Thanksgiving is upon us once again, and you know what that means: Dinner, and awkward interaction with little-seen family members. And then dessert. Because let’s face it — without food we might as well just call each other and have awkward silences over the phone.
And the cinema is no different. So, in honor of the Thanksgiving holiday, I thought I’d revisit some films where the dinner table is practically its own separate character, because somehow these movies wouldn’t be the same if the characters went bowling or water skiing instead of sitting down to break bread (although in a few cases those are options I would like to have seen).
Notorious (1946): There are so many little rules you should follow if you want to throw a truly special dinner party. For instance, you may want to consider cloth napkins folded like a swan. Also, if your wife is a spy, make sure the man she really loves doesn’t come to rescue her from certain poisoning when you’re having all your high-ranking Nazi friends over. That’s a big no-no.
That scenario plays out in one of several extremely suspenseful dinner-party scenes and gatherings in Notorious, each of them featuring a stunning Ingrid Bergman at her most painfully pathetic. As party girl (and daughter of a convicted Nazi sympathizer) Alicia Huberman, she essentially prostitutes herself in the name of democracy — but also in the name of true-love G-man T.R. Devlin, played by Cary Grant. Devlin is pained by her willingness to sleep with the enemy, but not so pained as to keep him from engaging in a kissing scene that’s so long I think it may still be going on in some time zones.
Notorious is one of Hitchcock’s greatest, both technically (his one-take tracking shot from the top of a staircase to a key Bergman’s grasping in her hand is still breathtaking) and emotionally. The master shifts your allegiances, well, masterfully, from Bergman to Grant and even to Sebastian, Claude Rains’s duped Nazi. (Not to his mother, though — she’s just evil.)
P.S.: Not to be confused with Notorious (2009), the biopic about Notorious B.I.G. Boy, did I find that out the hard way.
Annie Hall (1977): Of all the funny-squirmy scenes in Meet the Parents (2000), the funny-squirmiest may be the one where Ben Stiller’s Greg Focker first sits down to eat with his fiance’s family and somehow winds up telling them of a youth spent milking cats. It’s a scene that probably couldn’t exist without Alvy Singer’s Easter visit to the Hall family’s house in Annie Hall.
The scene is actually tamer than you might remember — watching it again, its beauty is actually in the subtlety of Allen’s portrayal of Annie’s WASP family, eventually contrasted in split-screen with a much louder gathering of Alvy’s Jewish family back in N.Y. (“We don’t understand it either,” his father admits when Annie’s mother gets puzzled over the concept of fasting on Yom Kippur.)
The scene’s big laugh, of course, comes when Annie’s “Gram” (“a classic Jew-hater”) looks begrudgingly at Alvy and sees a full-fledged Hasidic rabbi. Watch the whole clip, too, for a young Christopher Walken’s scene-stealing turn as Annie’s deranged brother, who sets up one of the greatest Allen reaction shots ever.
Unfortunately, Annie Hall hasn’t aged particularly well. I think by influencing almost every romantic comedy that came after it, it now seems less groundbreaking than it should. Taken in context, though, it’s brilliant — Allen’s first real work of mature genius. It’s his Blood on the Tracks (but, you know, funny).
The Empire Strikes Back (1980): What sci-fi epic? Sure, a lot of people point to this sequel as the best episode in George Lucas’s famous space opera of diminishing returns, but if you think about it, The Empire Strikes Back as directed by Irvin Kershner is really a comedy of manners — table manners, to be specific.
I’m referring primarily to that droll scene in which Lando Calrissian escorts Han, Leia, and Chewie into what must be the Cloud City executive dining room, where they find Darth Vader waiting for them at the head of the table. Han, no slave to social etiquette, shoots at the enemy with his laser blaster, but Vader absorbs the blasts into his glove, raising the question “Why don’t they make the stormtroopers’ uniforms out of whatever that glove is made of?”
Anyway, in the closest thing to a clever remark uttered by Vader in all six Star Wars movies, he declares, “We would be honored if you would join us.” Then Boba Fett does what he always does — namely, walk out from behind a wall and stand around holding his gun like he’s about to breast-feed it. (For this the guy’s got one of the top five action figures?)
The other lousy dinner guest in Empire is Luke Skywalker, who disses Yoda’s food and apartment and comes within inches of throttling the poor puppet before realizing that, oops, he’s a Jedi master! It’s practically right out of a Dorothy Parker one-act.
My Favorite Year (1982): Over the years Lainie Kazan has morphed into something of a parody of the ethnic mother — she’s big! she’s loud! she says things no actual human mother would say in front of other people! etc. — but that’s only because there was a time when nobody did it better. Case in point: My Favorite Year.
When Mark Linn-Baker’s nebbishy TV comedy writer Benjy Stone brings his show’s famous guest, Alan Swann (Peter O’Toole), to his mother’s Brooklyn home for dinner, he’s convinced things won’t go well. (Coworker: “What are you ashamed of?” Benjy: “Everything!”) But mom and uncouth Uncle Marty manage to charm the movie star in their own way, even as Kazan’s Belle calls him “Swanny.” (“Ma, he’s an actor, not a river.”)
Kazan, at 39 only 14 years old than Linn-Baker, steals the scene out from under O’Toole, and turns in one of a bevy of brilliantly funny performances in My Favorite Year. The film was actor Richard Benjamin’s directorial debut, and it bode well for his future projects. Then My Stepmother Is an Alien (1988) came out, and that was that. Still, he’ll always have a special place in my heart for trying to use a Star of David on Dracula (George Hamilton) in Love at First Bite.
P.S.: The dinner scene isn’t on YouTube, so you’re going to have to buy the movie.
For Your Consideration (2006): This is probably the least gut-busting of the Christopher Guest ensemble comedies, possibly because he jettisoned the faux-documentary interview segments, or maybe because the film was just too “inside baseball.” (I have a feeling it must be a favorite for anyone who’s ever held any kind of job in Hollywood, from Tom Cruise on down to parking attendants.)
But this story of a group of second-rate actors (fronted by the brilliant Catherine O’Hara as the sublimely named Marilyn Hack) getting unexpected Oscar buzz for their southern Jewish melodrama “Home for Purim” has plenty to recommend it, and not just Fred Willard and Jane Lynch’s giddy evisceration of Entertainment Tonight, although it’s worth seeing just for that.
No, my favorite part actually has to be the dinner scene at the heart of the movie-within-the-movie, in what would easily be the funniest Purim gathering ever recorded on film even if it wasn’t the only one. (If there’s another one I’m not aware of, zay moykhl, as my Bubbe used to say.) For Your Consideration may not be the best Guest, but watching this same group of actors sit around improvising about the weather would still be better than 90 percent of Hollywood’s current releases.
Or 90 percent of Thanksgiving dinner conversations. Here’s hoping you’re in the other 10.