Feel His Pain

Billy Bob has a simple plan: to sing about life and lovin' his wife

The cold-bloodedness of some entertainment journalists is a thing to be admired; they've balls for brains, which gets you far in this profession. The Hollywood press corps' cynicism is the source of its strength, and God bless the famous fool who plays along, answering every crooked question with the straightest of faces. It's all in a day's recreation for those working the velvet rope and the freak show: The interrogators are willfully shameless, and the interrogated are willingly shamed, all in the name of selling.

Hate to disappoint you, then, but this will not be a story about vials of dried blood, diets consisting of orange food and grave sites given as anniversary presents. You will not satisfy your creepo cravings here, save to learn that Billy Bob Thornton -- celebrity journos' Freak of the Week whose clock keeps on ticking -- starts to itch before he has to leave the house on movie business. So move on, thrill-seekers; the wreck has been moved to the side of the road (though Angelina Jolie, one half of trailer-park royalty's most famous pairing, will make a brief cameo appearance).

The problem is, not even Arkansas' second-favorite son can shy away from discussing his personal life; his disarming candor about his marriage to Jolie has gotten him into the most trouble. (Here's a tip: Never admit to a tape recorder that you wear your wife's panties to the gym. It's called "self-editing.") It has also been of little help that since winning the Academy Award for his 1996 Sling Bladescreenplay and being nominated as best supporting actor for Sam Raimi's 1998 film A Simple Plan, Thornton's film career has been perceived as floundering. How the flighty have fallen, some would whisper, using his name as a punch line.

He has appeared in an unhealthy dose of critical and commercial failures (among them, Pushing Tin, Homegrown and Dwight Yoakam's directorial debut, South of Heaven, West of Hell, which was released straight to video). Likely, more people knew about his tussles with Miramax over the running time of All the Pretty Horses, his adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's beloved novel, than actually saw the film when it was released at the end of last year in a gutted, muted form. And the battle over Horseshas had substantial aftershocks: It will delay, for nearly two years, another film he both wrote and directed, Daddy and Them.

"In terms of the movie business, I gotta tell you, I can't stand it," he says, his voice soft and Southern. "It's worse now than it's ever been. Movies are all about the opening weekend, and it's like the guy with the most TV commercials wins. . . . It's gotten really sad, and acting doesn't matter to them to the point where, when we did A Simple Plan, after the first few days of dailies, the studio called the producer and said, 'What in the hell is this guy doin'? Why is he wearing those glasses?' And, of course, I was the only one that got nominated for the Academy Award out of the whole bunch of 'em, and all of the sudden, they knew all along."

Though he has a handful of films due for release in coming months, including the Coen Brothers' The Man Who Wasn't Thereand Barry Levinson's Bandits(with Bruce Willis), he will spend the better part of an hour talking about his latest endeavor: the album Private Radio, his debut as a singer-songwriter of sinister, ethereal and guileless songs that sound as though they were recorded in one of hell's better equipped honky-tonks. (Actually, it was done entirely in Thornton's basement.)

The disc, which is being released September 25 by Universal Music Group's Lost Highway imprint, is not particularly easy to listen to, and not just because Thornton occasionally sings like a drunken karaoke crooner convinced he's George Jones. But it's his inability to sing that makes the record so charming and beguiling. There is no doubt that Thornton -- who sounds like no one else, despite the Tom Petty and Leonard Cohen comparisons being bandied about in the music press -- is earnest, to the point of risking looking like a dope.

"Here's the thing: I don't care if Bob Dylan can sing or not or what anyone thinks about it, but if Pavarotti or someone else records 'Positively 4th Street,' his voice won't be better than Bob Dylan's," Thornton says. "Whoever meant it sings it better. Like, if someone else did a cover of one of my songs, they won't sing it as well as I do. I don't care if their voice is a thousand times better than mine, they won't sing it better than I do, because I meantit. I lived it."

To that end, the whole disc is a bit of a downer, populated by losers, loners and misanthropes looking for a good time at world's end. They live in dead-end bars named the Starlight Lounge and look for fleeting love at the bottom of a bottle; they live on the wrong side of the mountain, too frightened to find out what's on the other side of the range. Private Radiois like a dozen Thornton movies set to music, shot through with backward glances toward small towns and shotgun shacks and sidelong glances at women and dreams just out of reach.

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