Food fetish of Hollywood
Cinema's relationship with food and drink has always been a complicated affair. Sometimes it's abusive, as Mae Clark, with her face full of grapefruit, learned from James Cagney in "The Public Enemy." Sometimes it's unrequited, as Tony Shalhoub learned from ungrateful customers in "Big Night." Now and then it amounts to a glorious epiphany, as in "Sideways," when Paul Giamatti rhapsodized to Virginia Madsen about the delicate, even haunting properties of pinot noir.
A little bit of food can go a long way in the movies: Think of Sue Lyons' lollipop in "Lolita," the chicken salad sandwich in "Five Easy Pieces" or Diane Keaton's pastrami on white with mayo in "Annie Hall."
And occasionally food threatens to steal the show, as in "Babette's Feast" and "Like Water for Chocolate."
The eating and drinking in these films are as much a reflection of character as the clothes the actors wear or the manner in which they speak. Such culinary verisimilitude has usually delighted critics but has not always translated into popularity among filmgoers: The roughly $71 million in domestic ticket sales for Alexander Payne's "Sideways" (2004), which matched that of the Lasse Hallstrom film "Chocolat," represents the high-water mark for movies that dwell on food and fine wine.
In the coming year, however, a wave of ambitious studio films will try to capitalize on Americans' growing appreciation for all things epicurean. On Nov. 10, 20th Century Fox is scheduled to release "A Good Year," in which a London investment banker, played by Russell Crowe, inherits a vineyard in Provence. And Warner Brothers just finished filming a remake of the German film "Mostly Martha" in New York, starring Catherine Zeta-Jones as a controlling chef and Aaron Eckhart as her culinary
opposite, an earthy Italian-American named Nick.
Also on the horizon is "The Food of Love," based on the novel by Anthony Capella, which reimagines the Cyrano de Bergerac story as a contemporary romance set in Rome with gastronomy as the poetry of seduction. The project, scheduled to shoot in September, will combine two of director Peter Chelsom's greatest passions: romance and Italian food.
What's more, Nora Ephron, a food enthusiast who helped make the joy of cooking and eating so palpable in "Heartburn," which she adapted from her own book, will write and direct Columbia Pictures' planned adaptation of the Julie Powell book "Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen," inspired by Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking."
And for every reverie on the restorative qualities of food and drink, there is a dysfunctional cousin: Fox Searchlight's fall release "Fast Food Nation" is writer-director Richard Linklater's dramatized version of Eric Schlosser's nonfiction book about the truth and consequences of the fast-food industry, while producer Craig Perry ("American Pie") is looking at a fall start date for "All You Can Eat," set in the bizarre world of competitive eating, for New Line Cinema.
With more and more twentysomethings trading in beer mugs for stemware, farmers markets bursting at the seams and Wal-Marts stocking organic produce, America clearly is in the midst of a feeding frenzy, particularly among the growing legions of foodies and gourmands. The Food Network holds 65 million monthly viewers in its thrall, and sales of "gourmet" foods and beverages are expected to top $53 billion next year.
To some extent, these developments may reflect a search for refuge.
"Food is that thing that people retreat to for comfort and safety," said Lisa Shotland, an agent in the Creative Artists Agency's lifestyle group, "and in these uncertain times that just becomes more and more the norm."
Or it may be that the chef has become "the new rock star," as Denise Di Novi, the producer of "The Food of Love," maintains.
"The qualities that make a man sexy have expanded beyond traditional male roles," she said. "Great chefs embody the things that make all great artists appealing, in that they're creative, committed and passionate."
Whatever the source of the impulse, American studios are clearly out to challenge the notion that great food films have to be imported, though it usually worked that way in the past.
"Tampopo," Juzo Itami's inspired 1985 meditation on sex and the quest for the perfect bowl of ramen, ushered in a kind of foodie film renaissance that continued with "Babette's Feast" (1987) and "Like Water for Chocolate" (1992). The genre appeared to peak in 1994 with Ang Lee's "Eat Drink Man Woman," with its exhilarating display of kitchen savvy by a semiretired Taipei chef played by Sihung Lung, who prepares sumptuous Sunday dinners for his three daughters.
The movie appealed to the aspiring chef in all those who appreciate the textured effect of a precise julienne cut, revel in the magical qualities of fresh herbs and seasonal produce, or think nothing of spending the better part of the day fashioning a stock from scratch.
"Big Night," released in 1996, offered a rare American-made challenge to the culinary heights of "Eat Drink," with its story of the Italian chef Primo, played by Shalhoub, who views his cooking as high art that cannot be compromised for the red-sauce crowd. "If I sacrifice my work, it dies," Primo tells his beleaguered brother and partner, Secondo, played by Stanley Tucci. The quiet denouement, in which a breakfast of scrambled eggs acts as a sort of olive branch for battling brothers whose business has failed, is often cited as one of foodie cinema's most profound moments.
In "The Food of Love," as in "Big Night" and the original "Mostly Martha" (2001), cooking is portrayed as the most intimate thing that can be shared between two people. In the script for the as yet untitled "Mostly Martha" remake, the star chef's decision finally to reveal the secret of her saffron sauce to her fellow cook Nick is seen as a sign that she's dropping her guard and opening her heart.
That same intimacy was at the heart of "Sideways," a paean to California food and wine that wound up affecting an industry. Fox Searchlight, the film's distributor, and the Santa Barbara Conference and Visitors Bureau and Film Commission coordinated their efforts to produce "Sideways: The Map" and "The Sideways Guide to Wine and Life," which generated a 30 percent bump in tourism in the Santa Barbara County wine country.
But audiences and critics that same year rejected "Spanglish," in which Adam Sandler played the chef and owner of a Beverly Hills restaurant modeled on the French Laundry in Napa, whose master chef, Thomas Keller, consulted on the film.
"A completely ludicrous movie with good food styling," said the chef and author Anthony Bourdain. "The food looked good, but I didn't believe for a second that Adam Sandler made it or ever worked in a kitchen."
Bourdain - who watched his memoir, "Kitchen Confidential," morph from what he calls a "dark, absolutely uncompromising" big-screen vehicle for the director David Fincher and Brad Pitt into a short-lived sitcom on Fox - sees chefs as romantic renegades, an intriguing blend of bravado and sensitivity, who exist "a little apart from normal society."
If the sudden confluence of food-oriented movies begins to sound like a glut, that shouldn't be too surprising, given the subject matter.
"The gorging of food is very American," Perry, the producer of "All You Can Eat," said in reference to his own film. "What we've done is tap into that weird relationship we all have with food and yet make it both funny and heartfelt."
And when it comes to food as entertainment, the saturation point is likely still in the future, said Shotland of Creative Artists: "Every time I think it can't get hotter, it gets hotter."