Food is everything on a film set. On the set of Matrix a great chef from Louisiana kept the kitchen buzzing, and had fresh made crab cakes flown in every Monday from a lady who did them at home.
Not that there will be ever a Oscar given for best use of food in a film. This year however food play’s a role in all the films.
Silver Linings Playbook: All-American Food
The food in this film firmly grounds it in an American landscape in general and a Philadelphia one in particular. Protagonist Pat is played by Serious Role Bradley Cooper, who is very slightly less good-looking than Normal Role Bradley Cooper, thanks to some unflattering sweats and a kind of weird haircut. And Pat’s drink is Budweiser. It’s what’s always on tap at the Philadelphia Eagles games watched each week in Pat’s home, where Pat’s mom makes “crabby cakes” (ingredients: softened butter, mayonnaise, canned crabmeat, and Kraft Old English cheese spread). Plus, Pat’s dad wants to open a cheesesteak business. What could be more Philly than that?
Zero Dark Thirty: Food Is Dangerous
Maya, played by fiery Jessica Chastain, is also a Bud drinker, though she drinks it alone, in a bar, fretting over finding Osama Bin Laden. Food? Maya’s barely got time for it. When she does eat, it’s an uninspiring piece of toast slathered with peanut butter, burger and fries, or packaged candy in front of the TV. Maya gets no pleasure from food. In fact, it’s a source of anxiety. The Marriott Hotel where she meets a friend for dinner is bombed before the first course is even served. Eating out, she warns a younger co-worker, “is too dangerous.” Food is dangerous in an entirely different way for the men tortured for information by the CIA, who are starved one week and bribed with local delicacies the next.
Argo: No Time for Food
Like Maya, Ben Affleck’s robustly bearded Tony Mendez is so consumed by his mission that he eats only fast food. When we first encounter him, he’s lying on a hotel bed, the floor littered with Chinese food containers. The only other “meal” he swallows is food-truck tacos. Though his nutritional needs are woefully neglected, Tony is perpetually attached to a bottle of whiskey. He even slyly snatches a bottle from the Canadian ambassador’s house after being told not to help the six Americans he’s been sent to rescue. That night he hunkers down in his room, bottle in hand, whiskey his steadfast companion as he considers his options.
Life of Pi: Food as Survival
Pi, played by Suraj Sharma, has plenty of time for food, but he doesn’t have enough of it. When he joyfully discovers crackers and water in his lifeboat while stranded at sea, he strategizes how to make his precious stores last. All planning is for naught, however, when the food ends up in the ocean a few scenes later… I won’t tell you how. After that Pi must invoke his inner carnivore to survive. Raised a vegetarian, with food signifying his cultural and familial background, he now must eat whatever he can in order to survive, including lots of fish. As Pi acknowledges, “Hunger can change everything you think you know about yourself.”
Les Miserables: The Economics of Food
Hunger changes Jean Valjean’s life, too. At the start of the film, he’s imprisoned for stealing bread during an economic depression. Once released, starvation again looms large. Eventually, he’s fed by a kindly Bishop. Hollow-cheeked Hugh Jackman, who plays Valjean, attacks the feast with primal urgency, barely breathing between bites. While Valjean eventually becomes wealthy and well fed, not so lucky is poor Fontine, played by Anne Hathaway, whose legendarily large teeth sadly have nothing to chomp in this meaty role. She ultimately resorts to selling her hair and body in order to survive.
Beasts of the Southern Wild: We Are All Food
The bayou residents are also fighting for survival–and their way of life, which is intimately connected with food. Early on, 6-year-old Hushpuppy’s dad throws a chicken on the grill and shouts, “Feed up time!” Out come the hogs and chickens and Hushpuppy (played by Quvenzhané Wallis), told to share her food “with the dog.” We are reminded by Hushpuppy’s teacher that we are all part of the “buffet of the universe” and are reminded again when her explosive father explains to her how to eat crab. Discouraged from delicately extracting the meat with cutlery, Hushpuppy’s dad yells at her to rip into it. The entire gathering shouts, “Feast it! Feast it!” Hushpuppy obliges. Afterwards, she climbs up on the table and screams with animalistic abandon.
Django Unchained: Food as Performance
An altogether different set of table manners is on display at the sprawling Mississippi plantation where Django, a freed slave played by Jamie Foxx, and his companion, Dr. King Schultz (played by Christoph Walz) arrive to purchase Django’s wife’s freedom. The opulent table settings are precisely laid by a group of slaves who then serve up meat, gravy, beans, and wine. The overt politeness is strained by the undercurrent of violence emanating from Leonardo Dicaprio’s villainous Calvin Candie. This undercurrent becomes a tidal wave when Candie discovers Django’s plans. At the dinner table Candie nearly kills Django’s wife and terrifies Shultz and Django. Candie then forces the group to finish their meals. Dessert? White cake, of course.
Lincoln: A Film Without Food
Okay, there is some food in Lincoln. But only one character eats it. The bloated Mr. Bilbo, played by James Spader, is one of three sly figures helping Lincoln secure votes for his 13th Amendment. Bilbo eats and drinks with abandon, daring to enjoy a snack even during the House proceedings. Despite the lack of food, Lincoln (played by Daniel Day-Lewis) does seem to be a coffee addict. Mrs. Lincoln lovingly complains to her son about their shared skinniness when she tells Robert: “You forget to eat. You’re just like him.” And no wonder. The man is so busy trying to save the Union he barely has time to sleep. The fact that he never ingests solid substances only adds to the perception that he is more powerful and purposeful than the average person.
Amour: Forget the Food
Anna, the octogenarian played by Emmanuelle Riva, doesn’t forget to eat. She simply refuses. Paralyzed after a stroke, she longs for death, and starvation seems her only option. Early on, Anna and her husband, Georges, sit together at the breakfast table. Anna has just presented Georges with a hard-boiled egg. There is toast and jam and coffee. And then… Anna’s face goes blank. Although she recovers from the initial episode, her condition continues to deteriorate, worsened by an unsuccessful surgery. Soon enough she stops finishing her meals, uninterested in sustaining herself, instead compelled only by music and her memories.
So which of these films would get the fictional Oscar for Best Use of Food? Hands down, Life of Pi. Not only does director Ang Lee brilliantly utilize food to establish the cultural and familial life of Pi, but there’s even a villainous cook, played by the well-fed, cantankerous Gerard Depardieu and, best of all, there’s a carnivorous algae island. Can’t say that about Lincoln!