations of a hedge-trimmer.


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