12.10.2003 By HELEN BARLOW
When audiences first glimpsed Catherine Zeta Jones and George Clooney in Intolerable Cruelty at the Venice Film Festival, it seemed they were meant to be together.
He of effortless charm and she with a great gift of the gab, they are as well matched in their ability to deliver scathing barbs as they are in their handsome looks.
While we may be led to believe that everyone in Hollywood knows everybody else, the pair really only gelled on the set of the Coen Brothers' film, where she plays a scheming divorcee to his successful, though underhand, Beverly Hills divorce lawyer.
"The first restaurant scene we had together was where I tell him I'm a carnivore and he has no idea how much of a carnivore I am," Zeta Jones recalls with relish, in her throaty Welsh tones.
"That was our first day, so instantly there was a connection, and I think it's evident on screen. We look like were having fun being miserable to each other."
Joel and Ethan Coen welcomed the actress into their fold - which included Billy Bob Thornton, like Clooney a second-timer with the brothers, and Geoffrey Rush.
"I had a great bunch of guys to hang out with on this movie," Zeta Jones says. "I felt like I was part of the group immediately. I think it helped hanging out with my two brothers when I was a kid. I could get into the boy thing so I was sittin' around, drinkin' beer," she says like a true yokel, sounding far from the glamorous image she presents in the media.
"People think I swan around in kimonos constantly and order champagne all day!"
Still, it wasn't as if Intolerable Cruelty was hard work for the Oscar-winning actress, who had certainly displayed her endurance, dancing and singing her heart out in Chicago.
This US$60 million ($100 million) Coens' film represents their biggest budget by far, but even if this movie aims for a broader appeal, more deliberately playing for laughs than their previous films, their method remained the same. "They were so well prepared and enjoyed themselves. It's not like this trauma of trying to create art - it's like, 'We're making a movie, isn't this brilliant?' and it's contagious. You just want to be part of it. My god, they laugh so much. They ruin so much film because they snigger in the middle of the scene, so then you wonder what are they laughing at, and you realise they're laughing at Billy Bob, who is really funny, and then you start laughing too."
An alimony farce titled after one of the most common divorce pleas, the film begins with the vain, dentally enhanced Clooney outmanoeuvring Zeta Jones's Marylin from millions as she divorces her latest husband, Rex Rexroth. The rabid golddigger vows revenge and in the meantime marries a slow-thinking Texan millionaire, played by Thornton, even if we think she should be burying her grievances and marrying her true match - Clooney's Miles.
"I didn't want Marylin to be deliciously bitchy," she says, comparing her glacially poised Marylin to her nastier, sleazy Velma in Chicago.
"I wanted people to like her, and I wanted George and my other husbands to love me. The other thing is, Marylin has no idea how much chaos she can create.
"She's like the eye of the storm and she kind of walks through all this unaware of the effect she is having.
"I'm just thrilled that people so far haven't been saying, 'So is Marylin really like you?' If I was like that, do you think I'd go into a movie about it too? It's the kiss of death.
"But I must, in defence of all of Hollywood and Los Angeles, say that marriage and divorce go on all over the world. But add to that the Coen Brothers' sense of humour and push the envelope a bit and you get Intolerable Cruelty. I encourage people all over the world to marry and hopefully stay together."
Married life for 34-year-old Zeta Jones and her 59-year-old husband Michael Douglas isn't quite like it is for the rest of us. They have money, a lot of money. So much so that in their highly publicised case against Hello magazine (the British gossip magazine they were suing for taking unauthorised photos at their wedding) Zeta Jones told the high court that £1 million ($2.8 million), the price paid by OK magazine for their wedding photos, was "not that much" for her and Douglas.
While clearly this is the case, to the people of Britain the former Darling Buds of May television star has become uppity, tainted by money and fame.
But what do they expect? That after living in the lap of luxury, among the glitz and glamour, she would remain the same girl who was born in Mumbles, a seaside town near Swansea in south Wales, to a seamstress mother and a chocolatier father?
She is an Oscar-winning actress now, too ("I still can't believe I have one, it blows my mind," Zeta Jones says of the award. I look back at a year which was incredible for me, I feel so blessed").
One person who sticks up for her is her new good buddy, Clooney.
"She's just gone through the Hello magazine thing and it probably hurts a little still. Certainly it didn't come along at a very good time when there were other issues that were more important [like having a baby] and I'm sure she took some hits for that publicly.
"It's funny how perceptions get all screwy sometimes. It's your own fault, you protect yourself in the wrong ways. I don't know what sort of went on [with the media] but she got booed coming into Venice by a couple of paparazzi because she didn't stand up in the boat and wave.
"She'd just gotten off a plane and didn't really know what she had to do, and I think just one incident like that can affect you for a bit. But anybody who knows her, she's got such an infectious laugh and she's such great fun and she does it better than anyone I know. She does great work and then she has a good time: 'We're going to fly to Rome, we're going to fly to Majorca - the way they live their life is fantastic'."
nteShe is now entering another film family as she prepares to work with Steven Spielberg on Terminal, where she plays an air flight attendant who befriends a stranded Eastern European, played by Tom Hanks, in an airport terminal. She notes it was a role she already had before Oscar came along. "Really it's all so connected, Steven Soderbergh and George, it just goes around like that.
"Steven [Spielberg] had originally seen me in the Titanic television series and asked me to screen test for Zorro. I met with Martin Campbell and was cast in the film. Maybe we're doing another Zorro. We're getting a script ready. I said, 'Please do it before we all get old and grey and we can't even hold up our swords!'."
* Intolerable Cruelty opens on October 23.