As film viewers, we keep going back to the movies because we can relate at a basic level to the needs of the characters on the screen – the need for survival, acceptance, revenge, relaxation, sexual gratification, etc. But one such need that is often sorely neglected in the movies is the need for sustenance – the need to eat, and the enjoyment that comes from eating. Presumably James Bond enjoys a good meal (he obviously enjoys a good drink), but in his world, food is an afterthought – a room service order of caviar and champagne (charged to Goldfinger’s account, of course) – which he never actually eats because he’s too busy making sexytime and thwarting his nemesis’ attempts to cheat at cards.
Food is most often extraneous to a film’s storyline, except in those rare instances where the story is actually about food (for example, movies like Ratatouille or Big Night). But occasionally, food – or the act of eating – is used by filmmakers to bring out traits of the characters or themes of the film as a whole. For example, in Die Hard, John Mclaine unsuccessfully attempts to “fire down” a “1,000 year old twinkie” he finds on an empty floor of the L.A. office building in which he is trapped with murderous international thieves. He’s been running around in his bare feet dodging bullets and crashing through windows for most of the movie, but it is only then we realize the poor guy probably hasn’t eaten since he first got on the plane in New York. At that point we actually realize how exhausted, beaten up (and hungry!) he must be.
In Inglorious Basterds, Jewish heroine Shosanna Dreyfus finds herself alone at a Parisian restaurant with “the Jew Hunter,” Nazi Col. Hans Landa, who murdered the rest of her family when she was a child. She looks to get away as soon as possible, before he discovers who she is – but Landa insists she join him in a plate of apple strudel while he interrogates her, and seems to enjoy watching her squirm as she grudgingly nibbles at it.
Next up, “the lobster scene” from Annie Hall. Here, Woody Allen and Diane Keaton do battle with a pair of feisty lobsters who do not want to go gently into that good night. The scene illustrates the fun and frivolity of the early stages of Alvie and Annie’s relationship – SPOILER: there are difficult times to come. The actual eating of the lobsters is not depicted, although it probably would have been pretty amusing to watch. There is a second “lobster scene” later in the film (also included in the clip) where Alvie attempts to cook lobsters with a new, post-Annie girlfriend. Clearly, things are not the same.
The Great Outdoors
The Great Outdoors is a 1988 “escape to nature”/”annoying in-law” comedy starring the late John Candy and Dan Aykroyd (as the annoying in-law). Throughout the film, Dan Aykroyd’s character antagonizes, belittles, befuddles and causes grievous bodily harm to John Candy, but the most memorable scene is at a restaurant where he dares Candy to consume “the ol’ 96er,” a behemoth 96 oz. “Paul Bunyan” steak which will result in a free meal for both families if entirely consumed (a feat which has not occurred in the waitress’s lifetime). This scene has a little-heralded but much deserved place in the holy trinity of competitive eating scenes in the movies, which include the pie-eating contest in Stand By Me, and of course Paul Newman’s excruciating consumption of 50 hard boiled eggs in Cool Hand Luke. Candy’s delirious “meat sweat” is entirely convincing (but feel free to ignore the weak romantic subplot designed to appeal to teenage viewers).
*note: This is not to be confused with the “escape to nature” comedy Funny Farm, where Chevy Chase breaks the local record by eating thirty “lamb fries,” only to find out they are in fact sheep testicles.
Goodfellas is chock-full of eligible “food” scenes, so I went with the most famous of all, the “dinner in prison” scene. As Henry Hill explains:
When you think of prison you get pictures in your mind of all those old movies with rows and rows of guys behind bars. It wasn’t like that for wiseguys . . . . everyone else in the joint was doing real time, all together, living like pigs. But we lived alone. We owned the joint.
Here, Paulie famously shaves the garlic for the sauce so thin that it “liquifies in the pan.” I would not recommend this for anyone who is not incarcerated, as it is extremely time consuming and doesn’t seem to make much difference anyway.
Five Easy Pieces
Another classic “food” scene, the diner scene in Five Easy Pieces is not so much about eating food as much as ordering food, but really it is about the Jack Nicholson character’s late 60’s-era relationship to the regulated society in which he lives, and his frustration in having never really been able to “get his toast” for most of his life. Much analysis of this scene has been written better elsewhere, so I will leave it at that.
*Note: after the scene, the clip contains some bizarre remix of the scene – for those who have not seen the movie, this is not what actually happens! People on Youtube love to remix things, even 1970s-era dramatic films.
In Oldboy, Oh Dae-su is kidnapped, imprisoned for fifteen years in what looks like a shabby hotel room, and subsists entirely on a diet of fried dumplings and television. During this time he learns that his wife has been murdered, his daughter sent to live with foster parents, and he is the prime suspect. He is suddenly and inexplicably released, and soon thereafter ends up in a sushi bar, where he demands “to eat something alive.” In one of the most memorable scenes from the film, he angrily consumes a wriggling octopus whole and passes out face first on his plate.
I am aware that I have merely scratched the surface of memorable movie “food” scenes. Perhaps I will discuss more in future posts.