GOOD MORNING: “What Women Want” is obviously what the movie-going public wants, agrees Joe Roth, who relaunches his directing career with “America’s Sweethearts” next week. It’s “a movie that’s funny and romantic,” says Roth, like the Mel Gibson starrer, “with the feeling of a movie by (Preston) Sturges or (Billy) Wilder.” But he quickly added, “Our picture is not a comparison, just a reference,” he clarified. The remarkable cast — Julia Roberts, Billy Crystal, John Cusack, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Hank Azaria and Seth Green — is further complemented by Alan Arkin, Stanley Tucci and Christopher Walken. The last-mentioned plays the movie director in the yarn set in and among the principals of Hollywood. Crystal (also producing and co-scripting) plays a publicist trying to hold the secrets of the stars from leaking — thus the pic locations in Lake Las Vegas, which is near nothing. “The idea,” Roth laughingly says, “is for the company to be isolated from the likes of the press.” Why? Because the stars in the movie within the movie, “America’s Sweethearts” (Zeta-Jones and Cusack) are divorcing. And Jones’ sister, Julia Roberts, is in love with Cusack. The cast cooperated in making the film po$$ible, said Roth. “We all worked it out, in support of the company — and as a compliment to Julia.” The pic, for Columbia, is one of 10 that Roth says he (Revolution Studios) plans to start in six months. And no, we didn’t crystal-ball any strikes … And talking Mel Gibson above, as the new year starts, he becomes the first thesp in memory to have appeared in three films topping the $100 million-grossing mark within one year: “Chicken Run,” “The Patriot” and “What Women Want.” In March he starts the Vietnam War-set pic based on Randall Wallace’s “We Were Soldiers Once … and Young,” with Wallace directing. Happy birthday, Mel.

ELIZABETH TAYLOR HEADS to the White House Monday, when she will be a recipient of the Presidential Citizen’s Medal for her humanitarian work … Attention new environmental watchdogs in the upcoming George W. Bush Cabinet: Environment protector/thesp Dennis Weaver will drive a retrofitted 1995 Buick, powered by hydrogen, from D.C. to L.A. He’ll be visiting principal cities to prove that gasoline, exhausts from which pollute the air, isn’t necessary and that hydrogen (which does not pollute) should be substituted. Weaver expects to start west around June 15 … Michael Viner has struck gold: more than $300,000 from songs he recorded 29 years ago, when he headed MGM Records. The group was Viner’s Incredible Bongo Band, with Viner as one of the percussionists. One of the instrumental tracks, “Apache,” is now heard on Acura commercials. And director Guy Ritchie uses another tune, “Bongo Rock,” in his film “Snatch.” The album has been used by more than 70 rap acts and is now licensed in 15 countries. Meanwhile Viner’s (and wife Deborah Raffin’s) New Millennium audio label is recording Amy Tan’s “The Bonesetter’s Daughter” (Putnam), with Tan and Joan Chen reading the book … Publicist Eric Myers’ bio “The Life of Patrick Dennis” has gone into its second printing (St. Martin’s Press). His dad, publicist Julian Myers, was crowned king of the 41st annual Penguin Club New Year’s Day swim near the Venice Pier. Not for being the fastest, for sure, admits Julian, “but probably because I was the oldest — 82.” P.S. he gets to keep the crown.

“GET ME A JOB,” Ray Walston urged his agent of 16 years, Harry Gold, as recently as two weeks ago. Gold told me he had discussions for Walston in two upcoming pix, “The Gene Pool” and “Month of Sundays.” The multi-talented workaholic Walston was one of the most versatile actors I’d ever met, from the dramatic boards of Broadway to the singing sands of “South Pacific” on a remote Kauai beach … .Mickey Rooney, who had undergone bypass surgery two weeks ago, was up at 5 ayem Tuesday to appear on “Good Morning America”; when I spoke to him later in the day, he was still full of vigor. Wife Jan told me he’d already tried out a dance routine for their act, due to resume next month — if his medic approves … Maureen Reagan celebrates her 60th birthday today but, sad to say, she is reportedly hospitalized in intensive care … Regis and Joy Philbin, on vacation (cruising) this week, return for ayem duties together Monday. “Live With Regis” heads to the Rio Hotel in Vegas, taping Jan. 22-24, to air 23 24, 25, 26. There’ll be no “Millionaire” tapings in Slots City. Celebrity players on “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” are not skedded until April or May. Past winners have included Norm Macdonald, who donated his $500,000 winnings to Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall Gang Camps and Alec Baldwin, $250,000 to PAWS. Philbin’s “live” nightclub date is Feb. 17 at Foxwood’s. In January’s issue of Playboy, David Halberstam — who won the Pulitzer in 1964 for NYTimes reportage on the Vietnam War, and is a longtime friend of Regis’ and fellow Notre Dame alum — writes: “He could as easily be the Willy Loman of TV, someone for whom it might never have happened, still trying his damnedest though, and doing nightclub routines in a motel lounge in some smaller city and getting by, as Arthur Miller once wrote about Willy, on a shoeshine and a smile. Instead it’s a Frank Capra story: Good guy does good things, waits a long time and good things happen. We need a few of those.”

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