Gillian Flynn
October 06, 2000 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Unless you spent last summer blindfolded in a cellar, you pretty much know the plot of Proof of Life, right? It’s about this adorable blond movie star who’s got a happy Hollywood marriage to a hunky fellow actor. She flies to Ecuador to shoot a movie and winds up having a fling with this macho Richard Burtonish bloke. It wreaks havoc on her marriage. The tabloids go bonkers. The drama!

Oh, wait. That’s actually the story behind the making of Warner Bros.’ December kidnapping thriller Proof of Life, starring Meg Ryan and Russell Crowe — although you’re forgiven for confusing real life with their movie’s plot. At this point the very title Proof of Life is inextricably tangled up with tales of Ryan and Crowe’s on-set summer lovin’, photos of the snuggly duo hand in hand, and a heartbreaking divorce suit from Ryan’s hubby, Dennis Quaid. (Ryan has since also filed for divorce, along with shared custody of the couple’s only child, Jack Henry, 8. None of the threesome would comment.)

Actors like to joke that romance doesn’t count when it’s on a movie set. Tell that to the studio footing the bill; Warner Bros. ponied up a reported $15 million to sign Ryan alone. Now it has to market a film whose central character relationship morphed into a global scandale d’amour. The problem has its precedents — and its varying outcomes. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s adulterous passion nearly dethroned 1963’s Cleopatra, igniting a scandal that contributed to a less-than-imperial gross. (The $44 million epic didn’t break even until years later.) Ali McGraw and Steve McQueen’s home wrecking — at the expense of famed Godfather producer Robert Evans, McGraw’s then husband — nearly sent The Getaway careening off course in 1972, but it recovered to nab a healthy (for the times) $40 million. Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman set off sparks on the set of 1990’s Days of Thunder hot on the heels of his separation from wife Mimi Rogers, but the film raced to $166 million worldwide.

So this isn’t uncharted territory. ”People have set romances all the time,” says one studio publicist. ”Especially when they’re sent to Ecuador and they happen to be really pretty and really handsome — and really lonely.”

But what happens when the actress has forged a career as America’s sweetheart? Warner must be wondering whether Ryan’s offscreen behavior shatters her girl-next-door image. The studio refuses to comment, but insiders predict Ryan and Crowe — who are under contract to publicize the film — will make very separate publicity appearances, under a blanket refusal to answer personal questions. And Warner is unlikely to exploit the romance, most agree. ”Any press is good press is a thoroughly wrong statement,” says celebrity publicist Eddie Michaels. ”And for a studio to consciously use someone’s rumored personal situation as part of their marketing plan would be completely unethical.”

Which doesn’t mean Warner Bros. won’t tangentially benefit from all the titillating talk: Public curiosity (and private chemistry) may give Proof life. Crowe and Ryan, says a studio marketing exec, ”must have had something pretty good if it came off the screen and became real.” Loveline relationship expert and Big Brother adviser Dr. Drew agrees: ”I had no interest in this film until I heard about all of this,” he admits. ”People will want to see if they can pick up on her falling in love with him on screen.”

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