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‘Little Buddha’ garners big interest from 3 biggies

WITHER “LITTLE BUDDHA”? The history of director Bernardo Bertolucci’s epic saga of the origins and modern vitality of the world’s largest religion has been fraught with drama and emotion. Financed largely by France’s Ciby 2000, the film has been admired and coveted by American distributors but remains without a U.S. home.

Well, it’s now down to the wire and the three companies still in the race are Columbia, Universal and Miramax. Oddly enough it may well be Columbia, the studio that handled the filmmaker’s multi-Oscared “The Last Emperor,” that winds up distributing the picture.

According to sources close to the deal, all three suitors have comparable deals on the table. There would be a healthy advance in the $ 8 million-$ 10 million range, plus considerable promotional commitment.

But “Little Buddha” poses an unexpected problem for Universal and Miramax. The producers view it as a prestige release to be platformed at year-end and to build toward Oscar season. It’s a natural scenario, except each of those companies has two heavy-hitting, highbrow, Oscar-consideration films set.

At Universal there’s Steven Spielberg’s holocaust drama “Schindler’s List” and “In the Name of the Father,” a tale of modern Irish politics from the “My Left Foot” team of Daniel Day-Lewis and director Jim Sheridan.

Miramax has an equally rich Christmas tree decked with the adaptation of Isabelle Allende’s epic “House of the Spirits” with Glenn Close, Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep. It also has “The Piano,” the Cannes winner Ciby 2000 financed and might prefer not to pit against “Buddha.”

So, Columbia has some unexpected pluses going into the final round. Should the Bertolucci film fall into place, it will join the Christmas studio lineup that has the not-to-be-sneezed-at “Remains of the Day” from Merchant/Ivory already in place.

REGARDLESS OF THE FATE of the aforementioned movie, it remains true that no one can smell a deal better than Harvey Weinstein.

Right before Cannes, he called up U.K.-based producer Norma Heyman (“Dangerous Liaisons”) just to gab. He loved the type of films she was involved in and maybe there was something on her platter that could involve Miramax. Coincidentally, he was planning to be in London for several days and would love to take her to dinner.

Oh, and by the way, what do you have coming up, he inquired innocently.

Heyman mentioned the John Schlesinger-directed thriller “The Innocent” and Harvey, evincing slight recognition, noted that his company had a project it was thinking of presenting to Campbell Scott. Scott co-stars in “The Innocent” with Anthony Hopkins and Isabella Rossellini.

So, Mr. Miramax arrives in London, wines and dines Ms. Heyman and lines up a screening. When the picture finishes and the lights go up, he’s rabid. He wants the picture and is ready to make a deal. Heyman was caught off-guard but co-producer Chris Sievernich stepped in to remind everyone that Paramount, which developed the thriller, had first option on U.S. rights. Harvey would just have to wait.

Well, last week Paramount put its deal on the table and word is the producers believe someone else might have a better offer. Officially, Miramax says it has neither bid nor counterbid out on the picture.

THIS BUD’S FOR YOU! Marlon “Bud” Brando, as we all know, works in mysterious ways. A few years back, he surfaced with a script he’d written titled “Jericho.” It was about an ex-CIA agent who’s drawn back into the fold after his child is kidnapped.

His old buddy Elliott Kastner was going to produce and Donald Cammell was set to direct. But it didn’t happen. Apparently Brando’s enthusiasm proved as harmful as it was helpful.

More recently he spoofed his “Godfather” image in “The Freshman,” and alternately told the press that it was a) the worst experience of his life, or b) that he had so much fun he only wanted to do comedies in the future.

Phew! Where will he turn up next?

Well, the answer is producer Ed Pressman’s doorstep. Ole Marlon decided that Captain Ed was the only person who could produce his new, untitled script. Additionally, the most suitable director for the job in his eyes was Phillip Borsos, the man who made “The Grey Fox,” a film Brando greatly admired.

So what’s it all about, Marlon?

The great one wasn’t speaking but Borsos, who’s prepping “Yellow Dog” for Fox , told us that the story recalls the vintage Oscar winner “The Brave One.” It centers on an orphaned Spanish boy who has a special relationship with a calf. The two have a unique communication that spans the years of their respective youths. However, when the calf becomes a bull, it’s carted off to the bullring.

At that point Brando’s character, a retired matador, arrives on the scene. Together he and the boy plot to get the animal back.

“Brando loves the idea of playing surrogate father to the boy,” said Borsos. “It’s a wonderful story and he’s been a dream to work with. I don’t know when it will happen but we continue to talk and discuss it at least once a month.”

CASTING BEAT: It’s the quiet ones, especially the Brits, you have to watch.

While there’s been much speculation whether Day-Lewis will or won’t be Lestat in the film version of “Interview With the Vampire,” apparently a deal for the role is close with another Oscar winner. Word is Jeremy Irons will get the plum role when filming starts in September. Already set to join Brad Pitt and River Phoenix are Antonio Banderas and Miranda Richardson.

Another tall, imposing Brit — one John Cleese — is about to take on his first major film role since “A Fish Called Wanda.” He’s about to sign on as Cadbury to Macaulay Culkin’s Richie Rich for producer Joel Silver.