NY Mirror

All aflame, I went to the premiere of the FX fireman drama Rescue Me, partly because Paramount wasn't letting my level of press into the same night's Manchurian Candidate event, but also because I love anything with hot men wielding big hoses, whomp-whomp-whomp. The show is alternately trenchant and irritating, but I was fascinated to see versatile Broadway baby DANIEL SUNJATA, who was the out baseball star in Take Me Out, play a mega-hetero fireman with a photo of a naked lady on his locker door. Before the screening, Sunjata told me he's always in uniform lately—"and this is another testosterone-driven environment. I don't know where that's coming from, but I'm very grateful for the opportunities." Who isn't? In fact gratitude was flowing that night as if out of a hydrant—from star DENIS LEARY cracking, "I'd like to thank ABC for canceling The Job, which freed me up a bit" to me gushing appreciation to the gods that I didn't accept Paramount's conciliatory offer to cover Manchurian's red-carpet arrivals (though they nicely offered a later screening).


SUDDENLY, SIDEBAR

See, let me explain what red-carpet hard labor is like for bedraggled press droogs: You jostle for a place behind a rope along with stringers from Lithuanian Marie Claire and bulldozers from Access Hollywood. For 30 minutes, you dodge the oncoming parade of O.C. extras desperate to be interviewed, panting when the stars of the movie finally come, only to watch them submit to overlong interrogations from all manner of approved sociopaths. By the time they get to you, they've been anesthetized by queries about their favorite handbags and most momentous bikini waxes and you've cracked too, trying to stay upright while mentally rehearsing your big moment. ("Can I call you Meryl, Meryl?" "Manchurian, Denzel? I thought you were black!") At long last, you're about to hit stardirt, but the icon's personal publicist spots you and yanks her client away, claiming the movie—which, remember, you can't see—has to start right now. Just as well: The guy next to you, from an Internet radio show in Dutchess County, was going to stick his tape recorder in the star's face and steal your sad scoop anyway!


KITTY DO CACA

But I did get into one big premiere—for Catwoman, that lugubrious furball in which a mousy, as it were, woman dresses like a big pussy to save the world from the side effects of beauty cream usage! It would be a powerful feminist message if HALLE BERRY weren't half naked and also indulging in a vicious catfight (ooh, I made another funny) with the film's other strong female. Add to the mix a flitty gay character who runs around screeching "Hello!" and you'll be looking for the nearest litter box. At the after-event at an appropriately black-cloth-shrouded Henri Bendel, the publicist party line regressed from "If you want to talk to Halle when she gets here, just let us know" to "Things are going to be very tight. But right now we have TONY DANZA, ESTEBAN CORTAZAR, and CECE KIESELSTEIN-CORD." Get meow-ta here!

If I can drop the catty act for a second, I have some human news: It's that, while JESSICA SIMPSON may be dumb, her father isn't, having spawned and promoted a whole other all-access chanteuse. She's Jess's sister ASHLEE SIMPSON, who's rockier, but in a generic, polished way that's gone down easily on MTV, in 7th Heaven, and just about everywhere crinkle fries are served. "Oh my God!" Ashlee with two e's was gushing at her PM lounge record-release bash last week after a day of high-end promo. "I've dreamed of this ever since I was a kid!" (The dramaturgical diva is all of 19 now.)

Intrigued, I crowded in for my one-on-one, summoning the fruits of all my years of toilet scrubbing and highway cruising to pay for my Ivy League journalism education. With great dignity, I proceeded to ask perky Ashlee if rock is essential to her very being. "I've always loved rock music," she enthused. "I love to get gritty and have fun. People say, 'You're so nice. How can you like rock music?' But it's who I am!" Fine, no prob, babe—but are you more rock than, say AVRIL LAVIGNE? Pause. Potential land mine. "I don't know what more rock is or whatever," she responded, safely eschewing any dis of little miss cuckoo Canuck. Thank God or I'd have to drag her off the stage at the Aladdin and cancel her Slim-Fast commercial. (Besides, a daily reporter had his tape recorder in her face the whole time anyway!)

I finally broke down and went to a press conference—which is like a red carpet without a rope—only because it was at a funeral home, where I thought I could search around and find my career. Instead, I found KIKI & HERB, the boozy lounge duo created by JUSTIN BOND and KENNY MELLMAN, promoting their September 19 "farewell concert" at Carnegie Hall, called Kiki & Herb Will Die for You, with a faux funeral.

The Perazzo-home event—the most memorably tasteless one since Chuckles the Clown died—was as hilariously mordant as SCOTT BAIO's appearance at Reagan's bye-bye (or maybe Tony Danza's at Catwoman's). "We're used to hearing, 'What a tragedy. They died so young,' " eulogized playwright DOUG WRIGHT, touchingly. "Not appropriate here. Kiki & Herb took far too long to die." He generously added that the duo had already perished "again and again on stages ranging from Peekskill to Piscataway." But just then, Kiki & Herb popped out with mics in hand, proving that vaudeville may be dead, but they're still here and ready to give nihilism a melody line. They slayed us with a song, then Kiki croaked, "Today's a gift. That's why they call it the present!"

And now, the gift of correction: Contrary to my STAR JONES item last week, it wasn't a friend who read Star the Times write-up of her prima donna antics, it was Star herself who admirably read it aloud to partymates (if leaving out certain raunchier parts). When you get read, read it right back!

But kindly read this to yourself: As you know, CAMERON DIAZ wasn't happy with the Us Weekly cover on JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE's bad behavior and gave them a follow-up interview, which the mag cleverly fashioned into a dis of the British press. But I hear Cameron actually told an Us editor, "You're going to get cancer writing this way about Justin." That's not even original—ROSIE O'DONNELL, anyone?—but at least it's gritty and rock-and-roll. It's who she is!


LITTER BOX

RIBBIT OFFENDERS

Back off, boring cats! The hot animals du jour are froggies, from the American Museum of Natural History's array of live jumpers to the Central Park Zoo's display of poisonous dart frogs to French people. Cementing the trend, the Aristophanes-NATHAN LANE collaboration The Frogs is—fuck the critics—an anything-for-a-laugh riot that, until Act Two problems, is deeply, superficially entertaining in an A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Four-Leggeds way. "Were the romp's references to Girls Gone Wildand Bush in the original Greek classic?" I asked Lane at the opening-night party at Tavern on the you know. "Maybe," he answered, breaking up. "I'm quite sure there were plenty of Bush jokes—the kind WHOOPI GOLDBERG does!"

Half naked in the show, perennial he-man BURKE MOSES told me he wasn't nude in Beauty and the Beasttoo. ("You must have seen a production on Eighth Avenue.") Half mortified, I moved on to fully clothed co-star PETER BARTLETT to ask if he's horrified by his underworld character's contention that hell is the ultimate fun destination. No, Bartlett beamed, "I'm looking forward to it!" M.M.


musto@villagevoice.com

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