Road Trip

From a galaxy far away to the haunt at the end of the block, diners play a prominent role in American cinema.

By: Jim Boyle

From left: Daniel Stern, Mickey Rourke, Steve Guttenberg (standing), Kevin Bacon (seated) and Tim Daly all got career boosts starring in Barry Levinson’s 1982 classic, Diner.

   The small coastal town of Bodega Bay, Calif., is under attack by swooping flocks of birds. The winged creatures raid a schoolhouse and a child’s birthday party; they even break into a locked and boarded-up house. No place is safe in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 classic, The Birds. Except, of course, the diner.
   Tippi Hedren and a handful of citizens watch in horror from the diner window as a man in a telephone booth is pecked at and a gasoline leak causes an explosion. It is only after they realize they can’t stay there forever and decide to make a run for it that the characters are in danger again.

Amanda Plummer (left) and Tim Roth (right) prepare to rob a diner in Pulp Fiction.

   Throughout film history, American diners have been one setting where people felt secure, probably because nothing bad ever seems to happen there. That’s not to say there aren’t tense moments. But in the diner, they are quickly resolved with minor casualties, such as Dirty Harry (Clint Eastwood) snarling, "Make my day" to a couple of would-be armed robbers of his favorite eatery in Sudden Impact (1983).
   In The Blob (1958), Steve McQueen runs to the Downingtown Diner in Phoenixville, Pa., to hide from the man-eating mass. As the ever-growing life form envelopes the entire building, McQueen realizes that cold temperatures can harm it and instructs the police outside to douse it with fire extinguishers, thus saving the day.
   Of course, every rule has its exceptions, and this is no different. Without the massacre at the all-night diner, L.A. Confidential (1997) would have no story. And the customers in the opening moments of Natural Born Killers (1994) weren’t safe from Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis’s shooting spree.
   Despite these extreme examples, diners in American cinema possess that down-home familiarity that no other restaurant genre has. Every town, every state has variations on the same diner, a casual little place with a counter and stools, some booths along the perimeter, a sassy waitress and a gruff cook. When Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) travels to 1955 in Back to the Future (1985), the first place he checks out is Hill Valley’s diner. When he revisits the same diner in 2015 in Back to the Future II (1989), not much has changed, except for the robotic staff.
   If such a thing as automated employees is possible, it could spell big trouble for hardworking waitresses like Alice Hyatt (Ellen Burstyn). Making a stop on her way to becoming a singer, she finds work as a server at a Phoenix diner to support herself and her son in Martin Scorsese’s 1974 classic, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. She embodies one of basically two stereotypes for diner waitresses on film.
   There’s the gum smacking, sharp-tongued spinster who doesn’t put up with backtalk. Then there’s the slim ingenue who has bigger dreams of being an actress/singer but has to work at the diner while waiting for her big shot. Sometimes, but not always, she has a child. And, invariably, she gets whisked away by the leading man.
   As formulaic as the help may be, the clientele is often unique to each movie. If a waitress is lucky, she could get the kind of customer Bridget Fonda got in It Could Happen to You (1994), when Nicolas Cage offered half of what would become a multimillion-dollar lottery ticket as a tip. But more often than not, they get stuck with patrons like Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces (1970), whose simple order of plain toast turns into a table-clearing tantrum.
   Not every customer interferes with the servers’ lives, however. For the main characters of Barry Levinson’s Diner (1982), the restaurant is their hang out. It’s where they could take a break from the action of their daily lives and relax, recharging their batteries. Up-and-coming actors Kevin Bacon, Mickey Rourke, Daniel Stern, Steve Guttenberg and Paul Reiser resisted adulthood, and the diner was their shield. They were able to hide out in the booths and avoid the burgeoning responsibilities. Eventually, they had to come to terms with their paths and leave the diner behind.
   It’s also at the diner where Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) realizes he needs to make changes in his own life in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994). He and Vincent (John Travolta) are recovering from their busy morning, which included a shoot-out at an apartment and an accidental killing and subsequent clean-up in the back of their car. Over lunch, Jules decides to end his violent ways and walk the Earth like Cain in Kung Fu. It’s a timely decision for Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer, who try to hold-up the restaurant before Jules disarms them. Instead of killing them, he lets them off with a warning.
   The entertaining scene also contains humorous banter between Jackson and Travolta on such banalities as the cleanliness of pigs and the intelligence of dogs. It’s the sort of off-topic conversation that would be mimicked by Doug Liman’s Go (1999), when Timothy Olyphant argues with Katie Holmes over a pot of coffee about the quality of Family Circus cartoons.
   Like Pulp Fiction and Go, the majority of diners in films act as way stations, a place for everybody to catch their breath. They can be as memorable as Meg Ryan really enjoying her sandwich in When Harry Met Sally (1989) or as inconsequential as the four guys in Road Trip (2000) stopping for some waffles on their way to Texas.
   It goes back again to that familiarity the diner owns that doesn’t require the audience to think too hard about the setting. The diner is so recognizable, there are even some in outer space, such as the joint at the end of Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs (1987) where Lone Star (Bill Pullman) and Barf (John Candy) stop to get a quick bite, or the diner in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002) where Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) goes searching for information. Despite being on the planet Coruscant in a galaxy far away, there are still those unmistakable American qualities, including the chrome exterior, the sweet-talking waitress/droid and the hygienically challenged chef.