It’s not only the actors that get the spotlight in films during Oscar season.
In a movie, food is never only food. That’s why screenwriters have been using the dinner table — and what appears on it — to underscore some of the most sensitive moments in film since the silent days, when a starving Charlie Chaplin put his boot in a pot, boiled it and ate it in the 1925 classic “Gold Rush.”
This year was no different. In honor of the 86th Academy Awards, let us note the Best Food Scenes of 2013.
And the nominees are: “August: Osage County,” “Nebraska,” “American Hustle,” “Philomena” and “Labor Day.”
Most Inappropriate Funeral Dinner Conversation: “August: Osage County.”
The scene opens in the farmhouse dining room of Beverly and Violet Weston. We know that the once lovely Violet (Meryl Streep) must eat — especially when her beautifully appointed, bountiful table is covered with delectable dishes and the enticing aroma of sweet, freshly baked pies wafts out of her kitchen and into every dark, overstuffed inch of her house. But we never see her put fork to mouth.
Instead, she presides over her husband’s funeral dinner with those who have traveled long distances to support her, though she adamantly refuses to partake. The newly widowed mother of three grown daughters is otherwise busy smoking cigarettes, popping pills, viciously attacking everyone at the table. She asks her daughter’s fiancé how many times he’s been married; she tells another daughter she can’t compete with a husband’s girlfriend; she warns the third to stay away from her intended, who may be her cousin, or worse.
As Violet’s family members try to comfort themselves with food, we realize it’s not the matriarch’s difficult childhood or her perscription-induced psychosis, or even the death of her husband that’s at issue. Her animosity may be due to her hunger. But maybe she’s hungry because she likes it that way.
Most Endearing Criteria for What to Eat: “Philomena”
Leave it to Judi Dench to make a horrific subject palatable. The underlying story of nuns taking in unwed mothers, selling their babies and then lying to them about their whereabouts is about as grim as it gets. But the film is ultimately optimistic — not about vengeance, but forgiveness. And what elevates the tone is the unwavering good humor and dignity of Philomena (Dench), a woman of simple tastes.
When she first meets journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) to discuss his writing a book about her, it’s in a working-class diner. Knowing that Martin is a cultured gent with fine tastes, Philomena’s daughter apologizes, explaining that this is her mother’s favorite place. But when Philomena and Martin set out on their journey, they enjoy business class and fine hotels. Philomena is delightfully awestruck and exhibits a penchant for giving anything a try, as long as it’s free.
It begins on the airplane, when at first she says “No, thank you” to the offer of a cocktail. When Martin explains that the drink is included in the cost of their plane tickets, she quickly changes her order to “Yes, please.” She raids the minibar in the room and thinks she’s found Mecca when she encounters the hotel buffet filled with every size, shape and manner of cholesterol. Oh, if only she could manage fourths.
YOU CAN TELL A Man’s Character by How He Crimps a Crust: “Labor Day”
There are plot-driven films and character-driven films. This is a peach-pie driven film.
The visual of three pairs of hands in the same bowl mixing a juicy pie filling together could be a poster for “The Family That Bakes Together Puts Down Stakes Together.” Of course, here we have an escaped criminal who is holding a mother and son hostage. He’s teaching them how to make pie because they have an abundance of peaches that are about to rot.
If you watch closely, you’ll learn enough about pie-making and kitchen wisdom to carry you through your whole culinary life.
The kindly convict, Frank (Josh Brolin), encourages his lovely hostage Adele (Kate Winslet) to use her instinct rather than worry about the details in a recipe. He suggests she find something already in the kitchen rather than overpay for a fancy new gadget. He makes sure there is always something simmering on the stove.
If you believe the adage that you can tell a person’s personality by watching behavior in the kitchen, then you realize there is another side to this story.
Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche; They Eat Italian and Then Bond: “American Hustle”