Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore was Martin Scorcese’s second film after the decade-defining success of Mean Streets. It remains his first and only film with a female lead and perhaps subsequently, one of his least violent and least well-known films. It also happens to be one of his most humorous, emotionally nuanced, and romantic. When it was released, many dismissed it as a “woman’s film,” a genre that unjustly connoted all the fluffiness and inferiority that romantic comedies do today, but it nonetheless gained acclaim for its brilliant performances, simple story, and the burgeoning auterist flourishes of Mr. Scorcese.
After the death of her husband, Alice, played by Ellen Burstyn, takes off with her son Tommy with the hopes of relocating to her hometown of Monterey, California. When their funds run dangerously low, Alice is forced to stop in Arizona for work. She gets a job as a lounge singer in a dive bar in Phoenix but an abusive relationship with the owner quickly forces her to continue on to Tucson and accept a job as a waitress at a diner called Mel and Ruby’s Bar-B-Q. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore brilliantly brings to life the colorful comings and goings of the diner and the daily joys and hassles of the women who work there. Though Alice eventually falls in love with one of her customers, a rancher played by Kris Kristopherson, the most memorable part of the film for me is its portrayal of the relationship between the three waitresses. The scenes were filmed in an actual diner in Tucson, located on Main Street, but it has since been closed.
Though the mockumentary may be a bit familiar and perhaps even overdone these days, when This is Spinal Tap premiered in 1984, the entire concept was still revelatory and new. Spinal Tap may not be the first of its kind-it is predated by the Monty Python Beatles-spoof The Rutles and Woody Allen’s Zelig-but Rob Reiner’s brilliant send-up of a British rockstars set the bar for the genre very, very high. Say at about 11 on a scale of 1 to 10. As the band, known for hits like “Big Bottom” and “Sex Farm,” travels across America to promote their new album “Smell the Glove,” they are forced to confront the fact that they are quickly fading into obscurity. After a string of canceled gigs, a radio announcer who places them in the “Where are they now?” file, and the unwanted arrival of the lead singer’s girlfriend, the boys stop at a roadside diner to discuss various ways to re-enliven their tour and gain a new fan base. Their ideas include introducing new costumes based on the signs of the zodiac and more memorably, bringing back their old number Stonehenge, which features a giant replica of the famous monument descending onto the stage as a group of dwarves merrily dance around it. Unfortunately, when Nigel draws up the dimensions on a napkin, he confuses inches with feet and the resulting replica is no bigger than the dancing dwarves. The scene was filmed at Season’s restaurant in Cleveland and has since closed.
The 1970s were the Golden Age of New Hollywood Cinema. It was also arguably the Golden Age of the classic American road film. Some of the most definitive films of the sub-genre were released during the decade, including Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, Wanda, Badlands, and Duel, to name but a few. However, the reigning king of them all is Two Lane Blacktop, the 1971 cult classic directed by Monte Hellman and starring James Taylor and Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson as a driver and his mechanic who race across the United States in their beloved 1955 Chevy. Along the way, they pick up a young blonde played by Laurie Bird (at a diner, of course), who comes along for the ride, inciting a tense, unspoken jealousy between the two men. From its music to its fashion to its famous musician co-stars, Two Lane Blacktop is pure 1970s cinema at its finest, enhanced by several memorable scenes in road side diners. Unfortunately, the only one of these still open is Mary’s Cafe, where the Girl first climbs into the backseat of the Chevy, located 7136 North US Highway 89, just northeast of Flagstaff.
Preston Strugess’ 1941 classic Sullivan’s Travels is a screw-ball comedy, a road film, and one of the greatest movies ever made about making movies. In it, the famous director John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) disguises himself as a hobo and sets off on a cross country journey in pursuit of true suffering, something he believes is a requirement for creating an artistic masterpiece. Not far into his journey, he wanders into a roadside diner where he meets a beautiful nameless blonde played by Veronica Lake who is also trying to escape Hollywood, only this time as a failed actress. After ordering him ham and eggs and offering him cigarettes, the two get to talking. Unaware that she is chatting with a world-renowned director of comedies, she tells him, “The nice thing about buying food for a man is that you don’t have to laugh at his jokes.” Later on in the film, after a failed attempt to ride the rails together, the pair stops at another diner and out of the goodness of his heart, the man behind the counter offers the two famished travelers donuts for free.
Jack Nicholson’s breakfast order in Five Easy Pieces is quite possibly the most famous in movie history. Released in 1970 at the very beginning of the New Hollywood era, Five Easy Pieces follows Robert Dupea, a foul tempered ex-piano prodigy who is forced to return to his upper class childhood home in Washington after years working in a California oil field. Robert’s waitress girlfriend Rayette (Karen Black) spends most of the film dressed in her pink uniform despite her aspirations to become a famous country music singer. On the drive up to Washington, Robert and Rayette pick up two surly female hitchhikers and the group stops at a roadside diner for breakfast. The waitress refuses to accommodate Robert’s order of a omelet with tomatoes instead of potatoes and a side order of wheat toast, insisting the diner has a strict “no substitutions” policy. Instead of changing his order, Robert goes to great lengths to get the meal he desires, ordering a plain omelet and chicken salad sandwich, minus the chicken salad. After Robert suggests the waitress holds the unwanted chicken salad “between her knees,” she has a enough of the group’s “smartness and sarcasm” and kicks them out the restaurant, prompting Robert to angrily swipe the menus and glasses of water off the table before storming out in a rage. The diner scene was filmed on Greenwood Drive in Eugene, Oregon and is now a Denny’s.
No film better depicts a changing America than Easy Rider, Dennis Hopper’s seminal road film about a pair of counterculture “long-hairs” who ride their Harley Davidsons across the highways of America in search of true freedom. With a production history as outlandish and drug fueled as the journey depicted in the film itself, Easy Rider roared onto the screens in 1969 and ushered in a radical new era of American filmmaking. Easy Rider was one of the first films to portray the counterculture in all its glory, use a soundtrack consisting entirely of rock and roll hits, and feature rising star Jack Nicholson in a supporting role.
The travels of Wyatt (Peter Fonda), Billy (Dennis Hopper), and George Hanson (Nicholson) take them across the scenic byways of the American South and Southwest, stopping at gas stations, campsites, communes, hot springs, police stations, and diners along the way. When the three stop at a small café after a long day’s journey, they find themselves simultaneously harassed and seduced by the patrons inside. A police officer sitting at a nearby booth declares, “What the hell is this? Trouble makers?” while a group of young women giggle in titillation and discuss which of the men each of them likes best. As the three dirty hippies take their seats, the comments increase in both volume and severity. One man says, “I think we ought to put them in a cage and charge admission to see ‘um,” followed by another who remarks, “They look like a bunch of refugees from a guerilla love-in.” On top of it all, the waitress neglects to serve them any of the refreshing Coca-Cola and delicious handmade pies the sign outside advertises. Eventually, Wyatt, Billy, and George decide it is in their best interest to leave an establishment to which they are so obviously unwelcome. The diner scene might not be the most memorable in Easy Rider, but it perfectly encapsulates the cultural tension boiling between the established order and the longhaired, free-spirited hippie renegades who threatened to throw it over completely. The diner scene was filmed in the town of Morganza, Louisiana, about 50 miles outside the state capital of Baton Rouge. However, the diner, which was once located on Gayden Road, was torn down, leaving only an empty field and staircase behind.
Quentin Tarantino immortalized himself as a true auteur from the moment his first film, Reservoir Dogs, opens on a group of men chatting in a diner about the meaning of Madonna’s Like a Virgin. Mr. Blonde, played by Michael Madsen, asserts that the song is about an incredibly vulnerable girl who finally meets a nice fella, while Mr. Brown, played by Tarantino himself, maintains that it’s “a metaphor for big dicks.” When it comes time to cough up some green for the tip, Mr. Pink, played by Steve Buscemi, refuses on principle, sparking a heated debate about the ethics of not tipping automatically This seminal scene was filmed at Pat and Lorraine’s at 4270 Eagle Rock Boulevard in Los Angeles, which is still open today. Later on in the film, Freddy, played by Tim Roth, meets up with L.A.P.D chief Holdaway (Randy Brooks) to discuss his plans to go undercover and infiltrate the crime gang as Mr. Orange. This scene was filmed at Johnie’s Coffee Shop and Restaurant, which is used occasionally for movie shoots but is closed to the public. Cue the world’s tiniest violin. You can catch another glimpse of Johnie’s in movies like Big Lebowski and American History X, also mentioned in this blog. Tarantino would choose to open his second film, Pulp Fiction, in a diner as well, with Tim Roth returning as one-half of the thieving couple nicknamed Pumpkin and Honey Bunny.