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The new “cleaned up” Times Square offers such family-oriented treats as Jennifer Tilly‘s bare pussy, John Leguizamo‘s monologue about eating out an older woman, and a musical about paying to wee-wee. With a gentrification process like that, the pervs are lining up for miles! But a real nicey-nice event did happen in the area last week—a New Victory Theater Family benefit, where the most shocking sight was that of squealing children—and me—piling gumdrops on top of their Ben and Jerry’s.

As a distraction from the neodecadence, my tablemate, mentalist Marc Salem, helped shed some light on famed telepathic gumdrop John Edward. Salem feels that Edward believes what he says, “which isn’t the same thing as saying I believe he’s talking to the dead. My own philosophy is it’s not that easy to converse with dead people. Actually, I have spoken to the other side—New Jersey—and sometimes it’s a long-distance call!” And Christie Whitman won’t accept the charges anymore.

Salem’s performing at the Duke, and he’s not the only psych-trick purveyor in Times Square. There’s WWF New York’s production of Criss Angel Mindfreak, which is very Cirque de So El Lay meets Marilyn Manson on the way to a Harry Potter movie, and is thoughtful enough to include a fornication sequence, thank you.

And now if I can get my head out of the 43rd Street gutter and read a few Hollywood minds (in the way one generally reads beads): After Tom Cruise recently resolved another of his gay-related lawsuits, his lawyer moronically crowed that the actor is “a great believer in everybody’s freedom to choose his own sexual preference.” But it’s not a choice—usually.

What you can choose, more likely, is what movies you’ll see, and maybe I can help, in a typically irritable way. In the mordantly absorbing The Business of Strangers, Julia Stiles plays a psychotic, man-hating semi-lesbian who flirts with career gal Stockard Channing—and though it could be argued that the women are erotically bonding against male oppression, she’s still a lezzie psycho!

And then there’s Piñero, a jazzy biopic in which even the fun drag-queen character goes Julia Stiles after a while. At the premiere, writer-director Leon Ichaso told me that John Leguizamo (and his pinga) dropped out of the lead because he became too hot, “but Benjamin Bratt‘s Piñero is more digestible at times.” What some are finding less digestible is the film’s gay content. A New York Blade News review notes that Ichaso shows only “disturbing images of gay life,” includes endless scenes of Piñero making it with a bodacious female, and presents his death as the result of cirrhosis, not AIDS.

Ichaso’s response? “It’s very possible Piñero had AIDS,” he told me, “but my research could only find cirrhosis as the official cause.” And he said that while Piñero slept with both sexes, he lived with women, his gayness being “a jailhouse assimilation to men that he never denied. At the same time, if you said he’s gay, he’d pull out a knife.” That would surely end all debate; it’s not easy to converse with dead people.

Among the living, In the Bedroom‘s first hour is close to torture, and the climax is too pat, but at least it takes its careful time to tell a crackling story. And I Am Sam is shameless and manipulative—Rain Man meets The Other Sister—in the way it trivializes mental illness by showing a challenged person whose pure love makes him more capable of child rearing than most geniuses. But I fell for it hook, line, and stinker, and was weeping and handing Sean Penn the Oscar by the end. (Though even the retarded gay character is a stereotype!)

But don’t get too close to the deeply clichéd, stiff-upper-lip spy drama Charlotte Gray. At a special screening last week, the director, Gillian Armstrong, demanded that those sitting up front move back because, “Last time, the people in the front row said the film made them feel sick!” It must have been the scene where Cate Blanchett fends off a twisted suitor by screaming, “I’m dirty down there!” (Yes, the film will play Times Square.)

I cleaned up for an adä dinner for the upcoming Brotherhood of the Wolf, a foreign-language art film about a beast ravaging 18th-century France, way before Jerry Lewis did. There, sultry star Monica Bellucci—the thinking man’s Penélope Cruz—told me she’s not a Hollywood beast just yet. “I still live in Europe,” she cooed. “I don’t want to arrive and be oppressed by a system I don’t know yet. I prefer to understand things little by little and control things instead of being controlled.” With her high ponytail and see-through blouse, Monica—who’s costarring in the next Matrix—looked in no danger of subordination to anything. “Here, everything’s so aggressive,” she went on, “and when you arrive, you have so many people around you. But I don’t even have a publicist or a manager, just an agent!” No publicist? I slammed down my pen, suddenly unable to give the lady any more ink. That’s how it works here, honey.

The Bic was lifted again for the Lord of the Rings premiere, where I asked star Elijah Wood why he isn’t robbing banks and killing people like all the other ex-child stars. “Because I was very lucky to have a mother who constantly instilled a sense of what’s important,” he told me. Well, while we were at it, what is important? “Family and friends,” said the cutie. “The world does not revolve around films—and if I ever lose that perspective, you can personally kick my ass!” OK, I’ll do so, but only for a film.

A future Times Square classic? I hear Ang Lee will star Hugh Grant in something called On the Avenue, and sassy drag queen Vaginal Cream Davis is up for a lead. Davis tells me the film deals with “a black trannie crack ‘ho [no, not Divine Brown] who speaks Ebonics and must be turned into a high-class octoroon to attend some charity event.” Crouching Tiger, Hidden Drag Queen?

Rather than slum my way to another charity ball, I went back to xl, where I found a cute, kicky crowd with not too much of any one type (which is shocking, by high-tech Chelsea gay bar standards). Even one person at xl can embody two separate genres; the ambient lighting keeps changing, so the hot stud you were cruising turns out, in brighter illumination, to be a total troll with six eyes and four noses! That’s OK; when it goes dark again, you can run.

And that I did—stay with me now—all the way to the Children’s Hope Foundation toy drive at the David Barton Gym, where, amid all the donated playthings, there was a trannie Santa, a drag Christmas tree, and a barmaid pouring booze out of her brassiere cups. It was all très clean in a mildly insouciant way, so I raced back to the wilder toys of Times Square. It’s dirty down there!

Finally, the filthiest recent behavior? Not long ago, I called the editor of Manhattan File to check out a rumor that the magazine was going el foldo. She freaked and insisted, “Oh, no—maybe it’s Manhattan Style, but not us!” Well, the other day, it—Manhattan File—went el foldo. Am I surprised at the bald-faced evasion? No, these are the same people who always told writers, “You’ll have no problem getting paid right away.” And my agent, manager, and publicist all believed it!

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