As a shy and retiring science writer who has never dined at Spago, I like to think I am above the Oscars and all the glamour, glitz and dreamy diversions that Hollywood offers. And yet every year, for weeks after the Academy Awards, I find myself obsessing over the few movie stars I've actually met in real life.
There was the rushed morning at the Greenwich Village espresso bar when the woman behind me, Julia Roberts, watched me wimpishly dilute my coffee with half-and-half. How different my life would be, I now think, if she had seen me down it black. Or if she had caught me taking out a flask — not that I own a flask — and dumping Polish vodka into my brew. Or if I had had the nerve to offer her a swig and we skipped merrily, hand in hand, out of the place together. I'll have to ask Julia, when we meet again, if it would have made a difference.
I can still summon the anxiety I felt when I followed Uma Thurman, at the peak of Kill Bill, out of a restaurant called Heaven in Woodstock, N.Y., and watched her wallet rise up from the rear pocket of her constricting pants and fall to the sidewalk. I hesitated before calling out to her. I didn't want to be humiliated if she mistook me for a stalker, jump-kicked me in the face, pinned me to the ground and karate-chopped me to a pulp. When I actually approached her, she simply thanked me for returning her wallet, and I thought how natural and wonderful and down-to-earth this woman was.
I prefer to relive the romantic evening, a quarter of a century ago, sometime between Sophie's Choice and Silkwood, when I stood next to Meryl Streep in a Tribeca green grocery. I tried to bury myself inconspicuously in the wax beans while I watched her inspect the big red tomatoes. She fondled them, squeezed them, teased them and caressed them. Had I not repressed my desire to reach over and firmly scoop up her juiciest tomatoes and turn them into arrabbiata sauce for her, would we be married, or would I be facing a restraining order?
She looked pretty last night at the Oscars, putting on a brave front. I could have been the one consoling her, instead of her daughter. Twenty-something years later, I can now live with my inaction by telling myself that I couldn't be with such a woman, because I'd never know if she really loved me or if she was just acting.
Paul Hoffman is the author of the memoir King's Gambit: A Son, A Father, and the World's Most Dangerous Game.