There have been plenty of great restaurant scenes on film. Think of Meg Ryan faking an orgasm at a Manhattan delicatessen in When Harry Met Sally, or Al Pacino shooting a rival gangster and crooked cop in a Bronx Italian in The Godfather, or even Jack Nicholson’s attempt to persuade an obstinate waitress to give him a side order of toast in Five Easy Pieces.
But for sheer belly laugh-inducing comedy, few can rival the lunchtime encounter between Dustin Hoffman and Sydney Pollack in the 1982 film Tootsie. Hoffman, playing a down-on-his-luck actor who has resorted to dressing as a middle-aged woman in an attempt to land roles, runs into his agent (Pollack) at the Russian Tea Room in Manhattan. He proceeds to flirt with him in a squeaky southern belle accent before revealing, in his gruff, normal voice, his true identity. A dumbfounded Pollack immediately orders a double vodka. “God, I begged you to get some therapy,” he says.
I am reminded of this scene while waiting for my own lunchtime meeting with Hoffman. The restaurant he has chosen is Culina at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills, so, taking care not to prang the Bentley belonging to Hustler founder Larry Flynt, which is parked in front of the hotel in its usual spot, I leave my car with the parking attendant and head inside.
At the age of 74, the two-time Oscar-winning movie legend is starring in Luck, his first television drama. Produced by director Michael Mann, it is set in the horseracing world and is the latest small-screen epic from HBO. I arrive a few minutes early and wait in a suite reserved by HBO, where Mann and David Milch, the writer of Luck and of the acclaimed western series Deadwood, are also doing interviews today.
When Hoffman arrives, compact, tanned and smart in a dark suit and light blue shirt, silvery hair spiky and swept up, we head straight to the restaurant, past a vast and colourful floral display in the lobby. He moves slowly and deftly, charmingly fending off a fan keen to tell him about the time she saw him playing tennis. Then, after a brief moment of indecision about the table (“Is this one all right?” he asks, half-anxiously), we take our seats amid excited whispers from those around us: even the prosperous patrons of the Four Seasons are not above interrupting their lunch for a bit of star-spotting.
A waitress appears as I pick up the wine list and quietly cross my fingers that he will order alcohol (Lunch with the FT guests have, of late, been rather abstemious). To my great delight, he agrees to a tipple. Not wine, though. “It’ll make me sleepy,” he says to the waitress in his distinctive gravelly voice. “I’d rather have a Bloody Mary.” I choose a glass of Gavi.
Culina describes its food as “robust California-Italian” – this being Los Angeles, however, it also serves lots of sushi-inspired small “crudo” plates. We choose raw scallops, tuna and kampachi (Hawaiian amberjack) rolls, and I order a salad with prawns and lobster.
While we wait for our drinks, I tell him we have spoken briefly before, on the phone, about 18 months ago after he had shot the pilot for Luck. He furrows his brow, searching for a memory he can’t recall. Instead I ask him about the transition from film to TV; Hoffman made his name as an actor with trailblazing performances in The Graduate (1967) and Midnight Cowboy (1969), a period when film stars viewed TV roles with disdain.
“I was in the golden age of Hollywood but we didn’t know it was golden then,” he says. “The big studios were making films that are only being done outside the studio system today. It used to be you would never do TV.” That stigma has gone, he says; these days the only creative risks being taken are in low-budget independent films and on well-financed pay TV networks such as HBO. “They have money, so you’re not rushed to shoot 20 pages [of script] in a day, like you are with normal TV. HBO leave you alone and there’s no censorship. You do the work you want to do.”
The waitress has returned with our drinks and several crudo plates. “I expected a difference between TV and film,” Hoffman continues, after sipping his Bloody Mary. “But there wasn’t one, because we were working with film directors and we were only shooting three or four pages of the script a day.”