For many of us, especially those of us who love movies, there are four great pleasures in life: Food, sex, books and cinema ... though not necessarily in that order.
Of the four, cinema is the pleasure which can consistently roll food, sex and countless other feelings, themes and experiences into one interesting batch of tiramisu -- and, more importantly, you can look at it (I always crave steak when Glenn Ford bites into that slab of meat in The Big Heat; Lee Marvin's special serving of steaming hot coffee, not so much). Food on film elicits all kinds of reactions and yearnings that underscore just how much emotion we sometimes invest in day-to-day eating or... binging or whatever sensible eaters do. I wouldn't know, especially around Thanksgiving because I just want to eat something. And watch something too. So with that, I've thought of some of my favorite food on film moments -- moments that make me hungry, sick, amused and ready to try new, exotic things (see Ravenous). Dig in.
Food Fight: The Miracle Worker (1962)
Though Arthur Penn’s The Miracle Worker received acclaim in its day, it now seems relatively underappreciated – especially in terms of how strikingly visceral and in many ways, avant-garde it is. The story of Helen Keller, a woman who found herself in the unfortunate position of being blind, deaf and mute is directed by Penn with a refreshing lack of hokey sentimentality and a lot of in-your-face realism. Penn (who also helmed Bonnie and Clyde) prefers to showcase the real life account in a shockingly straight forward manner mixed with a lyrical sadness and beauty. It’s an unsettling combination that’s surprising even today, especially when we get to the infamous dinner table scene. A game Anne Bancroft plays Helen's teacher Annie Sullivan, who tries valiantly to teach stubborn Helen (a remarkable Patty Duke) how to sit down and eat at the table like a regular little girl. The lesson results in not only a food fight, but a smack-down that would make Vince McMahon envious. I mean, just watch…it’s actually amazing how much these women wrestle, slap and fork food in their mouths without missing a beat. It's sad but also (and I think this is intentional) a little hilarious. Jesus, how many times did they shoot this scene?
Sugar High: Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971)
Though the much loved and romantic Chocolat will pop into many a sweet tooth's head, I find that film much too corny and not really all that scrumptious when it comes to whetting my appetite for candy. And yes, yes, I know the chocolate in said film is of a finer quality and, I presume, magically enhanced by the charm of Juliette Binoche, but please. When it comes to wishing Halloween came twice a week, it's all about Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. The story of five lucky kids winning a visit to the famous and magical candy factory run by the wild and weird Willy Wonka (a tremendous Gene Wilder) is a confectionary dream that turns nightmarish once the kids (sans Charlie) reveal their varied and insufferable personalities. But no matter how many of the children endure dire consequences for their gluttonous temptations, we still want, as the song goes, candy. Which is why I cut some of these spoiled brats a break. One of Wonka's rooms is entirely edible. Would you be acting normal after shoving your face in a river of chocolate?
Best Restaurant Order: Five Easy Pieces (1970)
Sorry. I'm not going with the obvious -- When Harry Met Sally. First off, contrary to popular opinion, Meg Ryan's fake orgasm, "I'll have what she's having" -- diner display is the least funny moment in the otherwise charming romantic comedy. And secondly, no one beats Jack Nicholson in terms of inappropriate, though completely understandable restaurant behavior (think of other great Nicholson at-the-restaurant-moments: making Randy Quaid order his food the way he wants in The Last Detail and his endless, OCD eating specifications in As Good As It Gets). And though the masterful Five Easy Pieces (directed by Bob Rafelson) really has little to do with food, but it makes my list simply for Jack's iconic way of ordering a side of toast. Nicholson plays a slumming oil rigger/talented pianist who embarks on a trek to visit his dying father with a saucy girlfriend (Karen Black) and, at one point, two memorably surly female hitchhikers in tow. The four make quite a tall order when a seen-it-all waitress won't bend the rules ("no substitutions") on a breakfast order of a "plain omelette, no potatoes, tomatoes instead, a cup of coffee, and wheat toast." When the waitress insists she can only bring Nicholson a roll or an English muffin, he asks the perfectly reasonable question, "You make sandwiches don't you?" and proceeds to order a chicken salad sandwich, hold the butter, mayonnaise and lettuce. But where to hold the chicken? "Between your knees," Jack famously and disdainfully coos. I never tire of this moment. And right now I'd really enjoy some wheat toast.
French Kiss: Babette's Feast (1987)
Babette (Stéphane Audran) is some family cook. The French woman, who originally fled Paris after her son and husband were killed, has worked for a family in Denmark for 14 years, preparing food with little zest. But when she wins a lottery, she decides to use her winnings on crafting an elaborate "real French dinner" for her employers in honor of their deceased father's 100th birthday. What transpires is an overwhelmingly tasty, exotic and even, at one point, scary French meal (the sisters suspect Babette might be a witch in one scene). As a result of her luscious meal, filled with French delicacies that'll make even food philistines wish to sample the country's cuisine, all kinds of emotions are revealed, prejudices are broken and the family is bonded.
Prison Food: Goodfellas (1990)
From stirring the Sunday sauce just right (no matter if helicopters and cops are on your tail), to dinner with Joe Pesci's ma (actually Scorsese's), to shoving the mailman's head in a pizza oven, to Ray Liotta's telling diner meeting with Robert DeNiro, there's no shortage of delicious and murderous food sequences in Martin Scorsese's perfect Goodfellas. But the primo moment has to be when the bosses go to a prison so cushy, not even Martha Stewart could have conceived it. As Ray Liotta genially narrates, we watch the delivery of a ridiculously plentiful assortment of food -- delicious, hearty Italian food -- to the delight of the drooling but discerning jailbirds. The topper is when Paul Sorvino slices strips of garlic with a razor blade to such thin, such translucent perfection that when you see it gently combine with the olive oil and sizzle in the pan, you can practically smell the delectability. Makes you want to go to jail for one second...as a gangster. And, to enter the club in the most romantic way possible, through the kitchen.
Revenge is A Dish Best Served ... : The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover (1989)
Working like the anti-Babette's Feast, Peter Greenaway's brilliant though at times deeply repulsive film will make many never want to eat French food ever again. The story concerns the deviant (and, symbolically, political) happenings at a fine French restaurant in which the gastronomically gifted chef, Richard (Richard Bohringer), crafts elaborately artistic meals while the restaurant's boorish owner (Michael Gambon) holds obnoxious court with his abused wife (Helen Mirren). When the wife takes a lover, things, as they say, heat up, but not in any way you have or ever will imagine. Gorgeously shot and costumed and filled with succulent and sickening examples of cuisine, the film's (spoiler alert!) special of the day involves the murdered corpse of the wife's lover served up for her husband to eat. There's many lessons to be learned from this picture, but here's a simple one -- don't mistreat the cook, the waitstaff and a woman who is deservedly cheating on you. Also, didn't you see Fight Club? You know what people can do to your soup.
It's People!: Ravenous (1999)
This one's tough. There's some great cannibal contenders in this category, chief among them, the classic The Silence of the Lambs, the hilarious Eating Raoul, the weirdly touching and environmentally-friendly Motel Hell, the remarkably disturbing Parents and, of course, Soylent Green, which always sounded kind of good to me. But I'm partial to that brilliant, underrated war/vampire/horror picture Ravenous, directed by Antonia Bird with flesh eating flair. The title itself is wonderfully evocative, even while being blatant, and the movie, about a Mexican-American war captain (played by Guy Pearce) who's sent to an outpost in which the inhabitants are cannibals (led by a terrifically devious and sexy Robert Carlyle), is clever, scary, gory and deeply layered. It may be people, but it's good eating. And oddly arousing. Makes me want to try a bite of that stuff.
Top Ramen: Tampopo (1987)
Juzo Itami's Tampopo truly is a Spaghetti Western. Well, maybe more a noodle Western ... but its humorous blending of the old school Western with the, in this case, dizzyingly creative task of creating a perfect bowl of ramen, is giddy, delirious fun. The story has an aspiring restaurateur receiving aid from a cowboy drifter whose mission becomes noodles. From this fanciful plot, short sub stories evolve with meditative gusto, including a supermarket manager chasing an elderly woman who squeezes too much produce, a gangster's kinky fun with food and sex and an old man who nearly chokes to death on noodles only to be saved by a restaurant patron with a vacuum cleaner. It's a wonderfully inventive essay underlining that our passion for food can invoke innumerable and often bizarre scenarios. And it really, really makes me yearn for some noodles.
Mangiare: Big Night (1996)
Big Night is a filling, high calorie, good for you movie in more ways than one. The story of two Italian brothers, Primo (Stanley Tucci -- who directed the film alongside Campbell Scott) and Secondo (the poignant Tony Shalhoub), attempting to save their wonderful New Jersey restaurant is funny, touching, musical, heartbreaking, sexy and yes, absolutely, almost painfully mouthwatering. The brothers argue over just how to save their establishment in a greedy world that doesn't care for quality and artistry. But, after learning jazz great Louis Prima will be stopping by, they set out to create the ultimate multiple-course Italian meal. The centerpiece dish is Timpano, a layering of meat, pasta and pastry that requires two days of preparation, but all of the picture's food is staggeringly delicious. Though our favorite scene is the film's finale, a quiet moment where the fighting brothers wordlessly forgive one another over the simple act of making eggs and eating bread. Perfecto.
All You Ever Needed to Know About Chicken but Were Afraid to Ask: To Catch A Thief (1955)
For most people who enjoy a good meal (and a good roll in the hay) food and sex are so inexorably linked, we're frequently uncertain what's more tempting. In simple terms -- which would you rather gorge on? The greatest sushi you'll ever eat in your life or the greatest sexual gymnastics you'll ever perform with ... let's just say a young Brigitte Bardot? I'd probably pick the sushi, but what if Bardot was the chef? That's where movies happily come into play. Though there are many classic food and sex films and moments, including the egg incident from In the Realm of the Senses, the fridge raiding sequence from 9 ½ Weeks and the "I can't believe it is butter!" milestone of Last Tango in Paris, our favorite has to be Alfred Hitchcock's To Catch a Thief. Eating their chicken lunch picnic, Cary Grant and Grace Kelly are at their most sensual and human when the question of which piece of chicken arises. When he asks, "You want leg or breast?" and she answers "You make the choice." Unless chicken means something else to you (and I'm not going further with that), only Cary Grant and Grace Kelly can make fowl so erotic.
Service With a Cackle: What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
Bette Davis could be the queen bitch of all queen bitches. As the aging child star Baby Jane Hudson caring for her ex movie star, wheelchair bound sister (played with aching martyrdom by Joan Crawford), she’s the picture of creepy cruel -- spackled white makeup, overdrawn mouth, baby doll ringlets, ratty old robes and little girl clothes (Davis insisted on looking this way -- even director Robert Aldrich was concerned about how scary she appeared). But this isn't about how Bette dresses, this is about how Bette serves a lunch. With gusto and flair! Everyone should prepare this kind of a meal at least once. Right?
Just As Good:
Mae Clark's grapefruit surprise in Public Enemy.
Catherine Deneuve's rabbit insanity in Repulsion.
Charlie Chaplin eating his shoe in The Gold Rush.
The maple syrup moment in To Kill A Mockingbird.
Mickey Rourke’s popcorn surprise in Diner.
Sex and food and sex and food and sex... Tom Jones.
That steak I mentioned, served up by Glenn Ford's perfect wife in The Big Heat.
The great rare steak stand-off in Mommie Dearest.
Marilyn Burns's meal with Grandpa in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Woody Allen and Diane Keaton attempting to cook lobster in Annie Hall.
Chianti, Fava Beans and liver from The Silence of the Lambs.
The drugged, demonic chocolate "mouse" served to Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby.
Cool Hand Luke’s Paul Newman eating fifty eggs in one hour.