Keira Knightley's Hot New Screen Lover

Doing Atonement over platefuls of shrimp with James McAvoy. Jodie Foster goes out on the town, finally.

Atonement is arty, sensuously done romance-novel stuff hinging on a girl's bitter distortion of the truth—a sort of multigenerational Children's Hour with sexual abuse instead of lesbianism, and some war montages thrown in for the big boys. The lead finger-pointer, Briony, is played by a 13-year-old, then an 18-year-old, then Vanessa Redgrave, who last time around, in Evening, was the big leap after Claire Danes. I love the idea of everyone growing up to be Vanessa Redgrave.

At an informal promo brunch at the National Arts Club, writer Christopher Hampton told me that they cut an opening scene in which Vanessa went back to her childhood home, though fortunately the plotline involving the C-word stayed right in. "The greatest challenge," he said, "was to make clear it was the story of a writer without recourse to the usual devices like narration and reflective scenes." So Atonement basically became the story of a writer adding narrative drive to the screenplay.

On a nearby sofa, an interviewer seemed to be narrative-driving James McAvoy crazy with wacky questions about his co-star, Keira Knightley. ("Was she really snooty and bitchy like her character?") I rescued McAvoy to oozily assure him, "You were very butch in this film!" "That's the first time anyone's ever said that to me," he muttered, nervously shoveling in his plateful of shrimp.

Brit player: Atonement's James McAvoy with Keira Knightley
Brit player: Atonement's James McAvoy with Keira Knightley

After some butch silence, McAvoy said this was his first real leading-man role. "I always play character parts," he said. "I feel it was a risk to cast me. Whilst not being an unknown, I wasn't guaranteeing them a certain amount of money—and I still don't!

"I know they had pressure to use a Hollywood A-lister," McAvoy went on, looking pained, "but they gave me the part. The Last King of Scotland hadn't even come out yet, and it could have been a pile of shit and now only Keira would be on the poster!" I gagged on my own plateful of shrimp; humility is not something I often encounter at these events. This guy totally had me at whilst.

Another rising U.K. star with pleasing features, Sam Riley, was feted at Michael's for Control, in which he wrenchingly plays Joy Division's epileptic, suicidal Ian Curtis. "Is this your first biopic?" I asked whilst sucking down my salmon. "It's my first movie," Riley told me, eyes a-popping. "It's my first attempt at anything!" So, do you come from theater, dear? "No, I come from Leeds," he deadpanned. "And from music. Though I did do theater in school. I was a shepherd with a baby lamb in the nativity. The Christ child was a doll." And so was Ian Curtis, ba-dum-pum. What was his legacy, lovey? "Joy Division opened doors," said Riley, "and he was a one-of-a-kind performer who spawned thousands of copycats. "Like Beyoncé?" I smirked. "Yes, I'm sure Joy Division was a big influence for her early on," he said, laughing.

But let's go from suicide right back to war casualties for a more contempo feel, if I may. At a luncheon for Grace Is Gone—the latest family drama to come out of the Iraq death toll (but with a title song by Clint Eastwoodand Carole Bayer Sager)—star John Cusack gave an earnest speech about how he wanted the film to go beyond partisan beliefs and aim for more universal truths. You go, Democrat! At my table, writer/sweater-designer Christina Oxenberg told me that Dem extraordinaire Bobby Kennedy Jr. has asked her to be a sidekick on the Air America show he co-hosts. "He wants me to funny it up," she said, "so he can get a breakfast slot. I think, however, I'm gonna get him canned, because I'm more of a Howard Stern than a Robin Quivers!" Maybe Bobby should be her sidekick.

Madonna was clearly on her Sidekick during the premiere of hubby Guy Ritchie's Revolver. I hear the little demon was restlessly chatting with Guy and even texting during the movie—no doubt telling friends, "It's great, but not as good as Swept Away."

Meanwhile, I hear Tom Ford was recently swept away by a beverage or two and gleefully pulled out his love pipe to show his dinner tablemates at a swanky L.A. event, upon which David Beckham fled in horror. Was he jealous?

Finally showing some balls, the butch one—I mean the brave one— Jodie Foster reportedly thanked her girlfriend Cydney Bernard when accepting an honor last week. Jodie acknowledged "my beautiful Cydney," which had minor echoes of Rosie O'Donnell's early coming-out gesture ("I love you, Kelli!"), but in this case, most observers probably thought, " Sidney Lumet isn't that gorgeous."

Another tough blond is coming out—of her room to get to the computer. On moli.com, someone calling herself cmichelle sounds a lot like Courtney Love, and according to an insider, that's because she is Courtney Love. On her profile, the lady says her income is "over 125K," her pet peeves are "people standing over my shoulder" and "aggressive social climbing," the person she wants to meet is Dylan ("I refused tho"), she'd rather read WWD than Billboard, and in general she'd like to be "making a collage of smashed wedding cakes."

On Broadway, the cracked family album called August: Osage County is Tracy Letts's hilarious and lacerating situation tragedy—sort of like Mama's Family if it had been written by Eugene O'Neill. When the line "[Dad] killed himself" brings down the house, you know you've entered a wondrous world of precisely rendered seriocomedy. It's all so deftly done you don't even mind the Native American character who symbolically lives in the house to offer silent wisdom and stop child abuse, or the relative who has an 11 o'clock speech on the order of "Brace yourselves, kids. Forty years ago I. . . "

On opening night, I overheard a whole other situation tragedy in the audience when Shubert Organization head Gerald Schoenfeld approached Alan Rickman to say with failed humor, "So you're in town? Common decency commands that you should call me!" "I would," said Rickman, awkwardly. "But you didn't!" replied Schoenfeld. Rickman squirmed a bit in his seat, but Schoenfeld carried on his nutty needling. "Are you here on business?" he asked. "Yes, we're promoting the Sweeney Todd movie," Rickman responded. "There's a movie?" said Schoenfeld in all seriousness. (Not much of a reader, I guess.) "Are you playing Sweeney?" "No," said Rickman, " Johnny Depp is Sweeney. I'm Judge Turpin." "Oh," said Schoenfeld, finally getting with the program as he mock-slit his own throat.

A demon barber must have feathered the cast's hair for Growing Up 70s, the retro revue at the Theater at Ha! starring The Brady Bunch's Barry Williams and some young hoofers clearly having their first taste of polyester. A well-meaning spoof that strings together every imaginable disco-decade pop reference into a pastiche that makes The Brady Bunch look like August: Osage County, it has Williams admitting, "For many people, the Brady Bunch is like the family that just won't go away." True, but sadly, I did at intermission.

The braided bunch goes to Cazwell's Project Wednesdays at the hellish Small's Kitchen—I mean smallish Hell's Kitchen—gay spot Posh. The party is multiculty and lively, except for the douche who cornered me to say I need to make a scene instead of just observing everything and saying banal things on TV. "Like, I've been making a scene tonight," he crowed. And what was that, pray tell? "I took off my shirt and I've been dancing funny," he boasted. Wow, that's not banal, is it?

And neither is this bit of clothes-removing: I hear that advertising guy Donny Deutsch has been chasing after Brit socialite Ann Dexter Jones (the ex of Foreigner's Mick Jones) and they supposedly had a date recently. I guess he wants to know what love is.

I'm also hearing that once he fully achieves atonement and gets out of the clink, Michael Alig wants to live in L.A. Whew. I just dodged a bullet—literally. Now I'll be able to grow up and become Vanessa Redgrave.

musto@villagevoice.com

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