Ty Burr
January 27, 2000 AT 05:00 AM EST

A peek into Ashley Judd’s new movie

An odd thing happened to me the other day: Ashley Judd and I watched a movie together.

Why do I think this is worth a Hot Topic? Well, it’s a funny story, but, more to the point, it reminded me both of how truly strange it must be to be a famous person, and how, as close as we entertainment journalists occasionally get to the people we cover, in the end we’re just pressing our noses against the glass with everyone else.

So the deal is, I’ve signed up to review Judd’s new movie, ”Eye of the Beholder” (actually, it’s been sitting on the shelf for over a year, but never mind), and I go to the screening in the middle of the day, stopping at a deli to pick up a chicken salad sandwich on rye. I get to the screening room, sit down, wait. I’m the only one there. A delay of 15 minutes or so, then in sweeps Judd, her publicist, a guy who falls somewhere in the friend/boyfriend/minion category, and a small, white mutant poodle thing. Apparently, she hasn’t seen the movie since it was filmed, was in New York, and was curious. She sits about three rows behind me, and the movie starts.

Before we go any further, you should know that, like many red-blooded American males, I have something of a movie-crush on Ashley Judd. I mean, she could read a computer-training manual and I’d probably pay money to see it. ”Double Jeopardy”? A fine addition to world cinema. My wife knows and it’s okay by her, just as I know that if she ever happened to step into an elevator with David Strathairn or Sam Shepard, I’d never see her again. Feel free to comment on our respective tastes below.

Anyway. The movie starts, I’m trying to take notes and retain some semblance of sangfroid, and suddenly I feel something brush against my leg. It is, of course, the mutant poodle, and he wants my chicken salad sandwich. Not being in a position to sucker-punch the animal, I shoo him gently away. He comes back and puts his paws on the seat next to me. We make friends. In the back of my mind, I am already discussing dog-breeding lineages with Ashley Judd and making her laugh deliciously with my witty remarks on the inside politics of the American Kennel Club.

In the front of my mind, however, is the movie, which is godawful and gets worse. In fact, by the end, ”Eye of the Beholder” has become rather entertainingly dreadful, but you can’t really say that to the star, can you? Even if she doubtless knows it herself. Nevertheless, when the lights come up, she and I do chat briefly about when it was filmed (early 1998) and how the scripted ending differs from the current, badly edited wrap-up. The publicist hovers nearby, ready to body block me if I’m too forward (this is her job); the friend/boyfriend/minion is holding the dog and looking bored. I say ”Nice job” (and, really, the movie’s terribleness has nothing to do with Judd or her costar, Ewan McGregor, both of whom will survive); she distantly says thanks, and I’m out of there and back to the office.

What we’ve just done is observe the rules of Celebrity Engagement, rules that are familiar both to any New Yorker who has occasion to bump into, say, David Letterman at the corner coffee shop, and to anyone in the business of entertainment journalism. Actually, they’re the rules of Celebrity DISengagement, and Rule Number One is that the celebrity sets the rules.

In other words, if he or she wants to be friendly and open, fine. If he or she wants to maintain distance, equally fine. If he or she even wants to be downright rude, well, whatever. They’re the ones who have the public personas. They’re the ones who can’t walk down the street without people acting weird (or, as in the case of the guy who recently broke into Judd’s house, actively psychotic). Unless you’re doing an investigative report on their heroin-smuggling sideline, they deserve the chance to be by themselves. Which, if you’re famous, is more or less impossible anyway.

Why extend sympathy to a movie star who makes millions of dollars? Here’s a related anecdote: About 10 years ago, I stepped out of my Manhattan apartment early one morning to go for a run. As I was stretching, a man came out of the building next door and started doing his own warm-ups. We nodded at each other, smiled, said friendly hellos — and then I realized that he was Robin Williams. And then he realized that I realized. And his eyes went dead.

Imagine that happening to you a hundred times a day, every day. I did. And that’s why, movie-crush or no, I was happy to leave Ashley Judd intact within her little circle of celebritude. After all, we’ll always have ”Double Jeopardy.”

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