‘Ghosts’ evokes old passions

GOOD MORNING: I have rarely been as moved on a movie set as I was Wednesday — the 33rd anniversary of the murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers. The set, on Stage 15 at the Culver Studios, was of Castle Rock-Columbia’s “Ghosts of Mississippi”; the scene: the trial of Byron De La Beckwith, which took place two years ago, and exactly 31 years after the Evers murder and after two trials resulting in a hung jury. The first person I met on the set was Darrell Evers, Medgar’s son, who’d been at home in Jackson, Miss., with his mother Myrlie, sister Reena and brother Van when Medgar was murdered outside their front door. At the time, the family was watching President Kennedy’s landmark address (on TV) to the nation on the issue of civil rights. That scene will be re-enacted — including JFK’s actual speech — as part of the no-punches-pulled pic. Wednesday’s scene was in the Jackson courtroom, where white supremacist De La Beckwith (James Woods) was about to be sentenced. Seated in the courtroom front row were Whoopi Goldberg as Myrlie, Darrell as himself, and Martin Luther King’s daughter Yolanda King as Reena Evers (Reena herself plays a juror). Rob Reiner and producer Fred Zollo alternated between the monitors and the set, which also boasted these cast members: Alec Baldwin as assistant d.a. Bobby DeLaughter (who will visit Saturday), d.a. Craig T. Nelson, defense attorney Michael O’Keefe, etc. Reiner says the movie is so bluntly accurate that some Miss. location sites were refused, as were some equipment rentals. But Reiner doesn’t fear any refusals from exhibitors in December. However, movie audiences are due for a shock when they see the trailer, being readied for July 4 screens. Reiner and Zollo showed it to me in their trailer alongside the stage. In it, Woods reenacts an actual interview De La Beckwith gave pre-trial. He uses every word you’d expect from a white supremacist, venom dripping from every pore. Reiner says some of it (the trailer) had to be edited, “But Jack Valenti gave an OK on it”– for its still-overwhelmingly powerful hate message … Darrell Evers admitted to me the threats never have stopped from supremacist groups. On the set are screenwriter Lewis Colick and Willie Morris, Pulitzer Prize-winning author who was present at every day of the trial. The filmmakers are trying to bring a comprehensive view of this moment in history, including this message by President Kennedy, airing the night prior to the murder: “The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated.” “People will think we made this up,” said director Reiner. “Nothing’s made up in this movie!”

I ALMOST WALKED BY JAMES WOODS without recognizing him as the 74-year-old De La Beckwith. The makeup, which requires 3 1/2 hours (he gets to work at 5 ayem) is by Woods’ “Citizen Cohn” Emmy-winning team, Matthew Mungle and Deborah La Mia Denaver. Woods admitted that neither his mother nor his girlfriend, Missy Crider , recognized him either. Woods was determined to play the part and he tested to prove he could do it. He is into the role (as with everything he does) to the nth degree. When he asked Reiner, “Am I on camera?” after a take, Reiner laughed , said, “You know every second when the cameras’s on you!” Woods says he doesn’t care about “billing or the money — it’s the script and the director that counts for me. That’s why I did three days in ‘Casino,’ ” and why he’s doing the “small pic” “Kicked in the Head” for Martin Scorsese and Barbara DeFina … Woods calls Baldwin the “most generous actor” he’s worked with. And Whoopi Goldberg’s “a queen.” Goldberg told me she is also doing this picture because of its importance. She’s taking off the summer from working in pix to campaign for Bill Clinton, will introduce him at events, etc. She and Baldwin did a stint Monday night at the Smash Box for the President. Whoopi’s also putting a B’way return on ice until ’97 … De La Beckwith, imprisoned in Jackson, continues to send out hundred of pieces of hate mail regularly, Zollo said, “at the expense of the state of Mississippi.” What’s on Zollo’s future platter? The Lyndon Johnson story, “Means of Ascent” by Chris Gerolmo, who also wrote “Mississippi Burning.” It’s the story of the young LBJ’s senatorial win. Who to play Johnson? “Tom Hanks would be wonderful,” said Zollo.

ROB REINER PROUDLY NOTES that his father Carl is now also directing a major feature, “That Old Feeling” (starring Bette Midler). ‘I don’t think that has ever happened before” (father and son directing simultaneously). Also working on “Ghosts of Miss.” is Frank Capra III as assistant director. His grandfather would have approved of this pic! As for the future distributor of Castle Rock — owned by Turner B’casting System, bought by Time-Warner — Reiner says Sony, MCA “and a third studio” are bidding for the Castle Rock movie output. “Wherever we go we will remain autonomous, ” he promises.

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