Diesel preps Hannibal pic

VIN DIESEL is serious about his bigscreen biopic based on the life of the fearsome almost-conqueror of ancient Rome, Hannibal of Carthage. You know, the one who scared the Romans witless with all those elephants? (OK, a lot of the pachyderms expired crossing the Alps, but Hannibal had enough elephants left over to make a statement.)

So how serious is this action star, who turned in a terrific dramatic performance last year in “Find Me Guilty”? He is following in the hallowed footsteps of Mel Gibson, who used the extinct Aramaic language in his “Passion of The Christ” mega-hit. Vin hired the man who translated “Passion” and is now attempting to work out a script in Greek, Latin and Punic.

Vin says he has learned a little Latin already. He is currently scouting locations on the Iberian Peninsula. And — big plus! — Vin knows how to ride an elephant. Why doesn’t that surprise me?

BOOKS: Long gone, but still exploitable, James Dean is the subject of a new tome, “Surviving James Dean” by William Bast. The author, who wrote a book about Dean after his tragic car crash death in 1955, claims an intimate friendship with the iconic star. More intimate than he asserted back in the 50’s. The book is from Barricade and Mr. Bast, “constrictions torn away” tells all.

ON JUNE 22, movie director Billy Wilder would have been 100 years old. The genius who made “Sunset Boulevard,” “Sabrina,” “Some Like It Hot,” “Stalag 17,” “Double Indemnity,” said, when he was 85: “I never liked birthdays but I’ll have a party for that one.”

Billy didn’t stick around to party, dying in 2002, but the Simon & Schuster book Charlotte Chandler wrote about him, “Nobody’s Perfect,” is now out from Applause in paperback. Before he died, Billy talked with Groucho Marx who said, “I’d pay a million dollars for an erection.” Billy answered, “Wish I had one to sell you.” Until his 90th birthday, Billy said he saw himself as “middle-aged. But then it came to me; how many people do I know who are 180?”

Producer David Brown has optioned “Nobody’s Perfect” for a play and also a film, but says he has yet to find the right actor to play Billy Wilder.

THERE WAS never anything second hand in the illusions Marlene Dietrich provided for several generations of moviegoers and live audiences — most importantly, the fighting American soldiers she entertained during World War II, turning her back on her native Germany and the Nazis. Dietrich is undergoing a revival, and her own family is spurring it on. Grandson David Riva (son of Dietrich’s only child, Maria) is putting out a big book this summer dedicated to his grandmother’s war work. Now Michael Riva, Maria’s eldest son, has written a screenplay, called for now, “Untitled Dietrich and Gabin Project.”

Michael describes the hoped-for film as a “smaller movie about a brief time in her life, which had devastating consequences till the day she died.” Based on Michael’s own memories of what his glamorous grandmother told him, the screenplay focuses on the tumultuous and ultimately unhappy love affair between Marlene and the great French actor, Jean Gabin. Their affair ran about three years, and although both tried mightily (she especially), the relationship eventually foundered — Gabin and Dietrich were too strong, too self-absorbed.

Michael says, “It’s an old-fashioned love story, filled with passion, regret and eventual redemption. . I structured it a bit after ‘Reds’ and ‘The Way We Were.'”

There is also a Dietrich project “in mothballs” at DreamWorks and a nifty collection of her films was just released on DVD.

Dietrich herself – who lived in self-imposed exile for the last 20 years of her life – would have considered all this attention “sentimental kitsch!”

But having worked till she literally no longer could, she’d love it as well. A star is a star is a star.

OUT & ABOUT: Shirley MacLaine, the one and only actor-dancer-woman-about-the-universe, holding court at Sardis theater haunt. An ingenue at the table asked her, “Do you believe in astrology?” The look on Ms. MacLaine’s face was priceless. Didn’t Shirley invent astrology?

The grand actress Gena Rowlands and actor Robert Forrest were at Primola telling Ben and Elke Gazzara all about the Cannes Film Festival. If you know your movie history, you know Ms. Rowlands is the widow of the late, highly revered filmmaker John Cassavetes who was one of Ben’s best friends. Gena is in New York doing a cameo for her daughter Zoe Cassavetes’ first film, to be titled “Broken English.” (Zoe wrote and directs.) Mama is then returning to Hollywood in June to work with Anthony Hopkins in “Slip Stream.” Hopkins wrote, produced, will direct and act in same.

THE BIG “Don’t Miss” of the month of June is the Metropolitan Opera Guild’s offering of a revival of “Master Class” by award-winning playwright Terrence McNally. It happens at the Broadhurst. (The play was a sensation on Broadway and all over the world where many stars from Zoe Caldwell to Patti LuPone to Dixie Carter performed onstage as Maria Callas.)

For one night only June 19, we’ll see Kathy Bates, Dixie Carter, Edie Falco, Swoosie Kurtz, Chita Rivera and Leslie Uggams sharing the starring role. Combined, these six ladies have won five Tonys, two Emmys, a Golden Globe, the SAG award, an Oscar and a Kennedy Center honor. Call 212-769-7009.

THE BIG news, the important news to come from the recent “The Devil Wears Prada” screening in New York was that the subsequent auction raised $150,000 for the Breast Cancer Foundation. Among the highest “gets” were: tea with Meryl Streep for $18,000, Anne Hathaway babysitting was snapped up for $20,000 and, for $17,000, shopping and drinks at the St. Regis with sexy Stanley Tucci.

THE British press says that superwaif Kate Moss will soon play the 11th-century heroine, Lady Godiva. The lady rode nude on a horse through the town of Coventry to ease the population’s tax burden. What a woman. I wonder why the Bush administration has never thought of anything like this.

This film will begin this fall in England. Producers couldn’t finance this effort until Kate agreed to star. Well, they won’t have a heavy costume budget.

OUR GOOD friend, the amazing columnist Art Buchwald, went into a hospice a few months ago. He needed dialysis. He decided against it.

Since then he has garnered reams of copy for his aversion to dying, and continues to write. Now he has a new artificial leg, a new elevator in his house on Martha’s Vineyard and he is moving back there on July 1 for the summer.

There is nothing so invigorating as refusing to die.

(Email Liz Smith at MES3838@aol.com)

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