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Saturday, April 15, 2000

LIFE'S A BEACH

Media worship at feet of Lord Leo


Showing up at Leonardo DiCaprio's press conference for "The Beach" this past Monday at a certain swank Tokyo hotel, I'm not sure what I was expecting, but something. Screaming girls, certainly. A scrum of cameramen mauling each other to get choice photos, of course. Fans trying to blag their way in through the side doors; shouted questions about imaginary liaisons with Demi Moore; society columnist Bill Hersey fishing for a photo op with Leo.

What I wasn't expecting is what I got: a Tokyo media equivalent of Seinfeld, "a show about nothing." No excitement, no mad rush, not even the merest hint of a squeal from Leo's female fans (though Hersey didn't disappoint.)

This, I thought, must be what covering the Imperial family is like: the general air of demurral; the obsequious questions; the palpable air of relief every time the young star smiled, as if the subjects were glad their Emperor was pleased. Well, Leo (TM) is nothing if not Hollywood royalty, but not even Brad Pitt gets his posterior kissed this daintily.

Perhaps the paparazzi were cowed. A long hectoring speech by the event's M.C., who warned that the press conference would be immediately terminated (by Murdoch thugs armed with cattle prods?) if the photographers began to melee or otherwise behave indecorously, and that any questions to Mr. DiCaprio not related to the movie were strictly verboten.

Not that anyone really wanted to talk about the movie, anyway. The consensus among many of those attending was that director Danny Boyle's adaptation of author Alex Garland's best seller left much to be desired. The backpacker subculture and the isolated hippie utopia on a remote Thai island were conveyed well, but the "Lord of the Flies"-influenced plot veers into incoherence in its final reels. Worse, DiCaprio's attempts to emulate Martin Sheen from "Apocalypse Now" only serve to display unflatteringly just how little presence and range he has.

Still, you think someone would have at least asked Leo something racy, like how he enjoyed his love scenes with costars Virginie LeDoyen and Tilda Swinton. Better yet, someone might have asked if it was true that DiCaprio ordered the script rewritten to include such self-aggrandizing romantic moments for his grungy beach-bum character.

But no, it was not meant to be. Shy of DiCaprio, the press put more questions to director Boyle, who was sharing the stage with invisible men producer Andrew McDonald and editor Masahiro Hirakubo. And what questions they were.

Question: "Mr. Boyle, what do you think of teenagers today?"

"Well, I have a teenage daughter, so I have to be very careful what I say. I think they have a wonderful energy, which is sometimes creative, sometimes destructive."

Question: "Mr. Boyle, this time you filmed on a tropical Asian beach, but since Japan has lots of beautiful scenery as well, how about doing your next film in the Japanese Alps, in the snow?"

"I thought your volcano was about to explode," replied Boyle. "We had an earthquake this morning."

Question: "Were you scared, Leo?"

"No I wasn't, I was just glad it stopped, y'know."

Anyone who was bothering to watch the worldwide simulcast of this event on the Internet surely logged off when a journalist asked DiCaprio "How is this different for opening 'The Beach' in Tokyo as opposed to the U.S.?"

What kind of answer was she expecting? "Oh, it will have subtitles here!" After several failed attempts to figure out what was meant by the question, a bemused DiCaprio finally replied, "I don't really know, because it hasn't really opened yet." (It opens in Tokyo on April 22.)

One thing you can say about DiCaprio, he's good at memorizing a script, as evidenced by his response to a question asking why he chose "The Beach" out of hundreds of possible projects as his followup to "Titanic": "I chose this project because I thought it said a lot about my generation."

Uh-huh. Like they have nothing better to do than hang out smoking dope on Thai beaches and then resort to internecine sex and murder when things get dull.

Continuing, DiCaprio said that his character Richard "embodied a lot of the characteristics that kids today are dealing with. And that's a real detachment from any sort of reality."

Another journalist (I presume, or maybe someone did sneak in after all) spent a long time rambling about all the Thai and other Asian beaches he had visited that he thought were so pretty, before finally complaining that the director had not captured the essence of such natural beauty in his film. What could Boyle say?

"Beauty is very subjective. Some of the changes we made to the island were to do with inhabiting a somewhat conventional, Western image of paradise, which is, palm trees on a beach . . . that was the image of beauty we wanted."

Which begged the question left unasked: Why had the filmmakers torn up the pristine beach at Phi Phi Le (part of a national nature reserve) for the purpose of planting palm trees to make it look more like that stereotypical island paradise? (And it takes sheer brilliance to find the one beach in Thailand that doesn't boast palm trees.) Environmentalists claim that permanent damage was done by the filming, charges the filmmakers hotly deny. But even this issue was skirted.

One moment of levity came from Boyle, when he was asked whether he had told his actors that the seas near Phi Phi Le, where they were filming, are actually full of sharks.

"No," replied Boyle, adding, "There are sharks, but they don't bite people. . . . There's far more chance of dying from coconuts in Thailand. Each year 50 tourists die because they lie under the palm trees, fall asleep and the coconut drops and kills them. Pow."

In "The Beach," DiCaprio has a line that goes: "I just feel like everybody tries to do something different, but you always end up doing the same old thing." As DiCaprio was whisked off to his suite, to spend his time in Japan on more interviews, photo shoots, and hair and makeup sessions, I imagine those words were echoing through his head.

But, happily, Leo did manage to soak up some of the local color. Said the star: "I saw the cherry blossoms yesterday. I was driving around looking at them, and I saw three guys with a lot of sake. One guy was trying to fight with the air, and his friends were trying to stop him, saying there's nobody there. But I love traditions like that."



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