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By Marcel Meyer

OCTOBER 26, 1998: 

My Breakfast With Blassie

D. Linda Lautrec/Johnny Legend (1983)
with Andy Kaufman, Freddie Blassie


The Ploughman's Lunch

D. Richard Eyre (1983)
with Jonathan Pryce, Charlie Dore, Tim Curry, Rosemary Harris, Frank Finlay


Dinner at Eight

D. George Cukor (1933)
with Marie Dressler, John and Lionel Barrymore, Jean Harlow, Billie Burke


The marriage between food and flicks has been a fruitful relationship for those keen folks over at the Alamo Drafthouse Theatre. In fact, it's been so fruitful, on sold out nights, I find myself having to improvise. And while the following food-themed movies don't appear on the AFI's top 100 list, they may stave off your hunger pains until the next screening of Metropolis ...

Andy Kaufman was a decidedly strange egg. In the same breath, he might elicit laughter, disgust, and confusion. His humor was a cup of black coffee dripping with the darkest of demons -- no cream, hold the sugar. This bulb-eyed, pasty, white-faced kid from Great Neck, New York fired hardballs at every pitch. And he burned a lot of tongues and bridges along the way. Of course that was part of Kaufman's allure, the way that neighborhood kids simultaneously despise and look up to the school yard bully. It was Andy's uneven temperament that defined his personal blend, a man whose varied occupations -- actor, wrestler, comedian -- reflected the way he grappled with life, a constant tug-of-war between laughter and pain. Some viewed him as a dadaist performance artist, but most knew him as the ever-lovable Latka Gravas from TV's Taxi ("Dank you veddy much"). But there was another side to Andy, an alter face that bleeds through without remorse in My Breakfast With Blassie.

Staged as a kind of goof on My Dinner With Andre, we find Kaufman and the ill-mannered former WWF champ Fred Blassie dining over a fine meal of cottage cheese and super-ego in a Los Angeles-area Sambo's. A rare site indeed, Kaufman humbles himself before Blassie, begging career advice while discussing the intricacies of personal hygiene, beating up women, and the advantage of filing your teeth to razor sharp points. Ironically, this 60-minute word buffet is ultimately more pitiable that humorous. By the time the check is delivered, Kaufman is on the verge of blows with the patrons at the table next to him, annoyed beyond control over their want for an autograph. He towers over four would-be women foes, a Bizzaro Superman ready to discharge lasers from his bulging eyes. Spittle flies from his pursed lips as he shrieks: "Do you know who I am!? Do you know who I am!?" Sure they do. But they're not impressed. And against their apathy, Kaufman finds himself pinned for the count. Slowly, he slumps back into his vinyl-upholstered chair, defeated by the opponent he could never best -- himself.

Borrowing its title from the popular British meal which consists of beer, bread, cheese, and a pickled egg, The Ploughman's Lunch sets its table dressing upon the bourgeois strata of England's media makers and academic elite. With the Falklands War raging in the background, we find emotionally detached journalist/historian James Penfield (Jonathan Pryce) thirsting after prestige and literary immortality. To attain his goals, and bury his low-class heritage, Penfield shovels his professional integrity into the furnace as he pens a politically agreeable account of the 1956 Suez Canal crisis. To add to his cause, he also pursues a professional colleague (Charlie Dore) in hopes of borrowing upon her family's reputation and stature. Gracefully, Pryce plays this role not as a misguided hero, nor anti-hero, but rather for what Penfield really is -- a paper boat which turns its rudder in conformity with political gales. And while the story manages to stay afloat to a royal end sequence, the real interest here is watching director Richard Eyre poke a camera at the British establishment and its dry, rigid social mores. Amidst this sometimes cold, restrained environment, story lines and heartaches cross into an intricate pattern of deception and intrigue, all the while waving a banner which broadcasts that most appropriate axiom: All is fair in love and war.

With a core consisting of the harsh ingredients of life, and a crust as sweet as Portuguese bread, Dinner at Eight is a cinematic feast for the ages. Some 65 years since its original release, this comedy/drama still holds up like a premier soufflé. As a whimsical socialite, Mrs. Oliver Jordan (Billie Burke), and her ill husband (Lionel Barrymore) prepare for an important dinner party, an assortment of tragedies and comedies rise upon their friends and family. A virtual swarm of screen legends, including John Barrymore as a fading film star, Marie Dressler as a fading theatre star, and Jean Harlow as a social-climbing, white-trash tramp, pervade the action. And full of action it is. Dramatic tension flies high over director George Cukor's nest of relationships, all laced with love, suicide, financial ruin, divorce, and class inspection. But as deftly as Cukor helms the action, the real hero of the film is the script. Written by Herman J. Mankiewicz (along with Frances Marion and Donald Ogden Stewart) the cast belches out one zinger after the next, leading up to a final exchange between Marie Dressler and Jean Harlow that would leave a savory flavor in even the most discriminating critic's mouth.


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