In the entranceway of The Palm, director Mike Nichols huddles with his film crew, their backs to a huddle of Redskins cartooned onto the wall.
The mammoth bronze palm statue, a gift from a Saudi prince, has been moved, plunked smack in the front of the restaurant. The wardrobe people have replaced restaurateur Tommy Jacomo's power red tie with a power yellow one. And from the office building next door marches a platoon, 30-strong, of impeccably suited and made-up men and women who file in and take their seats at tables.
A bespectacled man in casual slacks with a plug in his ear stands and announces to the group, "Now, we're having a good time at dinner, okay?"
Washington has Heartburn.
The movie, the cast, the crew, the extras. Even the author -- Nora Ephron, who wrote "Heartburn," the best-selling book, and now the screenplay of the film-in-the-making. They've all come to the city that spawned Ephron's clever novel about love and infidelity and the Eastern Shuttle that, as all of Washington and New York surmises, is a thinly disguised account of Ephron's breakup with her former husband, Carl Bernstein.
It's a cloudy Friday and The Palm on 19th Street is closed to the public. The phones are shut off and the nearby block of Jefferson Place closed to traffic so a dinner scene can be filmed.
Almost all of the principals are present -- including Meryl Streep, who plays Rachel, the character based on Ephron, and Jack Nicholson, who plays Mark, the character based on Bernstein.
Through all the rehearsing and filming, Ephron sits at a corner table, sometimes chatting with a friend or watching. When there is little to watch, she sips hot tea and works on The New York Times crossword puzzle.
"We'll do a full rehearsal," first assistant director Joel Tuber, the man with the earplug, tells the extras. They fill the middle of the restaurant. Another 30 or so extras are down the street at another restaurant, Flaps Rickenbacker's, doing what extras spend enormous amounts of time doing -- waiting.
Nichols, in a brown leather jacket, appears relaxed, dividing his time between watching Tuber direct the extras, talking to his cameraman and watching on a small monitor the videotape of the scene they are shooting. At one point he walks up to Tommy Jacomo (co-owner of The Palm with his brother Ray) and thanks him for lending him his restaurant.
As they rehearse dinner chatter, Tuber walks through the restaurant, sweeping his arms upward, encouraging the talk. The maitre d' (general manager of The Palm, Greg Fitzpatrick) seats actor-patrons, but real waiters are serving real food -- plates of steak and lobster and cheesecake and Palm fries sail by.
"We'll take these over here," says Nichols, commandeering a plate of potatoes for people behind the camera.
The stand-ins for Nicholson, Streep et al. are soon done and it's almost time for the principals to come onto the set.
"We're running out of potatoes," calls Nichols, referring to his empty plate. "We're running out of onions."
"Remember to save some food for the picture," Tuber says to hungry extras grazing on their movie food.
Streep and Nicholson, Stockard Channing (who plays Julie Siegel, one of Rachel and Mark's closest friends), Richard Masur (who plays Arthur Siegel), Karen Akers (the Washington singer and actress who plays Thelma, with whom Mark is having an affair) and Catherine O'Hara (Rachel's brassy friend, Betty) come onto the set together, chatting and laughing, appraising each other's costumes.
Milos Forman, the Oscar-winning director who is making his acting debut as Betty's boyfriend, Dmitri, an Eastern European businessman, hobbles out on crutches wearing a hot pink and bright green plaid jacket.
"You look gorgeous," sneers Jack Nicholson, fingering Forman's lapel.
Streep's blond hair is now shoulder-length dark brown and curly, and her clothes are padded to make her appear very pregnant. With the hair and her almond eyes, she looks less like Nora Ephron and more like one of the Lennon Sisters.
Most of the stars wander by Ephron's table to greet her, and Streep sits down for a brief chat. Even after they're seated at the table for the filming, Streep calls out, "Nora," and Ephron goes over to confer.
Akers, in a black dress and gold-and-black shawl, looks drop-dead stunning. Her husband Jim, a lawyer, wanders into the restaurant during the filming and waits in the lobby for a brief word with his wife. "She's so excited about this," Jim Akers says.
When they break for lunch, the principals stick around at The Palm and the extras go back to Flaps, where the atmosphere is boisterous -- a sea of attractive, perfectly suited men and women sitting around laughing.
Most are local actors who do film work when they can get it. For most, it means $91 a day -- more if it's Saturday or overtime. And they hate the term "extra."
"We prefer to call ourselves background atmosphere," laughs actor Greg Procaccino. He had spent most of his day at Flaps talking with his fellow actors. "The good thing about being an extra is that you can find out what's going on in this town and keep your contacts up."
He credits Tuber with treating them well. "He came in and said, 'You will be used. You are important.' "
"He talked to us as actors, not just these people you shove around," adds actor John Healey.
Few get to meet or talk to Streep and Nicholson. "The only thing we have in common is that we have SAG Screen Actors Guild cards," says one actor, a veteran of five films, who walks through The Palm in one scene. "I would love to watch them, learn from them. Usually, though, you don't get a chance. It's just walking through -- like what I do."
"The novelty of being an extra has worn off," says actor Steve Perrotta on his way back to The Palm after lunch break. "It's like another day at the office, except when I stop and think about it, today I'm sharing my office with Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson."