Joan Chen: Sharks and Orchards

"HARMLESS DINNERS," proclaims the Ed Ruscha word painting that hangs inside the entrance of this year's hottest Hollywood hotspot, DC3, and since I'm arriving for an interview over supper with a married movie star, the prediction seems a safe bet. As I nurse a Pellegrino with lime at the block-long, cowhide-covered bar, my thoughts drift back to the last time I met a married woman I didn't know in public, and all the trouble that ensued. Was it worth it?

As if to taunt me, the sound system begins to play the plaintive theme from Around the World in 80 Days, just as Joan Chen--the star of Tai-Pan, The Last Emperor, the new Salute to the Jugger, and David Lynch's primetime soap mystery "Twin Peaks"--steps out of the elevator. I'm only human, a male at that, and any time an extraordinarily beautiful woman arrives early for a date with me, I'm pretty much won over right then and there. So I'm a pushover. So sue me.

We stand together at the plate glass windows watching the sunset as, far below us, twin engine planes taxi in to a halt. A cavernous marble hall--like the setting for Tennessee Williams's Small Craft Warnings fast-forwarded to a Blade Runner future--DC3 is perched above the Santa Monica Airport, a perfect and perfectly ironic address, for despite the private jet activity all around us, no one here is going anywhere--we've already arrived. Chen orders a mineral water and tells me she's not married anymore but that, rather like me, she finds herself suddenly single again. At our table we are handed menus which also bear the legend, "Harmless Dinners," but now I'm not so sure. Eyeing the tape recorder on the tabletop between us, she says, "I'm famous for being a noisy eater so I think I'll have fish--it's quiet."

What she's famous for, to me, is that wonderful, mad scene in The Lost Emperor where she ate an orchid. "I ate a lot of orchids, what with rehearsals and re-takes. I don't usually eat them--well, okay, actually it's my beauty secret," she grins. "I can't believe it when I go into the market here and see nasturtiums in bags for sale to add to your salad. It's ridiculous. If I eat a salad, I put tomatoes in it, no fancy stuff. Orchids, never." Perhaps, I suggest kiddingly, that movie scene helped to popularize this dubious trend? She replies earnestly, "Were you expecting me to be trendy? I'm an individualist--I don't even watch television, so I don't even know how to get trendy. It's a waste of energy."

While she knows enough not to watch much of it, Chen's career between features has received a big boost from acting on TV. "I've always done television. One of the first things I did here was play Edward James Olmos's ex-wife on 'Miami Vice.' I think it's important to keep working--one can still use a dull knife to cut, but one prefers a sharper knife." The fame that weekly television can bestow gives her pause. "Right now, I don't get recognized much--and I hope that 'Twin Peaks' doesn't change that. I love the supermarket--at night when everything is done and I crave potato chips, I go to the market and search the shelves--it's my little Disneyland of food. If I couldn't do that again, I'd be very sad."

The waitress, who has won favor simply by not introducing herself, now further ingratiates herself by not reciting any specials aloud. Joan orders the charred jumbo shrimp, sea scallops, eggplant, and asparagus soup, and I opt for the charred Dover sole, summer squash, marinated peppers, and vegetable soup. To assuage a faint sense of gluttony, we commiserate that being single means we're forced to eat out more often than we'd really like.

"I don't cook at home much now," says Joan, "but when I do I most often cook Chinese. I make a great spicy prawn with ginger and scallions, also a wonderful oxtail soup, and also I make a great pasta, which is half-Chinese, half-Italian.

"I like cooking, and I like married life. I think it's too bad that marriage is a dying institution now; for many reasons, people need each other less in today's life. People give up too easily, including myself. I did try to work on it. We loved each other very much but we couldn't live together."

By now the sky outside is dark, the beams from the planes play across Joan's face, above the noise of the crowd we can make out the distant strains of "Theme From A Summer Place," and I am lost in a reverie where men say things like, "Whatever happens, we'll always have Paris." At the table next to us, a couple on their first date hold hands as their waiter pours Evian water from the iced champagne bucket where it's been chilling. "It's pretty scary to have to deal with dating again," observes Joan. "It's like I've been thrown back into the pool where all the single women swim, you know? After four years, I've forgotten how to do this dating stuff. To avoid the problem, after our separation my ex-husband and I dated each other."

Like many another contemporary single, Chen invariably runs across well-meaning friends who suggest seeing that catch-all New Age fixit--a personal psychic. "When I was in Australia last year doing Salute to the Jugger, someone gave me a gift to have my fortune told, so I went. This woman took my hand and said a whole bunch of nice things, not one of which I remember. Then she told me, 'You are a moonchild: don't go into the ocean. You are going to be eaten by a shark.' Only she used language like there is a shark with my name on it! I believe one should retain some respect for these warnings, just in case. When friends asked me to go diving, I said no."

Instead, Chen swims in the pool at her health club in West Hollywood, not far from her home on Mount Olympus. "People in this town are so healthy. I'm not a health nut," she assures me as she bites a forkful of shrimp. "I joined the club because I felt embarrassed when people continually asked, 'Where do you go?' And I didn't 'go' anywhere, I just skipped rope at home. It says something about L.A. that you don't really have to go to the club, you just have to belong to one!"

After over seven years of living in L.A. (four of them in the San Fernando Valley while she attended Cal State Northridge), Chen just became a U.S. citizen; she's sharing her large house with her older brother, painter Chase Chen, and under his tutelage they are furnishing and decorating it too. "Lately we've been making furniture," she says. "I like doing things with my hands, so I make collages out of my clothes. I squeeze a shirt or two under glass and hang it on the wall for a month or so. Then when I want to wear them again, I take them down and iron them. You can call me a true artist," she says with a laugh. "That means I've never sold anything."

As we scan the room, I tell Joan the story of the other night here, when a rowdy brunette threw caution to the wind and stood up on the banquette, raising her skirt to flash her bare bottom. Chen says, "The reason I come back to a restaurant is not the crowd hut the food. I like all the Thai restaurants on Melrose, the St. James's Club has very good food, I like Tribeca, and Border Grill, and I love to go to lunch at the Bel Air Hotel."

I order coffee, Joan orders steamed milk with honey, and I wonder aloud whether life in Hollywood has changed her, whether it doesn't change everyone--but particularly someone who grew up during the Cultural Revolution. "A lot of people in show business here use that most overused word, 'fun,' too much--this is 'fun,' that is 'fun,' you must meet them, they're such 'fun'. After a while I thought this is so idiotic, I want something more than just having 'fun'. I find America is a country of positive conversations, there's a lot of hype--you'll 'love' this, you'll 'hate' that, this is 'great'--I had to get used to this overstatement about even the most routine things. Now, sometimes I find myself doing it," she shrugs with a little sigh.

As we stand to leave the table, Joan takes my arm and whispers conspiratorially, "Let's walk through the place, very slowly, and look for famous people, shall we?" We stroll by each table, taking in the signature airs of the diners: Jose Eber coiffures, Armani jackets, knockoff Picasso jewelry. "Look," I murmur. "Isn't that somebody?" "No," Joan confides, "That's just someone who looks like somebody."

Outside, it is time to go, and we embrace. I cannot quite bring off a Bogart line, but I mumble something about Paris when my lips graze her cheek. "Paris? Someday I'd love to live in Paris," she says with a wave as she climbs into her car, "Of course, I'd have to learn to speak French first." Mais bien sur, I think to myself. She is gone. Another car pulls up to the curb, and the driver is Dennis Hopper. He stares at me, and I return the steely gaze. I want to tell him something, I'm not sure what, but before I can he has hurried into the elevator, maybe to meet someone he doesn't know for one of DC3's "Harmless Dinners."


Edward Margulies is a freelance writer who survived growing up in Hollywood. He now lives in Malibu, California. "Someone's got to," he says.