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The Women Behind What Women Want

. The man in the middle of What Women Want is Mel Gibson, Hollywood's reigning sex symbol/epic revenge maestro.

December 14, 2000 12:00 AM ET

The man in the middle of What Women Want is Mel Gibson, Hollywood's reigning sex symbol/epic revenge maestro. But behind so many males resides a great woman, and Gibson could count on three gifted gals to make his new film click.

Oscar-winning co-stars Helen Hunt and Marisa Tomei spark the romance of Gibson's successful foray into romantic comedy, about a chauvinist who gains the power to read women's minds. Oscar-nominated screenwriter Nancy Meyers directed and, according to the stars, wrote much of the script (although she doesn't get a screenwriting credit). Throw in small but solid roles for Bette Midler, Delta Burke, Valerie Perrine and up-and-comer Ashley Johnson, and you've got the witty feminine instinct behind a potential holiday hit.

"It shows a cross section of so many women and what their thoughts are," says Tomei. "We get to hear so many different thoughts from women, from the sexual to the banal. I feel very well represented."

Tomei plays a vulnerable coffee shop barrista who ends up with what a lot of women want: a sex scene with Gibson.

"I didn't really think about it ahead of time," says Tomei, who won a supporting actress Oscar for her auto-savvy spitfire in 1992's My Cousin Vinny.

"Then when I got there, I hadn't pictured that we wouldn't be dressed. We had some items on, but they were minimal. It's just always kind of awkward, and I felt a little goofy."

Don't expect much sympathy from the legions of female Mel lovers, especially not after they hear that he's also a swell dude on the inside.

"He's definitely a lovable guy," Tomei says. "He's really smart and really funny and he's really easy going."

Like Tomei, Hunt has nothing but nice things to say about her hunky co-star. But the former star of TV's Mad About You (and Oscar winner for 1997's As Good as It Gets) was a bit hesitant to re-enter the waters of romantic comedy.

"An urban romantic comedy is probably last on my list of things to look for, having done that for seven years in a way that I felt very happy with and proud of," says Hunt, who also plays opposite Tom Hanks in the upcoming drama Cast Away. "But Nancy was generously passionate about having me in the part, and she was very smart. She knew what she wanted, and she wanted to know what I thought also. That's the best possible combination."

And so we come to the woman in charge of What Women Want. Meyers, who was nominated back in 1980 for her Private Benjamin screenplay, has a way with this kind of material: She's capable of channeling the spirit of classic screwball comedy into a hip, modern sensibility. Now, she'll also be known as the woman who got Mel Gibson to wax his legs, try on panty hose and shrink beneath the deprecating internal barbs of the opposite sex.

"Once he can hear what women think, he realizes that they think he's a putz," says Meyers. "They think he's not sexy. One girl hates that he saw her naked. I think I really put a pin in the balloon. That's not about Mel, it's about the character."

But of course. Meyers is quick to join in the chorus of Gibson admirers, claiming that her star doesn't see himself as a star at all. "He doesn't take himself too seriously," she says. "He has no entourage. He doesn't walk into a room as if Mel Gibson has entered. He's not too big a star to get wax stuck on his hands. He's a terrific guy, and I think that comes across in the movie."

He may very well be a terrific guy. But this time, his man's world would have been nothing without a woman's touch.

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