RALPH FIENNES had just come from a massage when he showed up at the Mercer Hotel on Bleeker Street. Whatever Ralph looked like before the kneading, he was now a vision of relaxed comfort and geniality — casually dressed, careless, sexy hair, flip-flops on his pale well-tended feet. Ralph does not have the huge soulful eyes of his more elusive brother Joseph, but he does flash an amazing smile, a sexy, friendly grin that transforms his thoughtful face. He co-stars with Rachel Weisz in “The Constant Gardener,” based on John LeCarre’s novel and directed by Fernando Meirelles. It is an intense, swiftly edited tale of pharmaceutical companies run amok, the scourge of AIDS in Africa. In some ways this is a bookend to Fiennes 1996 hit, “The English Patient”: Great passions on great vistas. But “Gardener” is no languorous period epic. “There’s been a bit of resistance from some people, but that’s the way Fernando works. I think even I was wary. But then I saw it was right for this story, these characters. However, sometimes we did have to persuade him to allow the camera to linger a little longer, and not to cut dialogue. He’s apt to say, ‘Dialogue! Boring! Boring!’ I think there is a similarity to Hitchcock. I thought Hitch’s mindset was ‘two plus two make four, of course.’ But then he’d allow his audience to supply the four. He had faith his audience would know what he was doing. Fernando is the same.” What about the Oscar talk for him and Miss Weisz? “Flattering, of course. And I’ve been down that road before. It’s best not to think about it. Things tend to shift dramatically, as the season progresses. That shouldn’t be the point, anyway. (big laugh) Don’t believe publicity!” Throughout the conversation he was engaging, accessible, eager to stray from the absolute point of promoting his films. While discussing the glamour of black-and-white cinema, our duty at hand kicked in: “Maybe we should talk more about you, Ralph?” He replied, “Why?”

EVEN THOUGH I was prepared to receive a call from Doris Day — her press rep had phoned late last week to announce, “Doris Day will be calling” — it was a thrill to pick up the phone and unexpectedly hear, “Hi, this is Doris Day!” Doris — who rarely speaks to the press –wants her millions of fans/admirers to know that this following story is not about her. “It’s a chance to say thanks to my animal loving donors. There is no applause for me; only for them.” If you saw the lost and deserted cats and dogs prowling the waters and rooftops of New Orleans recently, you know the tug at your heartstrings. So when a Santa Cruz animal rescuer called Doris begging her to send $20,000 to allow a plane to rise out of N.O. with 100 imperiled cats and dogs aboard, Doris responded in a shot. The DC 3 arrived with its precious cargo — a small crop of creatures who would have been put to death. If you love Doris Day as I do; if you love animals, you may want to help her D.D. Animal Foundation and you can send a tax deductible donation to that group, c/o the Monterey County Bank, 601Munras Ave., Monterey, Ca. 93940. OK, I respected the thrust of this call. The elusive DD did not want to get into anything about herself. (David Kaufman is writing a massive bio on Day, due late next year.) But I couldn’t help asking about the rumors that she is ill and in a wheelchair. She laughed. “I just have a cold but I am not sick, nor in a wheelchair.” Asked if she was tap dancing, she said, “Yes, I can. I still can.” But don’t expect to see the legendary star shakin’ the blues away in public.

A COMPACT musical about looking for love opens Sunday at the Minetta Lane Theater titled “Five Course Love.” The cast of three plays 15 different characters in different restaurants in different countries to hilarious effect. Writer-composer Gregg Coffin was inspired by the zany lunacy of great comics such as Red Skelton, Carol Burnett and Sid Caesar. John Bolton left the B’way hit “Spamalot” to do this show. … On Nov. 3, Sting will host “La Dolce Vita New York.” Yeah, it sounds like something to encourage bad behavior, but actually it is a benefit for the Soil Assn.’s “Food For Life” campaign — organic farming and such. Sting is set to perform for 90 minutes. Tables are going for $20,000 ($25,000 for the Platinum Seats.) If you think you can scrape up the dough for this, call (877) 683-2442. … Manly men go to Ireland and go onstage! Recently, it was Christopher Meloni treading the boards. Soon another great big blast of testosterone hits the Emerald Isle — Ed Harris. On Nov. 23, Ed opens at the Everyman Palace Theater in the Neil LaBute play “Wrecks.” (LaBute also directs.) Harris says, “I haven’t done a play since ‘Taking Sides’ in 1996. I’m ready to rock and roll on this one. I love Ireland!”

WHEN YOU kiss a girl, you can never kiss that hard!” So observed director Ang Lee as he watched Jake Gyllenhall and Heath Ledger practice their love scene in “Brokeback Mountain.” This film, which opens next month, has become known as “the gay cowboy movie.” But it is much more, and certainly more than the by-now not-terribly shocking sight of two men kissing onscreen. … A legend in the legit world has left us — Betty Lee Hunt, the woman who helped create Off Broadway via publicity, while still toiling on B’way for only the biggest hits. Take “Grease” for just one example. Her starmaking cast light on such legends as Lena Horne, Bobby Short, George Shearing and Barbara Cook. Imaginative, indefatigable and unique, she made press agentry an art.

(E-mail Liz Smith at MES3838@aol.com

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