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”
Two men walk into a restaurant in New Jersey: charismatic mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), who loves his life and all the Italian food in it, and con artist Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), whose round shape signals a man who enjoys his meals. Irving wants Carmine to fall for his con. And Carmine needs to trust Irving so he can get the money Irving has promised.
Carmine looks for a connection between the two of them. He discovers they’re both from the Bronx and they both know Tommaso’s spicy clams at Pasquale’s Rigoletto.
At the restaurant, Irving watches Carmine schmooze with chef Rocco about his chicken picatta. “You know like we do,” Carmine enthuses. “The chicken very thin, the red sauce, the lemon.” A few gulps of red wine and Irving knows he’s is in, especially after Carmine makes him a gift of a “science oven,” also known as a microwave, to heat his pasta, lasagna and meatballs, warning, “Don’t use it with metal.”
Later, Irving’s wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), who doesn’t pay attention to what her husband says about their new kitchen appliance, places a metal pan covered with tin foil into the microwave. It blows up, then bursts into flames. Instead of being penitent, she challenges her husband, “You bring something into this house that’s gonna take all the nutrition out of our food and then light our house on fire? Thank God for me!”
How Greed Makes Monsters Out of Family: “Nebraska”
Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) wants to get to Nebraska, from his home in Montana, to pick up the million dollars he’s been promised by the oldest con in the world — the sweepstakes scam. His devoted son, David (Will Forte), offers this excuse, “My dad just needs something to live for.” Even though Woody’s conversation revolves around “don’t know, don’t care and doesn’t matter,” David agrees to drive his father to seek his fortune.
After two days in the car, they pull up to the house of Woody’s brother, Ray, in Nebraska. Ray’s wife, Martha, chirps, “You must be starving. I made sandwiches.” She hands each of them a bologna on white, served on a paper towel. As David politely chews, his cousins belittle his driving ability while Ray watches Woody eat.
Later, when they learn that Woody is almost a millionaire, mealtime gets serious as Martha presents them with a Thanksgiving-in-July feast that includes a Jell-O mold. There are compliments and fake smiles. “Ma and Pa would be real proud, Woody. We’re just tickled for you,” say the cousins. That quickly turns into, “Remember that money I loaned you? Maybe now’s a good time to pay it back.”
Of course, when they find out Woody has fallen prey to a scam, all heck breaks loose, in the humiliation department.
In the end, the relatives come up empty and our hero gets his just deserts. On the way home, Woody cracks his first smile in the film.
Beverly Levitt is a Los Angeles screenwriter and food writer.