I Know You From... Somewhere
There’s a funny scene near the beginning of the movie “Notting Hill.” Hugh Grant’s character, who owns a travel book shop in London*, brings Julia Roberts — she has a different name in the movie but she’s basically Julia Roberts — to his little sister’s birthday dinner, which is being held at a friend’s house.
*”Do you have any books by Dickens?” the customer asks.
“No,” Hugh Grant’s character says. “We’re a travel bookshop. We only sell travel books.”
“Right,” the guy says. “How about the latest John Grisham thriller?”
“No,” Hugh Grant says. “That’s a novel, too, isn’t it?”
“Right,” the guy says. “Have you got a copy of ‘Winnie the Pooh?”
“Martin,” Hugh Grant says to his assistant. “Your customer!”
This is one of my family’s favorite scenes in any movie ever, and we never once pass a John Grisham book without saying to each other, “How about the latest John Grisham thriller?”
Anyway, back to the movie — Hugh Grant’s character brings JULIA ROBERTS to the party, and each friend reacts to this rather stunning development differently. His sister loses her mind as she’s long dreamed of being Julia Roberts’ best friend. A couple of other friends try to stay cool about things but are barely holding it together.
And Bernie — played by the Lord Grantham guy from “Downton Abbey” — does not recognize her. This is funny to start with because, seriously, who would not recognize Julia Roberts? But it gets funnier as he asks Julia Roberts what she does and even when she says that she’s an actress, he STILL doesn’t get that she’s Julia Roberts. Instead, he talks about what a rough life acting must be, how the wages are a scandal, and how he had done a bit of acting himself back in his university days. When he finds out that she’s actually in the movies, he (so wonderfully) says: “Oh splendid! Well done!” And then he asks her what she made in her last movie.
“Fifteen million dollars,” Julia Roberts says, and he STILL doesn’t quite get it until Julia Roberts goes to the bathroom and the other friends freak out a bit.
This is a funny scene. But it’s funnier in our house.
Because I’m Bernie. I totally would not have recognized Julia Roberts.
I am not exaggerating — that gene that allows others to recognize people, whatever that is, I just don’t have it. This isn’t just true of celebrities. In the wrong setting, I would absolutely fail to recognize my favorite college professor, my next-door neighbor, or either of my two brothers.
Some years ago — again, this is absolutely true — I was playing in a pickup basketball game for a couple of hours with some people I didn’t know, and I was guarding one guy in particular, and when the game ended he said, “OK! I’ll see you Tuesday.”
And only then did I realize that he was my optometrist.
This complete inability to recognize people has caused me many embarrassing headaches through the years. I am simply not a visual person, and so I end up trying to figure out who I’m talking with through context. Like, and I believe I told this story before, I was at Bruce Springsteen’s Broadway show a few years ago when a man came up to me and started talking. And I knew that I was supposed to know him, that I had talked to him before, but I had no idea why, and so I probed him with various embarrassing questions as I tried to put it together. At one point, he said he was in town “for the game,” and I thought: “OK, he is in sports of some kind.”
And I scanned my mind for what sports were going in town.
And I realized that the baseball playoffs were about to start. And I thought about who the Yankees were playing. And I realized that it was the A’s. And I thought, “Maybe this guy works for the A’s.” This is all taking an awful lot of time, and I am babbling away, stalling to figure out who I’m talking with, and I’m sure I said at least 10 utterly humiliating things before FINALLY figuring out that I was talking with David Forst, the general manager of the Oakland A’s, who I had not only talked with on multiple occasions but had talked to about our mutual appreciation of Bruce Springsteen.
It was a low point, I admit. Probably not the lowest, though. I’ll keep that one to myself.
People do get offended when you don’t recognize them — particularly if they were in your wedding party. And there’s no way to really explain it to people. And this is bad because as the years go on, my recognition skills only diminish. There are so many humiliating moments to come.
Which leads to our story …
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Friday night, I was back in New York, and I went to see my friend Alex Edelman’s off-Broadway show “Just For Us.” It’s a fantastic, hilarious, deeply personal show, so wonderful, and I strongly recommend that all of you in the New York area go see it immediately. It’s actually the second time I’ve seen it. But my friend Tommy Tomlinson was in New York* at the same time, and Tommy also knows Alex, so we went together.
*Tommy was in New York because he had just finished attending the Westminster Dog Show — his new book coming next year will be about the dog show world and our incredible connection to dogs. You can’t preorder it quite yet because, you know, he hasn’t written it, but you will want to start putting your money away immediately to buy numerous copies.
Anyway, I was sitting and waiting for the show to begin when a lovely woman sat down next to me. By “lovely” I mean she just exuded niceness. There was something warm and familiar about her. You know how there are just those people who immediately seem nice? She struck up a conversation and asked if I’d seen Alex’s show, and I told her how great it is, and she said she was really excited because she knew nothing about it. She wanted to see it completely clueless about it. We talked about how much fun it is to be surprised by a show. Then I asked what brought her and her friends to the show, and she said it was because she had met Alex at the SAG Awards.
That’s the first hint. She was at the SAG Awards.
We talk for a little longer about what a terrific and interesting guy Alex is, and she mentions something else about how she was at the SAG Awards because of “the show,” and I’m still nodding and completely not picking up on any of this. And finally I said, like a Bernie, “I’m sorry, but what show are you talking about?”
And she said, “Succession.”
Now, I’m beginning to get a queasy feeling. Because I love “Succession.” I didn’t think I would — it doesn’t exactly seem like my kind of show because there are really no characters to root for — but I absolutely love it and have seen every episode multiple times. And I’m getting that familiar feeling that I’m missing something.
“Oh, wow, I love ‘Succession’,” I say, but I continue to look at her blankly, and she looks at me with a kind but odd expression and says, “I play Willa on the show.”
Of course she does. She’s Willa.* She’s the wife of the guy who played Cameron in “Ferris Bueller.” She’s awesome, one of my favorite characters, and — oh, by the way — one of the most striking characters on the show, long blond hair, beautiful, impossible really to NOT recognize her. And it’s not like Justine — that’s the actress’ name — is one of those people who looks different in real life.
No, she looks EXACTLY like Willa.
And I totally missed it.
*I thought the name was “Willow” but that’s a whole other thing.
There’s a great finish to the Bernie scene in “Notting Hill.” As Julia Roberts leaves the party, Bernie shouts out: “Love your work!”
And that was me telling Justine how much I love her work after we had been talking for 10 minutes and I TOTALLY did not recognize her.
But, like I say, Justine is just one of those people who radiates warmth. And she easily and naturally moved on from the whole “not being recognized by someone who says he loves "‘Succession’,” thing and we just talked about a surprising amount of stuff — baseball, restaurants in Charleston, the NBA playoffs, the joys and pitfalls of living in New York — and then Alex came out and the show began.
Even as the show went on — and Alex was typically awesome — I could not help but think about two things: One, how much I was looking forward to telling my wife and “Succession” binge-watching partner Margo about how I sat next to Willa and totally did not recognize her. I knew she would get a huge kick out of that. There are few things she seems to enjoy more than me making a fool out of myself. She often talks about how I need to take her along everywhere because otherwise I walk around like Mr. Magoo and miss everything.
The second thing I thought was that I probably should be more present in the world. Maybe the reason I don’t recognize celebrities or long-lost friends or United States Presidents is that I’m too much in my own head, that I do not actively try to notice things. Maybe, in some ways, I really am letting the world pass me by.
And I vowed to myself to at least try and be better about that.
When the show ended, Justine talked a bit about how much she loved it. She then introduced me to the two friends she came with, a man and a woman with Australian accents — and they too were lovely, and they left, and then, in another quirky brush with fame, Alex introduced me to Larry Lucchino, former president of the Red Sox, Padres and Orioles. It’s weird that I had never met Larry before, but I had not, and when he found out that I had written The Baseball 100, well, it’s fair to say that he had just a few disagreements to talk about, which was great fun.
And just then Justine came back in: This time I recognized her straightaway, and she reintroduced me to her friends, and I remembered their names, Sarah and Dave, and I thought to myself: “Yes, it has begun. I am now living my more observant life.”
And Alex came over to give Sarah and big hug and said, “I just love you so much on ‘Succession’.”
And I looked at Sarah again and it was then, and only then, that I realized that “Sarah” was the award-winning Sarah Snook, who brilliantly plays Shiv Roy — maybe the most compelling and important character on the entire show. Like the star.
“I love your work!” I said to Sarah as she and the group left the theater.