What? Me and Ralph? We're like this

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The Independent Culture
MY FRIEND Clarissa called me and said, 'What are you doing this evening? I'm having some people round. You must come.' I said, 'I'd love to, but I can't' She said, 'Oh what a pity. I've got Lonnie and Ronnie and Connie and Bonny coming.' And then she adds with considered casualness, 'Oh and Ralph will be dropping by too . . . Ralph Fiennes.'

It wasn't clear at first if Clarissa actually knew Ralph Fiennes, because everyone in New York refers to famous people by their first names, whether they know them or not. (A little while ago, I was at the movies with a girlfriend when all of a sudden she said, 'Look, there's Spike]' I looked, and, sure enough, the grumpy-looking homunculus in a cagoule sitting in front of us was Spike Lee, a man with whom my girlfriend is about as personally intimate as a cereal packet. Another time, I was with a man in a cab that was stuck in traffic on Park Avenue. 'Oh,' he said, pointing out the window, 'it's Henry.' I turned in the direction of my companion's pointing finger expecting to find his uncle, or one of his old history professors. But there, standing toadily on the sidewalk, was none other than Henry Kissinger.) Anyway, as it turned out, Clarissa really did know Ralph Fiennes. And so - in a different and altogether less congenial way - did I.

Some years ago, I went out to the Yorkshire moors to do a set report on the Paramount remake of Wuthering Heights starring Fiennes and Juliet Binoche. I watched them shooting a scene where Fiennes, as Heathcliff, discovers that his beloved Caaathy is deaaad and, in a state of high freak, starts banging his head against a tree. I can't actually remember the details of the piece I wrote, but the general tone, I fear, was a little facetious. Later, I heard through friends of friends that it had not gone down well with the people at Paramount, but I didn't think about it much until a couple of years later when I went out to Cracow, to do a set report on Schindler's List.

Everything went smoothly until I tried to talk to any of the actors. Fiennes, who was playing Amon Goeth, told the unit publicist that it would be too distracting to talk to me. Then it turned out that Liam Neeson and Ben Kingsley wouldn't talk to me either. They never actually said no, but the unit publicist kept telling me that today was not a good day, perhaps tomorrow, and then when tomorrow came, she would explain that today they were far too busy, or tired, or emotionally overwrought. Several weeks later, a reliable source informed me that Ralph Fiennes had actually refused to speak to me because of a grudge he held about the Wuthering Heights piece and that Neeson and Kingsley had joined the boycott in a gesture of thespian solidarity.

Cut to New York 1994: I tell Clarissa this story and explain that it's for the best that I cannot attend her little soiree. The next morning, she calls me again. 'I had a long talk with Ralph about you,' she says, 'and you're quite right - he has been very annoyed with you about that thing you wrote. But I told him you were awfully nice really, and that he would like you if he met you properly, so we agreed that you should phone him at his hotel and arrange a meeting.'

'Clarissa]' I say. 'There is no way I'm going to phone up Ralph Fiennes and invite myself over to make cutie with him in his suite. What kind of schmuck do you take me for?' Clarissa tries to bully me for a bit, but eventually she rings off. A few days later, she phones back. 'What are you doing right now?' she says. 'Whatever it is - cancel. We're going to see Ralph.'

Now, the truth is, I am actually a little scared of going to see Fiennes. What if he gets reaaally, reaaally angry with me and pours wine over me? What if he has invited me over just so that he can humiliate me in front of his ac-tor chumbos? Then I think: what the hell - if he does cut up rough, it'll make brilliant copy. Which is the sort of cheesy reasoning that a few years in journalism will tend to teach a girl.

The scene in Fiennes's hotel suite is unbelievably embarrassing at first. I am so freaked, I have a sort of out-of-body experience where I see myself sitting all sweaty and pink on a sofa, shoving tortilla chips down my face and gabbling maniacally about the hotel furnishings. What am I doing down there? Can I just shut up for a second?

Jonathan Kent the theatre director is there, and after a bit the conversation splits into two. Clarissa and Jonathan Kent are talking about Hamlet. Fiennes shoots me a meaningful look. I can tell it is time for me to say something about the offending article. 'Em, look,' I say, 'about that piece. I can't really remember what I wrote, but . . .'

'Oh, I can,' Fiennes says, and then he recites the offending passages from memory. 'You remembered that from four years ago?' I say. I pretend to look horrified but I am actually rather thrilled. Deathless prose, or what? 'Well,' I say, 'I'm sorry if it offended you. I was just being callow and sarcastic.'

'No, no,' Fiennes says, 'I was being precious.'

It's a very beautiful, special moment - and to attest to the new, loving feeling between us, Fiennes invites me to join him and Jonathan Kent downtown for dinner with Robert Redford and John Turturro. I already have a prior dinner appointment and I know my date will never forgive me if I tell him SBTU (Something Better Turned Up). So after more drinks, we all go downstairs and Fiennes and Kent and Clarissa disappear into the rainy night in a massive limo. That is the last I saw of Ralph Fiennes - well almost. A little while later, I am sitting in the movies with my girlfriend watching Quiz Show, when Fiennes appears for the first time on the screen.

'Oh look,' I whisper to my girlfriend, in

a languid manner that I have spent a long

time perfecting in the bath before I came out,

' . . . There's Ralph]' -

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