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Tuesday, December 4, 2001
Updated: May 31, 2:08 PM ET
Going toe-to-toe with 'Ali'

By Bill Simmons
Page 2 columnist

While playing journalist in Vegas for the Rahman-Lewis fight a few weeks ago, I experienced an epiphany:

Will Smith as Ali
Will Smith takes on the role of Muhammad Ali in Michael Mann's new film, "Ali," which opens Christmas Day.
Being a member of the media can actually be fun.

Free food, free access, free hotel room, celebrity sightings and interactions, horrifying revelations and realizations about the mainstream media, that inexplicable "Hey, I feel special" feeling you get when somebody hands you a press pass ... as Ernie Banks once said, "Let's play two!"

So when my editors asked me last week, "Would you be interested in trekking down to Manhattan for the premiere of (the new Michael Mann/Will Smith film) 'Ali'?", I was packing my suitcase within 5.33 seconds. Since "Ali" doesn't open until Christmas Day, we're holding off my review until the last week of December ... but Thursday's official "press junket" warrants an immediate rehashing.

First, an explanation: Hollywood studios created press junkets as a way to promote their films as quickly and efficiently as possible. I never knew how they worked until last week, when my editor Kevin Jackson explained the concept to me after this exchange:

After picking up his vertebrae from the floor, KJ explained what happens at a press junket, as I started muttering to myself, "Hey, I bet I can get a column out of this!"

Without further ado, here's what happens at a press junket, a running diary of what happened last Thursday morning when I attended the junket for "Ali":

9 a.m. I arrive at the Essex House Hotel (located on Central Park South) and check in at the Hospitality Suite, where the movie's PR people are holding court in a 16th-floor, multi-room hotel suite. Free coffee, free breakfast muffins and bagels, free USA Todays, 10-12 round tables ... and about 15-20 media members are happily eating and drinking away. WATFO!

(Note: WATFO is the acronym for "What Are The F---ing Odds?", great for moments like when you're watching SportsCenter, and one of the anchors tells you about a women's hoops player who blew out her knee, or when you're watching the "E! True Hollywood Story" about "Miami Vice," and Philip Michael Thomas admits that, yes, he'd be receptive to filming a reunion movie. WATFO!)

Jon Voight
Jon Voight, who plays Howard Cosell, seemed to get better as the film went on -- just don't tell him that.
9:15 a.m. I'm jotting down questions for my 9:30 interview with Jon Voight, and listening to a PR person lobby someone from Reader's Digest for a Jodie Foster cover.

9:25 a.m. Still trying to come up with a punchline for "listening to a PR person lobby someone from Reader's Digest for a Jodie Foster cover." This should be the next Page 2 contest. Suddenly, the PR person in charge of Jon Voight for the day -- we'll call them "coordinators," for lack of a better term -- grabs me and we head down to Voight's hotel room.

9:30 a.m. Hey, it's Jon Voight! Some highlights:

  • We shake hands, and I immediately start peppering him with questions about "The Champ," even working in a Ricky Schroeder impersonation at one point: "Champ?!? Champ?!? Wake up, Champ!" He seems partially amused and partially ready to alert hotel security.

  • Voight can't hide his affection for "The Champ." A longtime boxing fan and friend of Ali, Voight clearly gave that movie everything he had and still remembers most of the particulars, even how he and Randall "Tex" Cobb (then a converted kickboxer trying to become a boxer) fought mock rounds for days (for the closing fight scene) without Cobb ever taking a cheap shot at him. He also just wrapped a "special commentary" for the soon-to-be-released DVD with Ricky Schroeder, who he hadn't seen in years (oh, and I'm not buying that one?).

  • In person, he looks just enough like his daughter (Angelina Jolie) that I'm not sure I could ever be attracted to her again. OK, that's a lie.

  • Voight plays Howard Cosell in the movie, one of those performances where he gets better as the movie goes along (by the midway point, he's nailing every scene). Of course, I make the mistake of asking him about this, phrasing it poorly -- "I thought your Cosell got better as the movie went along" -- and he seems taken aback. "I don't know about that," he says, trying to remain cordial.

    Jon Voight, Will Smith
    Voight, right, is a longtime boxing fan and friend of Ali.
    (At this point, I feel like pulling a Chris Farley in the "Chris Farley Show" -- pulling out my hair while screaming, "God! I'm such an idiot!" over and over again.)

  • Ten minutes go by really fast. I didn't even have a chance to ask Voight about "Varsity Blues" ("Do you still keep in touch with James VanDerBeek?") or any Jolie-related questions ("What's it like to have a son-in-law named Billy Bob?"), much less pull off a "10 Burning Questions" (as suggested by my bosses). Nice guy, though.

    9:45 a.m. Back to the press suite. I spend the next 30 minutes drinking OJ, reading USA Today and watching semi-hysterical PR people grabbing reporters, talking in headsets and frantically shouting out things like, "Jamie Foxx is running five minutes late!" You have never seen so many people performing a fluff job so seriously.

    10:30 a.m. Time for my next interview, this time with Nona Gaye, the singer/model who makes her cinematic debut as Ali's second wife (Belinda). You might know her as Marvin Gaye's daughter; I know her as "The Most Striking Woman I Have Ever Seen in Person."

    I'd rattle off some of Nona's features, but I was stuck in a shellshocked haze the entire time. How do you have a conversation with somebody who looks like this? Impossible. We spend most of the time talking about how "Ali" has shaped up as Nona's coming-out party, how her life will never be the same after Dec. 25, how her multimedia role model is J-Lo ... all the standard stuff that she will probably discuss 10 more times in the next two hours.

    Fortunately, I win points by remembering her father's transcendent performance of the national anthem before an NBA All-Star Game in the early-'80s. Greatest rendition of all-time. Nona says people mention it to her all the time, even now. She clearly loves talking about her father.

    Nona Gaye
    Nona Gaye, the daughter of Marvin Gaye, makes her cinematic debut as Ali's second wife, Belinda.
    At this point I've sized her up enough to make my first joke: "Just promise me you won't be pulling a Natalie Cole and singing a duet of 'Let's Get It On' with him down the road."

    Nona giggles: "Oh, I promise," she cooes.

    10:40 a.m. Somehow, I make it to the 10-minute mark with Nona. Read that sentence again and trust me on this one: Few men have ever said those words.

    11 a.m. Off to Angelo Dundee's room, the legendary trainer of Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard, among many others (he served as a technical adviser for the film), as well as a veritable ball of energy (even though he just turned 134 last week).

    Dundee wins points with me for shaking my hand twice, slapping my shoulder and offering me something to drink. I win points with him for mentioning my disappointment that Dundee's seminal moment in "Ali-Liston I" was left on the cutting room floor -- when Liston's corner doctored Sonny's gloves with a secret ointment that blinded Ali, and the Muslims at ringside blamed Dundee, menacingly moving towards Ali's corner, convinced that Dundee had sold his fighter out. Fortunately for Dundee, Ali's eyes cleared. Should have been in the movie.

    Dundee ends up gabbing about boxing for 10 minutes, saying many of the things I knew he would say -- "If I had gotten (Will Smith) when he was 20, I could have turned him into a champion," etc. -- and regaling me with Ali stories. You know how you meet three or four people a year who love their life and could talk about their specialty all day, no matter who's listening (the janitor, the maid, the video store clerk, whomever)? That's Dundee. A memorable experience. Ten minutes wasn't nearly long enough.

    11:20 a.m. Time for 10 minutes with Michael Michele, the gorgeous "ER" star (she plays Dr. Benton's girl), who also plays Ali's third wife in the film (Veronica). Beautiful, striking, vibrant ... but at gunpoint, I'm still going with Nona Gaye (that has to be the upset of the day).

    Michael Michele
    ER's Michael Michele plays Veronica Porche, Ali's third wife.
    Michael wins huge points by saying "ESPN!" after we were introduced though. Of course, I get off on the wrong foot with her, asking her what it's like to play a character who became the proverbial "black widow" of Ali's life. Ali started up with Veronica during the Foreman fight in Zaire, ultimately jettisoning Belinda -- a dutiful, loving wife by all accounts -- for Veronica, the home-wrecking model who ditched him once he started to deteroriate in the early-'80s (she eventually soaked him for big money in the divorce, somehow convincing Ali to disregard a prenupital agreement).

    And yet Michael bristles when I question Veronica's character, so we have a good-natured debate about it that usurps most of my 10 minutes. Still, good times. It's not every day you get to argue with a TV star.

    11:30 a.m. Michael wins more points when her coordinator barges in at the 10-minute mark to end our interview. First, she seems disappointed that our 10 minutes are up. Then, she whines, "We didn't even get to talk any sports!" And she was serious! I think that was just enough to push her past Nona Gaye in the Sports Guy Pantheon.

    (By the way ... I mean, what about this press junket? Is this a ridiculous way to spend a morning or what? Can you believe this?)

    11:40 a.m. Time to meet Ron Silver, the Hall of Fame "That Guy" who plays Dundee in "Ali." You know him -- he played Alan Dershowitz in "Reversal of Fortune," he played Robert Shapiro in the two-part mini-series about O.J., he currently plays Martin Sheen's new adviser on "West Wing." You know ... That Guy?

    Needless to say, he also played a doctor in the 1981 Chuck Norris horror/action flick "Silent Rage," one of the 10 greatest Bad Movies of all-time, if that makes sense. An absolute classic. No horror movie ever straddled the line between Legitimate Terror and Unintentional Comedy quite like this; Norris has never been better, and he has never been worse. You really have to see it.

    (Quick plot recap: Norris plays a Texas sheriff who shoots to death a homicidal maniac. Three scientist/doctors end up bringing the maniac back to life by testing their revolutionary "cell-healing serum"; unfortunately, that means that the maniac can't be killed, so when he kills the doctors and escapes from the hospital, well ... you can guess what happens. TREEE-mendous idea for a movie. I can't believe they haven't re-made it yet.)

    So when I meet Ron, I give him this one after we shake hands:

    I have clearly won him over for life. As for the rest of our interview, we barely start talking about "Ali" (Silver says it's his favorite movie that he has ever done) before my five minutes are up. Both of us seem disappointed. "Good luck on West Wing," I tell him. Now there is something I never thought I would say to somebody.

    11:40 a.m. I'm quickly hustled on an elevator to meet Howard Bingham, executive producer of "Ali," as well as Ali's longtime friend and photographer. Many people passed through Ali's posse over the years; nobody played a more positive, beneficial, protective role in his life than Bingham.

    Now here's where press junkets just stink. Bingham and I click immediately -- within 30 seconds, he's sifting through an Ali book, pointing out various pictures he snapped and telling me about Ali -- and he could clearly sense from me that I could discuss Ali for days on end. But just when we were getting going ... BOOM! Time's up. Just not fair.

    11:55 a.m. Once again, I'm quickly hustled onto another elevator, this time for five minutes with Jeffrey Wright, the accomplished indie/Broadway actor who plays Bingham in the movie. At this point, it's a race between me and Wright as to who's more frustrated with this junket. Soft-spoken and intuitive, Wright clearly is incapable of playing the "I'm so excited to be in this movie" routine, and I'm less excited to play the "I'm so excited to interview you about this movie" routine.

    (Is five minutes really enough to get a handle on anybody? Of course not, especially someone as gifted as Wright. That's why reporters are supposed to take certain angles with these things. For instance, let's say I decided that my angles would be, "What's it like to work with Will Smith?" and "Did Smith pull off the Ali role?" I would have spent my time with each celebrity pumping them with Smith questions, and they would have given me generic answers, and then I would have moved to the next room and done it all over again. Rinse, lather, repeat.)

    Jamie Foxx
    Jamie Foxx views his performance as Bundini Brown as one of the most important roles of his career.
    Noon: After Wright's coordinator puts the kibosh on our interview, he tells me that Jamie Foxx is waiting for me for a five-minute quickie. Wright decides he'll join me to say hello to Foxx (whom he befriended during the movie shoot), so we ride the elevator together to Foxx's floor. Wright loosens up noticeably, and I get him to admit that he hates these press junkets. I knew it!

    To nobody's surprise, it's a different ballgame in Foxx's suite: A spacious living room with 4-5 people jabbering away, along with a bigger bathroom and a bedroom that overlooks Central Park. Given that my interview is still three minutes away, I seize the opportunity to pee in Jamie Foxx's bathroom (does that qualify as a "Brush With Greatness"?).

    12:05 p.m. Foxx's coordinator introduces us and his face lights up when the word "ESPN" gets dropped. The Worldwide Leader, baby! I ask him if he's ever surfed ESPN.com and Foxx says, "Nahhhh, I don't do that Internet stuff." And why would he? I mean, would you spend an hour holed up in your room surfing the Internet if you were Jamie Foxx? I sure wouldn't.

    Needless to say, we hit it off. Some highlights:

  • We discuss his ongoing feud with LL Cool J ("He's schizophrenic" says Foxx), which stems way back to their fight scene in "Any Given Sunday," when LL connected on some real-life punches and a full-fledged fracas broke out. Then LL took a shot at Foxx in an album, so Foxx responded by dissing LL on the "Chris Rock Show" last year with a hilarious, biting imitation of him (Foxx seemed fired up that I even remembered it).

    (Programming note: Foxx plans on getting back at everybody who ever dissed him in his upcoming HBO special, which comes out next February: "I do standup, so I'm getting back at everyone who ever s--- on me. I'll tell you." Get the VCR ready.)

  • He loves talking about Willie Beamon and his star-making performance in "Any Given Sunday," one of the better sports movie roles in recent memory. I seize the opportunity to rattle off a line from Pacino's locker-room speech before the final big game -- "The inches we need are everywhere around us," etc. -- which Foxx takes to the next level by launching into a full-scale Pacino impression, totally off-the-cuff and dead-on. Puts me to shame.

    Jamie Foxx
    Foxx, right, insists that Smith is one of the truly righteous dudes in Hollywood.
  • Foxx plays Bundini Brown in "Ali," Ali's buddy and comedic foil who caused a ruckus with his penchant for white women, booze and drugs (by the way, it's a little known rule that the word "penchant" can only be used along with the phrase "white women, booze and drugs"). It's clearly an important role for him, the first real character he ever played, and you could sense his pride seeping out as he talks about it. "This is the one," he keeps saying. "This is it."

    (At this point, Foxx's coordinator tries to pull the "Time's up" routine with the interview, but Foxx extends it a couple of minutes, because he'senjoying himself. I'm applying for a position in his posse next week.)

  • Foxx on Will Smith: "Will is a funny (bleep). A lot of people don't know that he's living the ultimate dream. Not only is he making all the (bleepin') money in the world, but he's down as a person, and you don't get that ... you can't say nothing bad about that dude, man... I hang with the dudes in the 'hood all the time, and s--- happens, guys who get jacked and s--- like that, people try to make it seem like I'm trying to give back to the 'hood, actually that's just the people I hang out with. But when I hung out with (Will), and I'm looking for it, I was waiting for him to trip ... didn't happen."

    (Translation: I'm not a Hollywood phony, I kept all my old friends, I see through all the BS in Hollywood, and Will is a righteous dude.)

    Anyway, Foxx is a good man. Seems like a legitimately down-to-earth guy. I kept thinking of Lester Bangs' words in "Almost Famous" during this junket -- "Friendship is the drug that they feed you" -- and hell, that's the whole reason they have these things. They give you free gifts (in this case, the Ali companion picture book and a snazzy black Ali robe), they give you free food and drinks, they give you time with the celebrities, and when everybody acts so nice, inevitably, it makes it much harder for you to slam them in a movie review or write a feature that says, "So-and-so stinks."

    And yet, with all of that said ... I'm a huge Jamie Foxx fan now. He's a good guy. I won't be running out to purchase "Booty Call" on DVD or anything, but I'll be rooting for him.

    (God, I'm easy.)

    12:10 p.m. After successfully completing a three-step handshake, Foxx and I head out into the main room of the suite, where Jeffrey Wright has been waiting for him. "Yeah, boy!" Wright says excitedly. "What's up, baby?" Foxx responds. Suddenly, the soft-spoken Wright and Foxx are pulling the exaggerated hug/six-step handshake greeting routine, and Wright sounds more urban than Biggie Smalls and Old Dirty Bastard combined.

    Just goes to show you ... you never know.

    12:30 p.m. Free lunch! I opt for the beef teriyaki and some vegetable lasagna (rating: 7 out of 10). I kill some time reading USA Today and eavesdropping on the gossip session between two female journalists, which is filled with tidbits like "George Cooney is incredibly engaging."

    I'm ready to go. Put a fork in me. I'm Hollywooded out. No way anything else will top the Wright-Foxx greeting for me ... that killed me, for some reason.

    Will Smith
    Smith knows this is the defining role of his career -- and might even put him in the Oscars race.
    1:30 p.m. Time for Round Two of the Print Junket: The "Rotating Groups" routine for a suddenly-expanded press corps, everyone who didn't make the cut for the one-on-one morning interviews. After some cajoling, I get the head PR person to switch me into the room where Will Smith and director Michael Mann will start off; they're the only relevant people in the movie that I haven't met yet.

    Smith comes in without Mann (he's running late). Immediately, the demeanor of everyone in the room changes, and for one reason: Will Smith is larger than life. Someone asks him how he's doing. "Oh, I'm so good, it's almost a shame!" Will smiles. He isn't kidding, either. My girlfriend would call him a "good-energy" guy, one of those positive people who just makes you feel good to be in the same room with them. That's Will Smith. Good energy.

    Some highlights from the feeding frenzy, er, mini-press conference:

  • Quite simply, this is it for Will Smith. Remember when MJ played the Lakers in the '91 Finals, how everyone knew that Jordan would probably be measured, for better or worse, by what happened in that series, how it would make the difference between "MJ, Superstar" and "MJ, Champion"? That's how this movie shapes up for Will Smith, a two-year project, a labor of love, the defining role of his career, the most important part he will probably ever play, maybe even a potential Oscar-winner (although I think that's a little strong -- he'll get nominated though). Best of all, he knows it.

    "At 33 years, I feel like this is the peak for me," he says. "This is it."

  • You've probably read how Smith immersed himself into the character (I'm not sure he totally succeeded, but that's a story for another time): Gaining 28 pounds of muscle, training as a boxer for almost six months, teaching himself Ali's speech patterns and mannerisms, even telling his friends to call him, "The Champ," so he could remain in character when they weren't filming.

    Will Smith
    Smith packed on 28 pounds of muscle for the role.
    But Smith was afraid to meet Ali until he felt like he had the man cold. When Ali finally came to the set, about seven months into the filming, Smith launched into a "Will as Ali"/trash-talking routine for about 15 minutes, after which an impressed Ali turned to his buddy Bingham and asked, "How come you didn't tell me I was so crazy?"

  • Smith shrugs off the intense punishment of the role -- they didn't hold back on the boxing scenes, having Smith absorb most body shots and even a couple of carefully planned left hooks -- saying that he was "willing to sacrifice everything that needed to be sacrificed" for this movie. You have to respect him for this one. I never believed that he totally nailed Ali; then again, it's an impossible role (we'll elaborate on this in the Ali review).

  • Five dopey things I enjoyed:

    1. Every time Smith referred to Michael Mann, he referred to him as "Michael Mann." In fact, everyone did this. MichaelMann is one of those guys whose name you say all at once, kind of like my buddy NickAieta.

    2. When Smith got off the plane in Africa for the final portion of the shoot, he described the 10 African women who greeted him as "Ten dimes." When people seemed confused, he elaborated: "Dimes" meant that they were perfect 10s. I'm immediately incorporating that into my everyday lingo.

    3. The interplay between the reporters at these things, all of whom are shouting questions over one another -- whomever Smith looks at gets to keep talking, so it gets every competitive and downright vicious. Great for catty comments and mean-spirited stares. These things should be televised.

    Will Smith
    "So, Will, what's it like having sex with your wife on film?"
    4. The final question of our session is from some idiot who asks, "What's it like having sex with your wife (Jada Pinkett Smith, who plays Ali's first wife, Sonji Roi) on film?" Smith handles it gracefully, even joking that, "Unfortunately, my wife is a professional with love scenes -- she's been doing them for years" and making an embarrassed, "Somebody shoot me" face. Very funny stuff. Can you imagine being married to somebody with a few nude scenes under their belt? Me neither.

    5. After the Q&A ended, some journalists race up to the front so Will could autograph their complimentary Ali books. How tacky is that? Bob Ley would have had a stroke.

    2 p.m. Since MichaelMann never showed, I weaseled my way into the second room, where MichaelMann (finally in attendance, and looking about 5-foot-6 soaking wet) and Smith are holding court for another round of interviews with a new group of reporters.

    Slowly, I begin to understand why some actors claim that enduring a press junket is more arduous than filming a movie -- it's nearly impossible to maintain that level of "Hey, I'm a good guy and you should like me!" energy when you're dealing with the same questions over and over again. Smith is rehashing everything he had just said in the first room -- the same stories, same lines, same reactions, same everything -- but tweaking them just a bit. Maybe that's the game of the whole thing -- you keep trying to tell the same stories until you get them exactly right.

    As for MichaelMann and Smith, they've spent so much time together over the past two years that they're like an old married couple. One person starts a story, the other one finishes it, and the first person sits there with a happy "I know where this is going, but I enjoy it, anyway" look. MichaelMann doesn't say much during this session (most of the questions were directed at Smith), but he clearly has just as much at stake here as Smith; for all his triumphs over the years, MichaelMann hasn't helmed a "huge" movie, for lack of a better term.

    Will Smith
    "Ali" is a fairly good movie, but it breaks the Sports Guy's 150-minute rule.
    As for me ... I'm getting tired. I got the point. Big movie. Lots of blood and sweat went into it. Everyone was phenomenal. Something very important is happening here. Yada yada yada.

    To tell you the truth, the movie isn't that good. It's worth seeing, it's wonderfully done, the performances are superb and the fight scenes are practically groundbreaking ... but "Ali" also breaks the Bill Simmons 150-Minute Rule -- that nothing should ever be more than 150 minutes unless there's an excellent reason. And that's a biggie. Three hours is a long time to be sitting in a movie theater. If a movie drags in spots and meanders in others -- and this one does -- there's no excuse.

    With all of that said, I'll probably watch it 750 more times before everything's said and done. As usual, I have no point.

    2:05 p.m. MichaelMann and Smith wrap up Session No. 2. A few more journalists quickly lurch forward to secure autographs for their Ali books (just shameless).

    Meanwhile, I'm desperately trying to make my way up front, only because I want to shake MichaelMann's hand before he leaves. The man created "Miami Vice," for God's sake! He directed "Jericho Mile" and "Heat," two of my favorite movies of all-time. Hell, I even enjoyed "Band of the Hand" and "Manhunter." He's my favorite director, bar none. I just want to shake his hand and tell him that.

    No dice.

    Too many people, too much chaos, too little time. MichaelMann strolls away, accompanied by Smith and a mini-entourage. They're off to another room. The press junket rolls on like the shark from "Jaws." And I head down to the lobby, disappointed, exhausted and ready for home. Maybe some other time.

    Bill Simmons writes three columns a week for Page 2.