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Modern love: How Hollywood Ruined Me for Romance

By Benjamin Svetkey
New York Times
MODERN-LOVE-HOLLYWOOD-LOVE-JAN24
Brian Rea for The New York Times - BRIAN REA

I once fondled Angelina Jolie’s elbow.

This was back in the early 2000s, when I was a writer for Entertainment Weekly. I had flown to Montreal, where Jolie was shooting “Taking Lives,” to interview her over lunch for a cover story.

While I watched her slice into a bloody steak at a five-star hotel restaurant, she told me how she had chipped a bone in her elbow doing a stunt, and the tiny bone chip kept migrating under her skin. Then she put down her knife and fork, took my hand in hers, and invited me to squeeze and pinch her arm to see if I could find it.

I nearly fainted.

Of course, millions of men fall in love with movie stars every day, but usually from the safety of a theater seat. As an entertainment journalist I didn’t just rub elbows, I occasionally fondled them.

Over the past 20 years, I’ve sat in restaurants and engaged in conversation – what in another context might be called a date – with Michelle Pfeiffer, Halle Berry, Nicole Kidman, Julia Roberts and many others. It was one of the best parts of the job, meeting such women and watching them chew, but also, frankly, one of the most challenging. It totally fouled me up when it came to real dates with unfamous women.

Nora Ephron once famously complained that romantic comedies gave women unrealistic expectations about love and relationships. My job gave me a rare variant of that disease. It wasn’t rom-coms that were messing with my head but the actresses who appeared in them. For many years, until I figured out the difference between love and fan worship, I was so dazzled by the stardust being sprinkled in my face, I couldn’t see straight. Like Marcello Mastroianni in “La Dolce Vita,” I kept following Anita Ekberg into the Trevi Fountain, but all I ever got was soggy trouser cuffs.

Seduction and spin

Still, there’s a thin line between seduction and spinning the press, and it took me a while to figure that out. Actors are professional charmers. They also have a vested interest in making journalists like them. And to a young reporter starting out, and even to a seasoned veteran, it can be heady stuff, having a star flirt with you. Sometimes, that thin line can get awfully blurry.

I did go on one real date with a star I interviewed. At least I considered it a real date.

We met at an Italian restaurant in Brentwood and she was every bit as charmingly vulnerable as during our interview. But I began to notice Bambi had a few issues.

And for the first time, it dawned on me that dating a celebrity might be a bit of a nightmare.

That “real” celebrity date definitely gave me a deeper appreciation for the nonfamous women in my life. I came to realize the advantages of normal dating. For one thing, I didn’t have to jot down questions to ask before arriving at the restaurant. For another, I discovered that all the time I spent talking to famous strangers had given me skills for romantic socializing. Most men try to impress women by talking about themselves. I learned a better way. Ask a lot of questions and – this is critical – listen to the answers. Even unfamous women, it turns out, really like that.

In romantic comedies, there’s a perfect woman for every man, and they always manage to find each other. But as I entered my 40s, still a bachelor, I had to accept the fact that my skewed idea of perfection was ruining my life. And so, sadly, I reckoned I would grow old and die alone and unloved, leaving behind only my tape recorder and a stack of Entertainment Weeklys.

Then I met the perfect woman.

Of cafes and accents

This was in Prague, in the spring of 2002, while visiting an action movie called “XXX.” I had been on the soundstage no more than 15 or 20 minutes, just long enough to watch Vin Diesel blow up a terrorist bunker with a bazooka, when I spotted her: a gorgeous woman with honey-blond hair and green eyes, sitting on top of boxes of sound equipment, reading a thick Czech book.

With those cheekbones, I assumed she had a part in the movie. So I turned to the film’s publicist and asked if I could interview her.

“She’s not an actress,” he said, rolling his eyes. “She’s a translator.”

I interviewed her anyway. Repeatedly. During long walks around Old Town Square and across the Charles Bridge and over sips of Becherovka inside Prague cafes. She had a sexy Slavic accent right out of a Bond film, but as a translator her English was flawless, even if she did occasionally mangle an aphorism (“Ugh, I am like an elephant in Chinatown!” she said after spilling her drink).

Sitting across a table from her, I got the same dizzying high that usually happened only with my celebrity dates. But this time there were no fake intimacies or phony familiarities. We just talked about books and movies and music and growing up in our different countries. Over dinner, she playfully taught me the Czech words for knife and fork and salt and pepper. After dinner, she taught me the Czech word for kiss.

We’ve been married for almost 10 years. Sometimes, when I’m really lucky, she even lets me fondle her elbow.

Benjamin Svetkey’s novel, “Leading Man,” was published by Vintage.
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