Tuesday, June 21, 2005

NO, YOU HOLD IT BETWEEN YOUR KNEES! Lorna Thayer 1919-2005


Lorna Thayer, the character actress probably best known for her role as the waitress who refuses to take Jack Nicholson’s order for toast in Five Easy Pieces, has died after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. Thayer's 39-year career as a character actress in movies and TV began inauspiciously in 1952 in a B-western called Texas City, with her first big role coming four years later in The Beast with a Million Eyes. Although she would work with directors such as Robert Wise and Billy Wilder (she played bit parts in I Want to Live!, The Andromeda Strain and Buddy Buddy), her film career was largely limited to roles defined as often by societal position as by name—Grocery Clerk, Prison Guard, Passenger on Mexico Flight, Hospital Attendant and, of course, Waitress. TV would be slightly kinder, as it would to a lot of working actors throughout its history; she appeared in roles of varied importance in the ‘50s and ‘60s on such shows as Medic, Studio 57, The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, Dragnet, Have Gun-Will Travel, Johnny Ringo, The Untouchables, Bonanza, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Garrison’s Gorillas, It Takes a Thief and, after a long hiatus from TV, a final guest appearance on CHiPs in 1977 in a role described in the credits (and on the Internet Movie Database) only as “Matron.”




That famous scene from Five Easy Pieces, an awards-show favorite from the 1970 Academy Awards straight on up through today, is funny and entertaining, all right, but I’ve always found that standoff with Nicholson also quite uncomfortable and not just a little disingenuous on the part of Nicholson, writer Carole Eastman, and director Bob Rafelson. The movie was one of the few post-Easy Rider pitches to the sympathies of alienated youth that actually succeeded in making a cultural ripple all its own, and as such was loaded with anger, toward the older generation that had frittered away the opportunity to connect with their sons and daughters and toward the Establishment that allowed for that older generation’s calcified morality and corruption. So when Nicholson begins his tug of war with the waitress over the toast, which ends with him trashing the table and leaving the diner trailing an air of frustration and, of course, a sense of triumph, of having in some way stuck it to the Man, the audience is primed and ready to go with him, laughing all the way at his subversive outrage. The problem is, the movie scores all its points in this scene by Nicholson berating a woman whose sole function is to exist as an Establishment symbol, when the reality is, this waitress is far more the victim of any Establishment repression, being a minimum-wage worker in a diner, than is our hero, a cultured, piano-playing oil worker who walks off his job without a second thought because he knows he’s got his (corrupt) daddy’s money to fall back on. (Substitute "struggling actress" for "waitress" and "pampered movie star on the rise" for "cultured, piano-playing oil worker" and maybe my point becomes clearer.) The waitress plays by the rules of the restaurant in refusing Nicholson’s order because if she doesn’t, she’s likely to lose her low-paying job and have to hit the pavement in search of another one that might not even be as good as the one she’s got. Rafelson and Eastman’s point might have gone down a little smoother had Nicholson demanded to see the manager and taken out his self-righteous frustration on him. But would our sainted antihero have had the balls to stand up to a man, perhaps one far bigger of frame and weight than him, in a similar situation? We never find out, because it’s easier and funnier to let Nicholson have his way with someone who’s sassy enough to spar with him a little but who won’t fight back when he loses his cool over a piece of toast.

It’s a tribute to Lorna Thayer, as “Waitress,” that the thing I remember most, and most fondly, from not only that scene but from the whole of Five Easy Pieces, is the disgusted smirk on her face as she reads back the order that last time, before asking him, “You want me to hold the chicken?” Would there were an alternate-universe director’s cut in which she, not Nicholson, gets the last word: “No, you hold it between your knees, asshole!”

15 comments:

blaaagh said...

Right on! That scene always bugged me, too.

Anonymous said...

I have to disagree. Nicholson's character is a horse's ass. He's at loose ends, no one knows what this guy is going to make of himself, maybe we shouldn't even care, but he thinks he knows that he wants something different than the advantages he's been given in life. It's real. I don't know how many guys I met in college who were just like him, sons of captains of industry, and some of them were likable people once you got past some of the BS they carried around with them like some badge of honor.

The reason the scene is memorable is because just about everyone has had a moment where they are confronted by someone who is so unyielding in following some silly rule that it is absolutely confounding and infuriating at the same time. The waitress is merely the messenger. In real life when people lose it, they often take it home and take it out on the family or the dog, if they take it out on anyone. Rarely does anyone take it out on The Man, which is why I think, had the scene been written that way, it would have been very false.

And then there are times when the anger might be at the expense of one of the truly downtrodden. But isn't that the history of the world in a nutshell?

Virgil Hilts

Anonymous said...

What I mean is, while I understand what you're saying in taking the waitress's side, why doesn't her common sense kick in and tell her, "This guy will pay for a sandwich, but he just wants the bread! Cha-ching!" Hell, if I was her manager, I'd say, "Give him what he wants. See if he'll take a glass of iced tea without the tea while you're at it."

Virgil

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Hey! I thought there was an understanding that there would be no disagreeing with the blog host on this site!

A character being a horse’s ass is certainly no automatic detriment to a film—most great films couldn’t do without them. But for a movie about one man’s existential crisis, I think Five Easy Pieces ends up being awfully sentimental about this particular horse’s ass and his quest for meaning beyond the privilege he’s always known, in light of his behavior throughout the rest of the movie toward not only the waitress, but his girlfriend and almost every member of his family. If the movie were a more standard tale of a man’s redemption, it might end up intellectually unsatisfying, but at least it would be easier to see how that sentimentality might have logically been accorded to that character. Where I think the movie goes wrong (and the roots of this viewpoint are in that diner scene) is that it ends up seeming less like a movie made to express the disillusionment and “simmering frustration” of “audiences caught between Nixon’s ‘silent majority’ and the troubled counterculture” than a pat on the back, a shrug of validation for those in the audience who already feel the frustrations of Nicholson’s character. It conveniently uses the anomie of the times as a dodge in order to justify its acceptance of his behavior and confer on him some sort of saintly status for ultimately setting himself adrift and continuing to avoid the roots of his frustration.

As for the diner scene, despite the fact that it is shot “realistically,” I don’t think the movie expects us to respond realistically. Otherwise, the questions both you and I bring up would have come into play, dramatically speaking, and we might logically wait for the scene where the manager, or better yet, the busboy, comes out and beats the shit out of Nicholson for his explosion, or where the waitress finally sells him toast, collects in full for a chicken sandwich, and goes back in the kitchen to have a laugh about it with her coworkers. Perhaps where you and I differ with the scene is that I think the weight the screenwriter and director give to the confrontation, even down to the framing and staging of it, with Nicholson’s character positioned low in the frame, dominated by the “nonsensical” stubbornness of the waitress who stands looking down on him, suggest that we’re not just to see it as a scene of a frustrated man encountering one more nugget of day-to-day bullshit and reacting with an understandable outburst (for scene after scene of this kind of surface outrage, see—or rather, don’t see-- Falling Down). Rafelson and company really do want us, I think, to look at this encounter as some sort of recognizable, symbolic clash between alienated youth and the forces of conformism and repression; in doing so we’re more easily able to ignore the basic humanity of the waitress and concentrate on Mr. Entitlement’s existential hand-wringing. All that said, I love your question: “Why doesn't her common sense kick in and tell her, "This guy will pay for a sandwich, but he just wants the bread! Cha-ching!" Hell, if I was her manager, I'd say, "Give him what he wants. See if he'll take a glass of iced tea without the tea while you're at it." That would have been as satisfying to me as seeing the busboy come out, grabbing Nicholson by the collar and demanding to know who was gonna clean up the mess. Unrealistic? Sure. Most busboys are probably even more diminuitive or, given their position in society, certainly less outspoken than Jack Nicholson. But so is cleaning off a restaurant table with your elbows and walking away without the manager, or perhaps the local sheriff, insisting upon a follow-up word or two.

Thom McGregor said...

Virgil, I happen to know for a fact that you did a Nicholson at your local Denny's just a few weeks ago. I've never seen this movie, but I remember watching this particular scene on TV when I was a kid and being scared. Seen totally out of context, I felt that I was supposed to get some kind of sense of satisfaction out of Nicholson's character's words and actions, but in actuality I found his behavior really rude and obnoxious. And the fear came from my childhood realization that my reaction might mean that I was gonna grow up a lot less cool than I hoped, that maybe I was already... THE MAN! Somewhat off topic, my sister once insisted we stiff a waiter on his tip because he ignored us throughout dinner. I wanted to leave the minimum, but she was adament. The guy actually ran after us into the street to yell at us and curse us. This story means nothing. I just thought it was funny. Sorry.

Anonymous said...

Thom, your story is funny and appropriate for the discussion. Please tell more of them.

At it wasn't Denny's. It was at a Norm's, which is kind of the bargain basement Denny's/Carrow's, if such a thing exists. And I stiffed the waiter, and then he ran out after me with a gun, and, well, let's just say that all hell broke loose, more people than needed to die ended up dead, and the principal players in the whole drama lived to tell about it.

And I'm not going to Norm's again.

Nor will I order chicken salad in the presence of the honorable wizard of this blog site. I might find myself having to kill busboys just to get to my car. I don't like killing busboys. In L.A., they could be distant relatives for all I know.

Virgil

P.S. - Maybe it's the nonbelieving, way-past-lapsed, woulda-could-shoula been excommunicated Catholic in me that makes me feel this way, but I don't like stories about redemption. The world just doesn't seem that simple.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

I'm relative calm about chicken salad. It's tuna salad that sets me off, especially if they put the little diced sweet pickles in it. Look, I'll go across the street to Vons, buy a can of tuna, I'll mix it up myself in your kitchen-- just bring me a tuna salad sandwich with no sweet pickles!

I'm with you on movies of redemption too. They're like movies of hard-won romance. The curtain goes down at the happy ending when the two would-be lovers finally get together, which is really just the beginning of the really interesting part of the story-- how the relationship is sustained and magnified, if it is at all. Same with redemption-- it's pretty easy to put a sepia-toned glow around someone seeing the light and changing his life, but unless you get to see how that person puts his newfound revelation into practice in the real world, there's no real interest for me and I almost never believe these stories. Maybe that's why I like Eastwood's films so much-- Unforgiven is a great example of this kind of approach, the story of a man who's convinced he's changed but then discovers it might not be true (even the epilogue of the movie lends some ambiguity as to whether or not he's succeeded, after the end of the action of the movie suggests he hasn't).

Hey, the Dodgers AND the Angels won last night! Washburn looks good! And the Daily News printed a nice picture of Tracy chewing on Dan Iassogna's face (for about the fourth time in the series) after Kent was ejected. Oh, boy!

Thom McGregor said...

Dennis, I understood everything you wrote except the last paragraph.

Benaiah said...

I know I was beginning to lose hope in the boys in blue when suddenly they pull out a totally unimpressive win (well they all count the same in the standings if not in our hearts).
By the way I have been on a big time movie binge lately and because I have only been watching good ones few have disappointed, but Kagemusha, the Shadow Warrior was, in my humble opinion, awful. Every shot was pretty, but damn Kurosawa cut something out. The movie was three hours long and and it had 30 minutes of story and two and a half hours of silently filming background and characters running around unhappily. I thought Seven Samurai was fun, if somewhat overrated (I have trouble appreciating a movie just for its influence) but this movie was nearly unwatchable. I am going to watch Rashomon tonight and if that disappoints I will have to watch my hands of Kurosawa for awhile.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Benaiah: Where did you start with Kurosawa? Hopefully not Kagemusha, which is, as you suggest, not Filet Mignon Kurosawa. I love Seven Samurai, and Rashomon is great, although be prepared for some acting, particularly from the female lead, that is even more stylized than usual. Out of the Kurosawa catalog I would heartily recommend The Hidden Fortress, recognizably the source of many elements in Star Wars, or Kurosawa's take on Macbeth entitled Throne of Blood, the wonderful Yojimbo, from which Leone spun A Fistful of Dollars, and the masterful High and Low. If you've never seen them before, I envy you your first time!

And hey, the Dodgers were down 3-0 in the eighth when Kent scored, and Olmedo Saenz just doubled in two to tie it up. Not that I'm keeping track of the game at work or anything like that...

Anonymous said...

You forgot IKIRU, which, like HIGH AND LOW and maybe THRONE OF BLOOD, works on a small screen, and I am assuming that Benaiah has been watching at home. KAGEMUSHA is not a good place to start, and I think that the only way to see THE SEVEN SAMURAI is on a big screen in a old movie house.

Virgil

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Virg is right: I forgot all about Ikiru, which is very powerful, and also Ran, for which Kagemusha almost feels at times like a dry run, but is much more vivid and emotionally effective. Also, I've heard, though I have not seen it yet (I grabbed a dub off of Turner Classic Movies a few months ago) that The Bad Sleep Well is well worth seeking out. And again, I defer to Virgil: if you can stumble upon a big screen that's showing Seven Samurai, that's one of those drop-everything-and-go type situations. Did you like Rashomon?

Benaiah said...

Roshomon made me decide to give Kurosawa a few more tries. He still isn't like Leone where I felt like I was watching magic, but Roshomon was still quite good. What is up with the eyelashes on females though. They seem to shave everything except little rectangles right on the corner by the nose. Gruesome in my opinion. I started with Seven Samurai and then unfortunately went to Kagemusha. I have also been tooling through alot of movies I needed to see again (High Noon, Chinatown, Amadeus). Ah Summer, when I am watch 3 movies a day and only feel somewhat guilty.

Benaiah said...

Also, when I was watching Amadeus my speakers would occasionally screech as they were unable to play the pitch of the Opera singers. Amadeus is a prime example of a movie about something that I know so little about that it prevents me from mustering an opinion. I couldn't tell the difference between the quality of Mozart or Salieri's Operas. In fact I feel certain that they could have played the same music in each Opera and I wouldn't have been able to tell the difference.

Benaiah said...

Bogart: "Is she a customer?"
Sect: "I guess so. You'll want to see her anyway, she's a knockout."

This is perhaps the most misleading conversation in film history. I re-watched the Maltese Falcon today and every time Mary Astor was on screen all I could think about was how unattractive she was. Not only is she not a knockout, I think she might be slightly ugly. I mean this woman was supposed to be so beautiful that Sam Spade fell in love with her despite her deceit and the murder of his partner!