Sources say Madonna, Brit producer inspiration for “Hill” film

More tight-lipped than a reality show contestant, screenwriter Richard Curtis has refused to divulge the real-life celebrity romance that inspired the unbelievable affair in “Notting Hill” between Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant. Supposedly, even the leading lady was not privy to her character’s inspiration.

Now several sources claim that “Notting Hill” is based on none other than new Anglophile Madonna and her relationship with Andy Bird, a Notting Hill resident trying to break into directing and producing when he met Madonna in 1997. “(Curtis) has friends in common with both Madonna and Andy Bird and was always hearing these stories about their relationship,” says a source. “Ultimately, it didn’t work between them (Madonna and Bird) because he was just a struggling nobody and she is the most famous woman in the world, but Curtis gave the story a happy ending.” Neither Curtis nor Bird could be reached for comment.

ROLE HE BORE TO PLAY: It’s all in the connections. After all, what kind of onscreen experience does someone like Arthur Miller have? The playwright and reaper of both a Tony and Pulitzer Prize will make his debut on the big screen with a supporting role in “Plain Jane,” a film adaptation of his short story “Homely Girl, a Life.” Producer Didier Sapaut told the Hollywood Reporter that Israeli director Amos Gitai will oversee the $9 million English-language film, which stars Samantha Morton as the troubled daughter of a Jewish immigrant. The 85-year-old Miller, who co-wrote the screenplay, will play Morton’s father in the film. Although the original story was set in New York, the film version will take place in the late 1930s in Palestine during the development of the modern nation of Israel.

BREAKING OUT AGAIN: Director Ang Lee has done modern Taiwanese comedies (“Wedding Banquet”), 18th-century English dramas (“Sense and Sensibility”), ’70s suburban America (“The Ice Storm”) and reinstated the martial arts epic (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”). So the only creative challenge that remains to Lee is comic books? According to Variety, he’s discussing a big-budget cinematic version of “Incredible Hulk,” set for a 2003 release. Now with the invention of Lycra and other stretch fabrics, perhaps the modern Hulk can actually maintain a decent wardrobe.

MUST HAVE BEEN THE TEETH QUALIFICATIONS: Were British actors not eligible for this poll? Radio Times, a leading British entertainment magazine, asked a panel of film experts to rank the top leading men of all time, and except for two, they’re all Americans. Judged according to their box office prowess, Oscars, professional skill, marriage appeal and their press magnetism, the panel came up with popcorn king Paul Newman at No. 1.

Coincidentally, he will be co-starring with No. 2, Tom Hanks, in the upcoming film “The Road to Perdition.” The rest are James Stewart, Harrison Ford, Marlon Brando, Cary Grant, Robert Redford, Tom Cruise and Sean Connery (tied for eighth) and Gary Cooper.

BLAIR PITCH PROJECT: Critics savaged the “Blair Witch Project” sequel. Audiences stayed away hey, that calls for a prequel. In the post-postmodern trend of milking a bad thing, Artisan Entertainment head Amir Malin heads once more into the breach with a third “Blair Witch” project.

The prequel tells how a young boy became a Jedi knight and mutated into one of the most evil, tyrannical forces of the universe. Oops, wait, that’s another soulless prequel the horror story focuses on the early history of the witch legend.

“Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2” grossed $26 million domestically, less than a fifth of the first sleeper hit. Artisan still made a good profit, but Malin says they’ll postpone the planned fall 2001 release date and take more time with the sequel, unlike the last slap-dash job. “We (had) set a target to have it in theaters for Halloween of 2000,” Malin said. “Had we had more time with the film, it would have been more successful.” Like having more time to write a script and other necessary evils.

SET YOUR VCRS TO THE SUMMER: Court TV, used to the criminal element, will be going where VH1 is too namby-pamby to go and reveal the squalid truth behind rock ‘n’ roll. So who better to talk about that squalor than Gene Simmons? The former KISS bassist will host a one-hour documentary, “The Secret History of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” on Court TV. The program is scheduled to air on June 11.

Today’s People Column was compiled by Vera H-C Chan from staff and wire reports. Comments? Write to us c/o the Times, P.O. Box 8099, Walnut Creek, CA 94596-8099. Or call 925-943-8262, fax 925-943-8362, or e-mail