MGM ready for ‘Tea’ as Zeffirelli firms sked

Cher, Tomlin, Dench to star in pic

ROME — After several months of delays and some key cast changes, Franco Zeffirelli’s “Tea With Mussolini,” will start shooting June 1 in Italy, starring Cher, Joan Plowright, Maggie Smith, Judi Dench and Lily Tomlin.

Produced by Cineritmo (Rome) and Business Affair Prods. (London) for Medusa Film, the film will be released by MGM in the U.S., through Universal internationally and via Medusa in Italy. Riccardo Tozzi, Federico Muller, Giovannella Zannoni and Clive Parsons will produce, with Pippo Pisciotto associate producing.

Scripted by British playwright and screenwriter John Mortimer and based on a chapter from Zeffirelli’s autobiography, the bittersweet comedy-drama takes place from 1932 to 1945, spanning the reign of Italy’s Fascist regime, the outbreak of World War II and the arrival of peace.

Cher stars as a wealthy, Jewish-American art dealer with a string of husbands and lovers behind her, who becomes a key figure in the life of a young man (played by Baird Wallace).

Becoming the boy’s adoptive family are a trio of colorful British expatriates living in Florence, who are played by Plowright, Smith and Dench (the latter two replacing Angela Lansbury and Vanessa Redgrave, who dropped out). Tomlin plays an American archeologist; Italo actor Massimo Ghini limns the boy’s father.

Shooting for 11 weeks in Florence, San Gimignano and Rome, “Tea With Mussolini” is one of a handful of English-language features going before cameras in Italy during late spring through summer.

Others are Miramax Films’ “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” directed by Anthony Minghella and starring Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law and Cate Blanchett; Fox Searchlight’s Michael Hoffman-directed “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” with Kevin Kline, Michelle Pfeiffer, Calista Flockhart, Rupert Everett and Christian Bale; and the Cecchi Gori Group’s “My West,” with Giovanni Veronesi directing Harvey Keitel, Leonardo Pieraccioni and David Bowie.