Sometimes after I drop Leah off at school in Culver City I eat breakfast at a Beverly Hills institution called Nate n’Al’s. It’s a small deli on Beverly Drive that is as worth visiting for the Jewish delicacies such as chicken liver omelettes, potato pancakes, and smoked whitefish as it is for the anthropological study of southern California life it provides.
Nate n’Al’s is the spot where deals are made and schmoozing is king. In fact this morning I sat near none other than Mr. Schmooze himself, Larry King, kissing up to the wizened waitress like she was one of the guests on his show. The movers and shakers who are regulars at Nate n’Al’s are a different variety from the ones that can be seen power breakfasting at the nearly Polo Lounge, the tony establishment in the Beverly Hills Hotel. The Nate n’Al klatsch is a bit more harried, a bit more rumpled, and way more east coast.
While you’ll find rock stars searching for the perfect matzoh ball and acrylic nailed Russian housewives eating eggs and onions at Cantor’s Deli on Fairfax, and you’ll see local sports stars gorging on Reubens and Holocaust survivors devouring their flanken at Factor’s on Pico, Nate n’Al’s is a pure industry hangout, and I don’t mean the automobile industry.
The last time I ate there I was sitting next to a handsome young guy with a carefully groomed five-o-clock shadow who was giving a passionate sermon about his current film project to his breakfast companion, a high-powered New York agent I didn’t recognize but who was obviously a head honcho the way everyone in the room practically genuflected in her presence. The director had a slight accent and would occasionally break into perfect Italian or French as he discussed the European funders he was approaching.
“Put me in a room with anyone, and I mean anyone,” he wailed, “and I I can sell them on this project.” He was so intense and convincing that I was almost ready to write him a check myself. “I believe in you, bubbeleh,” the superagent swooned with a thick Brooklyn accent that made her sound like one of Gilda Radner’s “Saturday Night Live” characters. “I want to make things happen for you, dahling,” she cooed. “Let’s meet up in Milan next week. I’m leaving L.A. tonight and I pray to God I don’t have to come back here until August.” Why do New York agents always feel the need to trash L.A. while they’re still in L.A.? Another one of this woman’s fawning clients entered the restaurant and she introduced him to her companion. “Ben, you know Edoardo Ponti, don’t you?”
Of course—that’s where I’ve seen him. The passionate film director with the five-o-clock shadow and custom-made dress shirt was Sophia Loren’s younger son. Yikes, I’m old enough to remember when Loren was pregnant with Edoardo and had some complications that literally forced her to stay in bed for the entire nine months. “Do you know what your mother went through for you?” I wanted to yell over the divider that was separating us in the cramped deli. But I’m sure he did know—the two seem very close and Edoardo even directed his mom in his first feature film a few years ago. Have you seen Sophia Loren lately? She was born in 1934 and looks as sexy as she did when she was debating whether to run off with Cary Grant or marry Carlo Ponti. Luckily for Edoardo, she chose his dad, and even luckier for him, he looks more like her than his rotund father, now 93. But though Sophia is still the va-va-voomiest, she is also a brilliant actress and one smart cookie, I have such respect for that dame. When they finished their meeting, Ponti kissed the agent on both cheeks and from the time he got up from the table until he left the restaurant he had already made two frenetic cell phone calls to Europe. The agent told the waitress that she’d see her again in a few hours. Apparently she was taking meetings at Nate n’Al’s all day long until she had to leave for the airport. Another schmear please, and a bissel two cents plain.
This morning I was sitting at the same table but my table mates were definitely not the sons of any glamorous movie star. The film executives were former New Yorkers, of course, and one of them was talking about his first job as a waiter in the Catskills. They kept name dropping and talking about how they got bigger offices so they could put up more artwork. “It’s a tiny HBO movie,” one of the guys said about his latest project. “Only 12 million dollars.” The other exec talked about his wife and his ex-wife with the same contempt. Apparently the current ball and chain wanted to dissect their relationship day and night but hubby would have none of that. He’d just finished bankrolling a new pool at their Mulholland Drive home that cost over 50 grand was now forcing his kids to “get in the fucking pool” every day after school so that his money wasn’t spent in vain. He told his friend a horrifying tale of his 15-year-old daughter getting blitzed on New Years Eve and ending up in the emergency room with her friend who passed out from alcohol poisoning. The guy tried to reach his ex-wife but she only called back after 3 am since she was out with an Academy Award-winning actor that night and didn’t want to be disturbed. “You think you know someone for 20 years,” the film guy moaned, “but you don’t. She turned out to be such a disappointment. My shrink said she’s a fuck-up because she knows how dependable I am with the kids. I can’t wait until they turn 18 and I never have to speak to that bitch again.”
During this rant, the other guy had sent back his simple breakfast order twice. He wanted a tomato with his eggs, not cottage cheese. (Why won't anyone in Beverly Hills eat a freaking potato? The way people respond, you'd think they'd just been offered a side of radioactive sludge.) His biggest complaint was that his milk wasn’t cold enough. “I like it really icy,” he said. I was listening to this conversation as I was reading a manuscript aimed at helping teachers turn their students into peace activists. The chapter I was working on was about the horrific plight of child soldiers and refugee children around the world. It definitely put a different perspective on some guy losing it because his milk wasn’t cold enough. Because Nate n’Al’s is such an industry hangout, everyone seems to know each other. Throughout my breakfast, the two guys waved to about seven or eight people coming in the door, yelling out the classic Beverly Hills greeting, ‘How the hell are ya?” and then turning right back to the their conversation before getting any reply.
I looked around the packed restaurant in amazement—every single patron except for me seemed to have something to do with the biz. What was I even doing there? Oh wait, look at those two nice little old ladies eating blintzes. At last, some normal Jewish bubbies who didn't have a development deal at New Line and had nothing to do with the movies except as patrons of the occasional matinee. But when I passed the ladies’ table on my way to bathroom, this is the snippet of conversation I heard, as God is my witness: “...oh yeah, honey, King Vidor directed me in that picture. I always thought he kind of had a thing for me.” Oy. I loitered long enough to find out that the elderly ladies were former Goldwyn Girls and had both dated half the male stars of the 1930s and 40s. What was this, some kind of “Twilight Zone” episode? At least I had my manuscript and non-Hollywood life to return to. But not for long. I’ll be leaving my current job at the end of March after seven years. My main responsibility has been developing our social studies books and my company has made the decision to refocus its resources in other areas. We won’t be doing any more social studies books so I’ll be out on the market. Gulp. Will I soon be found panhandling in front of "Nate n'Al's" holding a sign that says "Will Blog for Food?" Should I take a meeting with the icy milk guy? How the hell are ya, buddy?
Oh well, at least our house has a job. We’ve had the incredibly talented art department from Touchstone Pictures in residence all week transforming our first floor into a seedy London pub, circa 1900 for a movie shoot next week. Here are some photos of their handiwork but they’re not yet finished dressing the set. Leah is in heaven, spending her evenings behind the bar working on world-weary bartender monologues and begging everyone who comes over to do scenes with her. She’s serving up faux whiskeys and every time I walk into our former living room I can’t stop myself from singing:
It’s a quarter to three,
There’s no one in the place
’cept you and me
So set ’em up Joe
I got a little story
I think you should know
We’re drinking my friend
To the end of a brief episode
So make it one for my baby
And one more for the road.
It’s amazing how much work goes into creating a set for just one day of a film shoot. Our scenes will be shot on Monday and there will be over 100 people in our house including the film’s stars Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, Scarlett Johannson, Michael Caine, and David Bowie. What a cast--I can’t wait to see the film. It's about two rival magicians (Jackman and Bale) in turn-of-the-century London who keep trying to one-up each other. David Bowie plays real-life inventor and electrical wizard Nikola Tesla. Oh, and Andy Serkis, aka Gollum from “The Lord of the Rings,” is also in the film. Kendall and I will be upstairs on Monday hoping that the chain-smoking extras don’t set our house on fire.