"SHE IS the most exciting woman in the world!"

That's what director/actor Orson Welles once declared about the sizzling actress/chanteuse/activist Eartha Kitt. (Kitt was portraying Helen of Troy in Welles' production of "Dr. Faustus.")

Kitt, who rose to fame in the late 1940s with distinctive hits such as "I'd Rather Be Burned As a Witch," "Santa Baby," "I Want to be Evil" and "Monotonous," continued an active career on stage, TV and in films almost until her dying day in 2008.

Now we hear that the film beauty Zoe Saldana is rumored to be first pick to portray Kitt in a biopic chronicling the star's tumultuous life.

Aside from detailing Miss Kitt's career, which, although successful, never quite hit the heights many felt it should, the movie will include Eartha's infamous confrontation with Lady Bird Johnson at a White House luncheon in 1968. So stridently did Kitt oppose the war in Vietnam ("You send the best of this country off to be killed and maimed. No wonder they rebel and take pot!") that Lady Bird fled the luncheon in tears.

Kitt claimed she was blacklisted from working in America for years afterward. Luckily, she was a huge star in Europe and Asia -- she spoke four languages and sang in seven! -- and waited it out. (The CIA investigated Kitt and reportedly referred to her as "a sadistic nymphomaniac.")

Kitt, who was biracial, the product, allegedly, of the rape of her African-American mother by a white plantation owner, said this was a great burden on her as a child and adolescent and even as an adult performer. Once while talking about her upbringing during a TV interview -- she was born on a cotton plantation -- the usually composed Eartha shockingly burst into tears.

ZOE Saldana, a knockout who has been seen in films as varied as "Pirates of the Caribbean," "Avatar," "Star Trek: Into Darkness" and "Colombiana," is a huge fan of Eartha Kitt and thrilled to have the opportunity to play her.

The project is in its infancy -- in the "talking" stage. But Miss Z. is ready to vamp it up. She wants to be, as Eartha purred, "Burned As a Witch"!

SAD TO hear of Ruth Henderson, the widow of the late great music man Skitch Henderson, dying at her charming home in New Milford, Conn. A heart attack.

I had many happy times over the years working with the Hendersons on the New York Pops galas. You can send condolences to Hans and Heidi Henderson at Hunt Hill Farm, 44 Upland Road, 06770.

I believe the Hendersons left their fabulous farm to the state of Connecticut.

GONE BUT for heaven's sake not forgotten. I do mean Miss Marilyn Monroe, now the subject of a special issue of Life magazine -- "The Loves of Marilyn."

The Sam Shaw cover shot is breathtaking -- Monroe in 1957, in Connecticut, during her unhappy marriage to Arthur Miller. The inside is fairly pedestrian, using a lot of questionable sources and typically lurid stereotypes. But my goodness, what star, gone 51 years, has ever had this kind of longevity? None, ever!

Next year's Oscar ceremony would do itself a favor by honoring Monroe with a special film segment. Despite some brilliant work, she was never nominated for an Academy Award. (However, if the Academy refuses to honor the still living Doris Day...)

Are the masses attracted to her films, her stunning photo sessions, the scandals concerning her life and death? No matter. Norma Jeane gathers fans generation after generation.

She is Hollywood. And, yes, I use the present tense.

THERE I was in the restaurant that money and power built, the Four Seasons on East 52nd Street -- with my longtime pal, Jess Cagle. You've seen this cutie on television for ages and he is the newly appointed chief of People magazine. We were with ace New York Times reporter, Philip Galanes, who was a show biz attorney for Lincoln Center before he nabbed this byline. Cagle told me some out-of-school stories about my friend Elaine Stritch. (One is that when the stars of "A Delicate Balance" were provided with only one car for the actors to take them home after the show each performance, Elaine always nabbed the car first and left her co-stars hanging by their thumbs.)

Friend Jess is one of the rare intelligent personages on the red carpets of the world; he is allowed backstage and has seen every Oscar night. But did Jess tip either me or Philip to the "news" that his popular magazine would announce later that same day that it was going to stop buying and using photos of children of the famous? He did not! Not tipping your hand in the entertainment world is a given.

Jess Cagle is young and attractive, having covered show biz for only two decades.

On the other hand, yours truly has been at it for six decades. It's still fun -- the glamour, the gossip, the inside stories.

SO SANDRA Bullock, who mostly looks terrified or is going on about missing her little girl while lost in space, is going to earn $70 million from appearing in "Gravity." No wonder so many people, talented and otherwise, want to get into show business!

Even Donald Trump got into show business. And the Obamas seem to be in it now themselves.

ENDQUOTE: "He's so masculine, isn't he?" asked late-night comedy mistress Chelsea Handler of Liam Neeson. (Chelsea was chatting with Neeson's co-star, Michelle Dockery, in the current air-borne thriller, "Non-Stop.")

Dockery, who also appears with Julianne Moore and this year's Oscar nominee Lupita Nyong'o in the movie, concurred on Liam's masculinity, adding, "He's huge. Massive. Such a nice guy, but huge."

Dockery, famous as "Downton Abbey's" oft-brittle Lady Mary, says Liam's size made it easier for her to get into character and trust him. (He's the hero, of course!)

I remember meeting Liam years ago with Natasha Richardson. They were co-starring in "Anna Christie" on Broadway. When Neeson walked into Natasha's dressing room, his presence was overwhelming. It was easy to see they were mad about each other, though that story hadn't broken yet, and both were as discreet as their passion allowed, in front of a columnist.

(E-mail Liz Smith at MES3838@aol.com.)