When we think about Thanksgiving, some of us think about the value of family. Others think about American history, favorably or otherwise. But one thing almost everyone thinks of is dinner. Not just dinner, but the ritual of dinner. Sitting down for a meal with a group of friends, family or co-workers is a strange mishmash of practicality (everybody has to eat sometime) and façade (because there’s a cultural sense of propriety and civility at work). Films have had a long, proud history of dramatizing these little get-togethers. Put a bunch of compelling characters with grievances against each other in the same room and force them to act nice to each other: as fine a recipe for drama as any ever conceived.
In this edition of The Weekly Listicle, Julia Rhodes, Dan Fields and I (William Bibbiani) take a moment to be thankful for our favorite dinner scenes in film history. The funny, the dramatic, the traumatic, and the yummy. Did your favorite dinner scene make the Listicle?
Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom (dir. Steven Spielberg, 1984)
Before Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull came along, Temple of Doom was generally considered the worst movie in the franchise. For some of us it’s our very favorite. It may not be as well rounded as Raiders of the Lost Ark or as family-friendly as The Last Crusade, but this second Indiana Jones epic is the daring one: the crazy, violent, sexually charged romp that pulp entertainment was always supposed to be. This isn’t a movie for the whole family. This is a movie for young men immature enough to want to see people eat bugs and rip a human heart through a ribcage, and yet mature enough to want the film to also be really good.
The film stars Harrison Ford, of course, as Indiana Jones, who along with his two sidekicks Short Round (young Ke Hui Quan of Goonies fame, standing in for the target audience) and nightclub singer “Willie” Scott (Kate Capshaw, standing in for anyone who’d think this movie is immature or icky) finds himself seeking the mysterious Sankara stones in India. Not only have the mystical stones been stolen by the evil Thuggee cult (whom you may remember from the classic adventure film Gunga Din), but also the children of the town that used to guard them. So Jones & Co. travel to the great Pankot Palace where they have dinner with Indian royalty and British generals and discuss the history of the region and the Thuggee.
In other words: a really boring dinner scene, filled with only somewhat-necessary exposition. Indiana Jones needs to know al this stuff, but all most audiences need are an assurances that the film actually does make a little bit of sense. In order to distract from what would otherwise be an interminably didactic conversation, Spielberg & Co. resort to a clumsy, albeit memorable and certainly hilarious series of jokes about how disgusting the food is. A giant cooked snake appears on the table: “Snake Surprise.” The surprise? It’s full of dozens of smaller, living snakes! Short Round and Willie play it safe and order the soup, only to find eyeballs in it. But it’s okay, desert’s coming: Chilled monkey brains, served in their original skulls.
Ew. Awesome, but ew. Hilarious, but ew. Then again, if all you can see is the ew, then this movie isn’t for you. Not the most prestigious dinner scene ever devised, but easily one of the most memorable.
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (dir. Nicholas Meyer, 1991)
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country may or may not be the best Star Trek movie to date, but it sure is the classiest. The last film in the franchise to focus exclusively on the original cast also told the end of their story, as an unexpected disaster leads to the collapse of the Klingon empire, with whom the Federation has been at war for as long as anyone can remember. It’s a thinly veiled but very apt metaphor for the end of the Cold War. The Enterprise is selected to be location of the first peace talks, and Admiral Kirk himself (William Shatner) invites the Klingon Chancellor Gorkon (David Warner) over to dinner, even though everyone still hates everyone else’s guts. Oooo… This is gonna be awkward…
The best dinner scenes, in my estimation, are usually about the conflict between superficial propriety and genuine antagonism. In this scene, two groups with a history of bad blood – Kirk himself blames the Klingons for the death of his son – are forced to pretend otherwise. Despite the potentially universe shattering consequences, or perhaps rather because of them, it’s a hilarious scene. Nicholas Meyer gives every awkward beat a moment of glory before moving on to the next triumphant faux pas. Uhura tries to make nice by suggesting that everyone has “inalienable human rights.” Klingons remark that the expression “inalienable human rights” is nothing less than racist. Kirk eventually falls victim to Godwin’s Law and compares General Chang (Christopher Plummer) to Hitler. Unfortunately, the Klingons actually know who that is. And the for some reason the Chancellor Gorkon decides to explain that “You have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon.”
Maybe the Romulan ale was a bad idea. Smart characters, high stakes and perfectly seasoned suspense simmering to a boil? Mmm… That’s good dinner.
The Ref (dir. Ted Demme, 1994)
Ted Demme’s comedy classic The Ref has become a Christmas favorite amongst many (generally more cynical) families. The dark comedy stars “Rescue Me’s” Denis Leary, then best known for his standup comedy, as Gus, a jewel thief who is forced to take hostages on Christmas Eve. The problem is that the hostages, played by the great Kevin Spacey and equally great Judy Davis, are married and hate each other more than they’re afraid of Gus. He hates hearing about her dreams; she dreams about being served a salad with his head on it (and his genitals in his ear). She had an affair. He’s a slave to his mother. And apparently the sex is terrible. They’re the Chasseurs, and they were in hell long before anybody put a gun to their heads.
Over the course of the evening the Chasseur’s family and friends come over for dinner and Gus is forced to pretend that he’s the family marriage counselor. Naturally he’s not much of a marriage counselor, what with all the shouting and violent threats, but he does, over the course of many hateful remarks and tirades, give the Chasseurs exactly what they need: someone to vindicate each of them when they’re right, and force the other to admit when they’re wrong. (Hence the title.) That and a healthy dose of adrenaline-fueled traumatic stress (from being held hostage, don’t forget) gets all of the couple’s grievances out in the open, and circumstance forces them to do it in front of the entire family, who due to social propriety try to pretend that nothing’s wrong. That’s recipe for comic gold.
What sets this particular Christmas dinner apart? The sudden, completely unexpected appearance of Saint Lucia Wreaths, a look which no one – except possibly Saint Lucia – has ever successfully pulled off. Sparkling writing, note perfect performances and surprising hats. That’s a classic dinner scene if ever there was one.
RKO 281 (dir. Benajmin Ross, 1999)
Many people have fantasies in which they travel to outer space or sleep with their celebrity crushes or fight dragons or something. I have fantasies about dinner at Hearst Castle with Clark Gable and Orson Welles. RKO 281 is an HBO Original Movie about William Randolph Hearst’s attempts to squelch the release of Citizen Kane, a thinly-veiled and unflattering biography of the man himself. RKO 281 is merely an excellent film about “The Greatest Movie Ever Made.” It dooms itself to be in Citizen Kane’s perpetual shadow, but uses that masterpiece to concoct a fine behind-the-scenes tale, filled in particular with fascinating Easter Eggs for the film enthusiast in us all.
In the film, Orson Welles (Liev Schreiber) has just recently migrated from Broadway to Hollywood, and now struggles with finding his first film project after an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness falls through. (Fun Fact: He was going to shoot the entire film in first person, a trick later pulled in Robert Montgomery’s 1947 film Lady in the Lake.) Soon he finds himself at one of the famous parties of William Randolph Hearst (James Cromwell), and is in the middle of telling a gloriously theatrical tale of a famed Spanish bullfighter (Welles suggests that Clark Gable, also in attendance, play him in the movie) only to be shot down by Hearst, who detests animal cruelty. Welles, interested only in the majesty of the duel – not, fittingly, the victim thereof – fires back with an icy rejoinder about the animals caged in Hearst’s private zoo. It’s only when Welles’ co-writer Herman Mankiewicz (John Malkovich) warns him about the power Hearst wields – the whisper heard most often is that he personally murdered movie producer Thomas Ince – and after a late night stroll reveals a hidden humanity inside the labyrinth of Hearst Castle, that the young wunderkind gets the idea for the greatest film ever made, about the greatest man that could have been: William Randolph Hearst. That dinner was a tiny moment in their lives and an important moment in film history, and neither participant realized it at the time. Who wouldn’t want to be there?
And who even cares if the story’s true? It’s just too good to be false. Many of the film’s wonderful side notes are apocryphal or even outright fictional, but they’re usually based on actual anecdotes or trivia, making the film feel “right” even when it’s most definitely not. RKO 281 was originally going to be an epic production directed by Ridley Scott and starring Ed Norton, Marlon Brando, Dustin Hoffman and Madonna. Titans all, but I’d rather be at that other dinner table. “Oh, Mr. Welles, I’ve got this really neat idea for a Falstaff movie…”
American Beauty (dir. Sam Mendes, 1999)
Ah, dinnertime. That most revered time of day in which families can set aside their differences, talk politely about their respective activities, praise the food, and go their separate ways (after dividing up cleaning and dishwashing duties, of course).
Pfft. Maybe if you live in Pleasantville (and we all saw how that ended up). The American dinner table in movies is notoriously fraught with barely concealed contempt, underlying drama, and sometimes an elephant in the room so palpable you can nearly see it. Take, for example, Sam Mendes’ breakaway family dramedy, American Beauty. The movie follows Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) during the last few months of his life as he awakens from the suburban stupor into which he’d sunk. The film is about your everyday, good old American perversions: we have here adultery, pedophilia, drugs, child abuse, morbidity, and homophobia (if you want a scarier rendition of some of these topics, check out Tod Solondz’s Happiness instead, but don’t say I didn’t warn you). But you know where these naughty things just aren’t supposed to exist? Yep, the dinner table.
One of the most striking aspects of American Beauty is symmetry in its mise-en-scene. It takes on the alleged perfection of upper class suburbia–surface perfection that hides an ugly underbelly–and portrays it via perfect symmetry. Perfect balance, utter equilibrium, is unsettling. Whether Lester reclines in an office, the Fitts family sits stiffly on their couch watching old Marine movies, or Ricky (Wes Bentley) and Jane (Thora Birch) plod home from school on a tree-lined lane, each and every scene is startlingly symmetrical. When Lester, Carolyn (Annette Bening in another role for which she should’ve won the damn Oscar), and Jane Burnham convene for dinner, they sit perfectly spaced at a long table with a small, tasteful bouquet of roses between them. They listen to Carolyn’s muzak and wield thinly veiled derisive words to puncture the others’ composure. The symmetry is a visual cue that while everything appears balanced, nothing really is.
After Lester quits his job, blackmails his boss, and awakens from the complacent sleepwalking that has been his middle age, he quits taking nonsense from his wife and daughter. When Carolyn skewers him with her weapon of choice, sarcasm, he tries in vain to get her attention. Nothing works – til he launches a plate of asparagus over Jane’s head and into a picture frame. At this point, you can hardly blame him. “Don’t interrupt me, honey,” he says. It’s the beginning of the end of the Burnhams, and the scene, which mirrors a previous, more sedate dinner, is striking and honest.
Home for the Holidays (dir. Jodie Foster, 1995)
There’s a whole subsection of Best Buy dedicated to Christmas movies, but none directly related to the horror that is visiting the fam for Thanksgiving. The mid-late 90s brought us some good, funny, family melodrama, and although Home for the Holidays isn’t an all-time best, it’s an entertaining and poignant look at family dynamics and the way holidays have taken on needless reverence for many. First-time director Foster brought in a whole crew of good actors for Home for the Holidays, including Holly Hunter, Robert Downey, Jr. (drugged-out pre-resurgence style), Anne Bancroft, Charles Durning, and Claire Danes.
Poor Claudia Larson (Hunter), a Chicago art restorer, has a miserable head cold, accidentally makes out with her soon-to-be-ex-boss, and then has to board a plane to visit her dysfunctional family for Thanksgiving, leaving behind sixteen-year-old daughter Kitt (Danes), who plans to lose her virginity over a weekend at her boyfriend’s. Claudia’s younger brother Tommy (Downey, Jr.) comes to the rescue when Claudia leaves a distraught message for him. Most of the family learned to deal with the fact that Tommy’s gay, but middle sister Joanne (Cynthia Stevenson) can’t hide her shame. Take eccentric parents Adele and Henry (Bancroft and Durning), swirl in neurotic Claudia, mix with effervescent Tommy, sprinkle with crazy Aunt Glady (Geraldine Chapman), who carries a torch for Henry–and then add in Joanne’s straitlaced family and obnoxious children, and you have a recipe for complete disaster. And man, is it fun to watch.
Foster seems to have encouraged improv among her cast for the Thanksgiving dinner scene, and it’s brilliant to behold. As Guttenberg babbles to himself about how cash is king, Glady stares dully at the table, Claudia sticks out her tongue at Tommy’s guest Leo Fish (Dylan McDermott), and Tommy wrestles with the turkey while Joanne presides over the dissemination of various families’ foods. Anyone who’s ever carved a turkey knows how tough that ish can be–and when Tommy accidentally sends the turkey flying into Joanne’s lap, all hell breaks loose. It’s one of my favorite scenes of holiday chaos, and the movie ends on a satisfying note. Nothing is ever going to be all right between all members of a family, but that’s a fact we all have to deal with sometimes. It’s refreshing.
The Lost Boys (dir. Joel Schumacher, 1987)
I have an unabashed love for The Lost Boys. The movie poster has a permanent place on my wall. I’ve been known to adoringly play the special edition DVD’s “Vampires of the World” feature for friends who inevitably think I’m a little crazy. I’ve engaged in discussions wondering whether Corey Haim’s Sam was in fact gay. (What say you? He did have a picture of half-naked Rob Lowe on his wall. The most common argument to this fact is, “Yeah, but it was the 80s.”) I visited Santa Cruz and strode around the boardwalk in awe when I was fifteen. I can’t help my love for the movie: it’s cheesy, 80s horror-comedy goodness.
There are actually a few worthy dinnertime scenes in The Lost Boys. Originally I thought of the scene in which the vampire clan, led by Jack Bauer and Bill S. Preston Esq., induct newcomer Michael (Jason Patric) by serving him Chinese food and then making him imagine it’s worms and maggots. What more appetizing introduction to the cool kids’ club?
Then it occurred to me there’s an even better dinner scene in the movie: Sam (Haim) and the Frog Brothers–vampire hunters extraordinaire (Corey Feldman and Jamison Newlander) become convinced Mom’s (Dianne Wiest) new boyfriend Max (Edward Herrmann) is the head vampire, and they hatch a devious plan to uncover Max’s true identity at dinner. They’ll accidentally feed him garlic (!), splash him with holy water (!), and surprise him with a mirror (!). What good any of this is going to do is beyond me…but it’s hilarious. And since the movie’s been out for 23 years, I don’t feel bad about telling you they’re not wrong: Max is the head vampire, but he’s too powerful to be hindered by any of the paltry weapons the boys use against him.
On top of hilarity, the scene offers a look into American family dynamics. We aren’t sure what happened between Lucy and the boys’ father, but we know she’s recovering from a bad divorce. We know Sam and Michael are threatened by the addition of a new family member–but that Sam is more threatened by his (correct) perception that he’s surrounded by vamps. Misunderstandings all around. It’s farfetched but a funny way to deal with the awkwardness of family dynamics. Also dig the Coreys, united for the first time but not the last by far.
Scent Of A Woman (dir. Martin Brest, 1992)
Al Pacino won an Oscar for his role in this movie – Colonel Frank Slade, blind, bitter, and alcoholic. Frank and his weekend companion, a troubled student named Charlie (Chris O’Donnell), spend the Thanksgiving holiday on an Epicurean tour of New York, which Frank intends to be his last. He does, however, take time out from his highbrow boozing and tomcatting to attend Thanksgiving dinner at his estranged brother’s home. Naturally, Frank and Charlie are unexpected and unwelcome guests. It seems likely that deep down, Frank is trying to reach out to his family, but ostensibly he has only come to rattle cages and stir up trouble for his own amusement.
This film ultimately makes some profound points about integrity and love, but this sequence occurs somewhere in the middle, when Frank is still headed downhill. The dinner is an uncomfortable mess, as Frank’s conversation gets increasingly crass and sarcastic. Eventually, he targets a particular nephew, whose unmasked disdain ruffles Frank’s feathers.
The two engage in merciless verbal sparring, baiting and humiliating one another until it comes, more or less, to blows. We understand that Frank may be burning the very last of his bridges in life at this table, and it is a very sad moment. Nonetheless, the bleak wit driving the exchange is quite entertaining. It would be a fun argument to watch if it were not taking place at the Thanksgiving table.
Charlie attempts to intervene, but everyone knows it is a cardinal sin for strangers to try imposing reason on a family dispute. You cannot help feeling bad for this kid, as the man he is just beginning to admire suddenly reveals a very ugly side. To imagine a lifetime of holiday dinners with Frank is to understand why nearly everyone he knows has turned him a cold shoulder. The dinner table can be a love feast or a battlefield. Ultimately it is up to the collective manners of those invited (or uninvited, as the case may be).
Monty Python’s The Meaning Of Life (dir. Terry Jones, 1983)
This is far, by a long measure, from being one of my favorite movies. Say what you will, Monty Python worked best on television, with the exception of the Holy Grail. Nonetheless, this one is good for a few laughs now and then. Most people just skip around to their favorite scenes, so it does not take long to watch. There are numerous inspired sketches in The Meaning Of Life, and the one about death – near the end of course – is one of them.
The Grim Reaper (a very irritable John Cleese) pays a visit to a house in the English countryside, where some local folk are having a dinner party. Trouble is, he can scarcely convince them of his identity, or the import of his visit. As a reaper, he is taken for some local gardener, and as for being grim… “not surprising, in this weather!” his hostess jokes to her other guests.
All the Python actors make really funny ladies, some more disturbing than others. I think Michael Palin was always the weirdest in drag. The diners welcome their visitor uncertainly, are far too engrossed in polite conversation to acknowledge that the hour of their doom has arrived. Death can hardly get a word in edgewise until he quite reasonably loses his temper. He wags his skeletal finger in the faces of his hosts – especially loudmouth Terry Gilliam – insisting they are dead and must come with him.
When questioned as to their cause of death, the Reaper gravely indicates the lethal item – salmon mousse made with bad canned fish – of which they all partook. The social blunder of not using fresh salmon is treated much more severely than the fact that everyone’s been fatally poisoned. Love that understated British temperament! In the end there’s nothing for it. The guests are forced to leave their bodies, hop into their cars (which also leave their bodies) and follow Death into the great beyond. A frightfully disappointing dinner all around.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (dir. Tobe Hooper, 1974)
This selection is not merely a prank on the Thanksgiving season. It is one of the most infamous and memorable family dining scenes in all the long history of movies. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre turned horror moviemaking on its head, but of its many offspring and imitators, no film ever captured quite the same experience of horrifying insanity at the table.
**Beware – Plot Details**
Though not exactly the end, this sequence is definitely the climax of the film. Sally (Marilyn Burns) has spent the entire day losing her friends, then finding them again in the hands of a deranged family of unemployed slaughterhouse workers. Need I mention that they’re cannibals? She has seen furniture made of human bones and barbecue made of people. She has been chased with a chainsaw once already, and she’s not done with that either.
You’d think a poor girl’s mind could take only so much, and you’d be right. When the family finally captures her and subjects her to “dinner” at their house, we all watch as Sally’s last few nerves begin to fray loose. In what was surely a hellish few days of shooting, director Tobe Hooper masterfully simulated what it must feel like to go crazy.
Edwin Neal, Jim Siedow, and Gunnar Hansen star as the three brothers of the household – a reckless psychotic who robs graves and likes hitching rides with unsuspecting motorists, a bipolar “barbecue” cook who holds down a day job but not a working conscience, and the eerily childlike chainsaw butcher Leatherface. If you don’t know why they call him that, I bet you can guess.
Also in attendance is the family patriarch, “played” by John Dugan. There’s not much life left in Grandpa, but the moment you realize he’s not dead is one of the most unsettling in the movie. Imagine waking up from the worst nightmare you ever had, only to realize it wasn’t a dream and it’s gotten a whole lot worse. A living corpse is smirking at you. You scream, and your hosts gleefully shriek and howl right back at you. The guy you ran to for help is the one who will probably cook you and sell you as a roadside sandwich to people just like you. Meanwhile, they quarrel violently among themselves over domestic matters (like who sawed the front door in half) as you desperately try to appeal to a sense of reason that none of them possesses. It is as absurd as it is terrifying.
Yes, it’s a very grim horror story. In deference to sensitive readers, I leave you to seek it out for yourself. There is more to it than you may think. At its core, it provokes thoughts about the power that “dinner time” can have over a group of people. Dinner’s proper function is to provide a relaxed forum for communion, conversation, affection, and the enjoyment of food. A meal, at its best, is one of the greatest things a family or group of friends can share. Conversely, it can be a painful, even nightmarish experience. A family can stare tragedy, inhumanity, cruelty and just plain hatefulness right in the face and go on eating, because there are certain ways one acts at the dinner table. If you’ve ever sat through a meal where two or more members of the party have just had a violent argument, you know what I mean. This movie externalizes all the horrible feelings we have in situations like that. Whether tied down physically or just psychologically, we may find ourselves screaming and struggling for air and freedom all through the awkward silence of a bad dinner.
On that note, consider airing your grievances well before the Thanksgiving meal this year. Recall at least one nice thing about each person sharing your table. Even your drunken cousin So-And-So, or your weird aunt Who’s-Her-Face. And if you must eat people, don’t frighten or chase them first. It makes them tough. Have a wonderful holiday.