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Lunch with

by Jan Wong

We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars,” wrote Oscar Wilde. That’s a distinction Jan Wong seems to have difficulty making. Wong is the Globe and Mail writer who lunches celebrities, then, usually, trashes them in her column, “Lunch With.” Her new book, under the same title, collects together 61 of her “favourite” interviews. The problem with Wong’s favourites, however, is that the best are more concerned with the gutter than the stars.

Misinformed by his publicist, the British actor John Hurt met Wong, in 1999, believing the interview was to be about the 20th anniversary of the film Alien. When Wong informed him over calamari that she intended to conduct a personal interview, Hurt balked. Knowing he had no way back to his hotel, she ruthlessly pried into Hurt’s private life, pushing him close to fury. Hurt is, arguably, one of the world’s finest actors. In the end, rather than an insightful picture of a complex and fascinating artist, Wong’s column was a tacky, uncomfortable, and disjointed smear. It was not her best work.

For her best work to happen, Wong requires an easy target. Apparently knowledgeable of Wong’s dubious intent, classical guitarist Liona Boyd sparred with her, in 1998, to promote her autobiography. She was no intellectual match. Wong delivered a scathing portrait of a beautiful and extremely ambitious woman, who, Wong strongly implied, slept her way to fame, gold records, and an Order of Canada pin, via the late Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s bed. It’s great gossip, but Boyd comes across about as complex and fascinating as a pancake.

Wong’s goal, she states, is to figure out what makes her lunch guests tick. But because all of her “figuring” is done in the gutter, brilliant subjects like Hurt (and Yo Yo Ma and Mordecai Richler) too often elude her. Faced with subjects of less substantial accomplishment, however, like Boyd (and Suzanne Somers and Alan Thicke), Wong soars – but to what low heights.