Line One: Hollywood

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Last week, while you were busy not watching the Olympics, you may have missed the announcement that Julia Roberts was close to signing up for a new movie. Once again, it proved that Roberts has impeccable timing. (In "My Best Friend's Wedding," she tapped into the gay man/straight woman dynamic long before "Will & Grace" parlayed it into an Emmy.) And this new movie couldn't be happening at a more appropriate time in our nation's history.

The film is called "America's Sweethearts," and it's the story of two married movie stars who must promote their new movie while trying to hide the fact that they despise each other. Although not all the actors' deals have been finalized, "America's Sweethearts" will likely star John Cusack as the movie-star husband who's fallen for his wife's sister, who'll likely be played by Roberts, with Billy Crystal as the publicist spinning liar's gold. The project was announced in the Hollywood trade papers last Wednesday, even as a contingent of top movie-studio executives were doing their own spinning, meeting with their own publicists and figuring out how to present themselves this week before the Senate Commerce Committee.

The issue, of course, is the Federal Trade Commission's damning Sept. 11 report revealing that the entertainment industry has "routinely" and "aggressively" targeted young teenagers in ads for violent product. Democratic White House contenders Al Gore and Joe Lieberman are among the most vocal politicos, threatening the purveyors of music, video games and movies with legislation if they don't make a better effort to protect our children from such insidious forces as "The Fifth Element." More than the other industries, movie studios have taken the criticism with heads bowed in shame, with either stony silence (Universal) or ready conciliation (Disney). Shame is certainly in order for some marketing practices, but entertainment companies could easily argue with the FTC's occasionally alarmist tone and scattered lapses in logic. They could also respond by asking why Gore and Lieberman are concentrating on guns in movies while falling silent on the issue of gun control. Or why Congress has commited itself to video game violence while giving trade benefits to China, where human-rights abuses have escalated (although asking Hollywood to balk at trading with China would be like asking Eddie Murphy to stop making sequels). Instead, Hollywood Democrats are standing rather stoically in this unflattering light. When they weren't in a defensive huddle over the report last week, studio executives were shaking hands with Lieberman and Gore at a fund-raiser and donating another $4.2 million to the party.

As we say every time Madonna makes a movie: What are they thinking? For the answer, let's turn to the plot of "America's Sweethearts," in which fictional filmmakers hide the harsh truth in order to push their product. The overwhelmingly liberal denizens of Hollywood realize that the FTC report on marketing violence has provided the Democrats a springboard for some good old-fashioned family-values campaigning. Standing on a family-values platform is like casting Richard Gere in a movie. It doesn't guarantee a hit, but it's a decent bet, and even the most hotheaded limousine liberal will do nothing to jeopardize a Democrat's chance to make the next batch of Supreme Court appointments. Perhaps if the congressional critics were all Republicans, as Dan Quayle can tell you, the studios would be scripting a more colorful response and sending Chris Rock to the Hill to deliver it. Or perhaps not, for it pays these days to stay on the good side of Congress, which can bestow both favor and heartache when it comes to copyright issues and mergers. No one respects pandering more than Hollywood does. So like the fictional publicist in "America's Sweethearts," the movie industry has devoted itself to helping the stars of the show give the public what it wants.