Too Hot to Handle

To all appearances, the 10 days that Kim Basinger spent at home in Athens, Ga., over the holidays seemed merry and bright. The actress, accompanied (as always) by her 5-year-old daughter, Ireland, bunked down at her father’s three-bedroom condo, just two miles from the house where she and her four siblings were raised. Unhindered by constant autograph hunters, she shopped for fresh produce at the Publix grocery and picked up gifts at a local mall. As Christmas approached, her husband, Alec Baldwin, arrived to join the festivities. “Alec was here for the whole ‘Santy Claus’ bit,” Basinger’s father, Don, 77, a retired loan manager, says of his son-in-law. Then Baldwin jetted back north after a few days, and Basinger stayed on to help cook a traditional southern New Year’s meal of blackeyed peas, collard greens and hog jowls.

In all, it was a performance equal to her 1997 Oscar—winning turn in L.A. Confidential—considering that Basinger, 47, and Baldwin, 42, had in fact been separated for weeks. But on Jan. 12 the role-playing came to an abrupt end when Basinger filed for divorce in Los Angeles superior court, citing irreconcilable differences with Baldwin and seeking physical custody of Ireland. (Baldwin would share legal custody and have visitation rights.) Basinger is also seeking unspecified alimony. Friends characterized the split as “amicable.” Says one, Hamptons restaurateur Colin Ambrose: “I don’t see this as being some really nasty thing.”

Still, the breakup came as no surprise to those closest to the pair. “I’ve known for a year and a half that she was thinking about this,” says Don Basinger, who has mixed feelings about his son-in-law of seven years. “I love Alec. He’s the most kind and generous man I’ve ever known in my life, and he’s overcome some very difficult things,” he says. “All but one: his anger. Alec has this kind of anger where he reaches down for something that hurts, something that may have happened a year or two ago, and then abuses Kim with it. This has happened publicly. But it’s when it started happening in front of Ireland that Kim finally said, ‘Well, I’m not going to put up with that.’ ” Don says Kim repeatedly warned her husband, “You’ve got to overcome this anger, or I can’t live with you.” Attempts at counseling failed, Don Basinger maintains, because “Alec goes one time, two times, then quits.” Even so, the senior Basinger stresses that neither physical abuse nor a third party played any part in the breakup and that his son-in-law “will always be welcome in my home.”

Neither Baldwin nor Basinger has commented on the split. But, as with any breakup, there are two sides to the story. If “Alec is a pretty loose cannon,” says one veteran Hollywood publicist, Basinger “is not exactly a poster girl for stability.” More diplomatically, Colin Ambrose calls the star “a complicated woman.” Indeed Basinger, who suffers from panic attacks and has twice been confined to her home for six-month stretches by paralyzing bouts of agoraphobia, makes no secret of the strain her condition put on their relationship. “I think it was very hard for [Alec] to understand my being stricken at times,” she told a 1999 HBO documentary on panic disorders. “It’s very difficult for spouses or a family member to understand, to have patience with this.”

Friends and family say there are other problems as well. In 1996, Baldwin bought a $1.75 million home in the Hamptons—specifically Amagansett, N.Y.—where the Long Island-born actor wanted to settle. Basinger prefers L.A. Though the pair spend a lot of time in the Hamptons, they have never occupied their Amagansett home, staying instead in rented houses. “The big issue was unpacking and decorating,” says author and Hamptons watcher Steven Gaines. “Something [Basinger] couldn’t do”—perhaps a reflection of her resistance to living in the northeast. And not just because she feels Ireland, who has chronic respiratory problems, fares better in a warmer climate, as do her eight (at last count) dogs. “I’m a gypsy at heart,” Basinger told Vanity Fair last spring. “I’d take off in a minute and go live in France for a year…. He’s got his mind set on living his life out on Long Island.”

There was a time when being close was all that counted for the passionate pair. From the start, their relationship generated sparks. As Basinger has recounted on many occasions, when she first met Baldwin in 1990 at a dinner at Morton’s in L.A. to discuss The Marrying Man, in which they were to costar, “he kissed me and then asked me if I wanted kids.” She told him he was “psychotic” and suggested he stick to the movie. Instead, Baldwin called a best friend and said, “She’s driving me insane. And we’re getting married.” Still smarting from the recent end of her eight-year first marriage to makeup artist Ron Britton, whom she’d met on the set of her debut movie, Hard Country, Basinger claimed to have no interest in romance. But things rapidly turned torrid. “You could feel the sexual tension between them,” a Marrying Man crew member said in ’93. “It was like a heat-seeking missile had been fired.” And had detonated. In addition to their electricity on-set, cast and crew witnessed yelling matches, slammed doors and hurled phones as the two stars let off steam.

For the next couple of years Baldwin, who had been engaged briefly in 1983 to Northern Exposure actress Janine Turner, tried in vain to persuade Basinger to wed. Then in March 1993, shortly before the pair began shooting The Getaway, their second film together, an L.A. judge ordered Basinger to pay $8.1 million in damages for reneging on a verbal contract to star in Boxing Helena. Though the ruling would later be overturned on appeal, the stiff judgment compelled Basinger to declare personal bankruptcy and sell her interest in the town of Braselton, Ga., which she had bought in partnership for $20 million in 1989. She got only $4.3 million back. Baldwin attended court hearings, shielded his girlfriend from the press and in June of that year was rewarded: After The Getaway shoot he proposed again. This time the answer was a swift, sure “Yes!”

Baldwin pulled the wedding together in six weeks, planning all the details, from the surprise fireworks to the white baby roses in Basinger’s tiara. Most of the guests were from his side too: 90 of his family and friends attended the sunset affair at his Long Island beach house, among them his famous brothers, actors Daniel, William and Stephen. Of Basinger’s contingent of 10, only two—her father and her younger sister Ashley Brewer—were family. (After years of estrangement, Basinger and her mother, Ann, 74, reconciled only last year.) On the eve of exchanging vows, the nervous groom was so unsure of his bride that he repeatedly checked with Brewer to make sure Basinger planned to turn up.

He needn’t have worried. The first years of the marriage were, by all accounts, ardent. “I’m in love with him, and we’re wildly attracted to each other,” Basinger told Redbook in 1994. “Alec is very comfortable being a man and is very confident.” Before long the handsome newlyweds established themselves as a power couple on both coasts. In ’98 Baldwin, who came to fame as an unsentimental action hero in 1990’s The Hunt for Red October, sobbed before a national TV audience as a stunned Basinger mounted the Oscar podium to collect her Best Supporting Actress statuette.

Through it all, the pair hobnobbed with the country’s political elite—hosting a ’98 fund-raiser for President Clinton on the grounds of their Amagansett home—and lent their names, money and time to a variety of environmental and animal-rights causes, including Standing for Truth About Radiation and California’s Performing Animal Welfare Society. Baldwin is so outspoken that he has found himself fending off persistent rumors of a political future—with denials so unconvincing that even his mother doesn’t believe him. “I’m going to be Rose Kennedy,” Carol Baldwin, 71, told PEOPLE in 1997. “Either Alec or Billy will be the President of the United States.” A year later Baldwin told IN STYLE magazine, “Kim and I are just beginning to figure out what the best integration of our political advocacy and our acting is.”

What they never did figure out was how to keep Baldwin’s temper in check. In ’95, Baldwin landed in hot water when he socked celebrity photographer Alan Zanger in the nose. (A jury later awarded $4,500 in damages to the paparazzo, who had tried to videotape the couple as they returned from the hospital to Basinger’s Woodland Hills, Calif., home with the newborn Ireland.) To an extent, Basinger accepted her husband’s outbursts as part of his makeup. “I live with a very passionate, verbal, vocal man, who doesn’t keep any thought to himself,” she told Ladies’ Home Journal in 1998. “He has the biggest heart of anybody I’ve ever met. But at the same time, he’s a black Irish Catholic with a temper.”

As recently as last summer the chemistry still seemed magical. Monte Farber, a Hamptons author who has a part in Baldwin’s next film, The Devil and Daniel Webster, recalls seeing the couple kick up their heels at a local restaurant in July. “The way they were dancing,” he says, “you would have thought they would have stayed together forever.” But on Dec. 5 they separated, and by January the reclusive Basinger was holed up with Ireland at the four-bedroom house in Woodland Hills that she has owned since the early ’80s. “She wasn’t here most of the time,” says a neighbor. “But I guess she’ll be around a lot more now.”

Baldwin, meanwhile, remains in the East, where he divides his time between the Hamptons and his Manhattan apartment on Central Park West. Early in January the actor, who by all accounts dotes on Ireland, flew to L.A. to visit his wife and daughter before returning to begin filming The Devil, which costars Anthony Hopkins and Jennifer Love Hewitt and marks Baldwin’s directing debut. As the first full day of filming wrapped, actor Bill Montgomery, who has a nonspeaking role, observed that Baldwin “seemed in a pretty good mood.”

Perhaps he was just putting on a good performance. In truth, Baldwin “is sad,” says his friend Ambrose. “He’s fine, but it’s really draining on him and I’m sure it is on her too.” Basinger’s father is also feeling the effects. “It’s a little like a death in the family,” he says. “There’s grief because they’ve been together 10 years and because we love Alec.” For his granddaughter’s sake, Don Basinger hopes the couple will remain friends—and maybe more. “Who knows?” he says. “They might even get back together a year or two from now.”

Jill Smolowe

Gail Wescott in Athens, Elizabeth McNeil, Rebecca Paley and Debbie Tuma in New York and Lorenzo Benet, John Hannah and Frank Swertlow in Los Angeles

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