By: Megan McGurk
Among the bits of business that actors must do on camera, eating proves one of the most difficult, far above the physical dexterity necessary for set pieces that include some athleticism. Maybe only love scenes appear more gruelling. When you’re wrapped up in the electric jolt of performance, something simple as the ability to chew and swallow seems nauseating, if not nerve wracking. I can’t stomach anything to eat before I give a lecture, so there’s no way I could handle a plate of food in the middle of one. No one eats better than George Sanders on film though. He somehow manages to take huge, gusty mouthfuls of food, which he enjoys unabashed, yet he never looks like a slob or a rabid beast, nor does he skimp on delivering his lines with customary caddish panache. He savours a chicken leg in Rebecca (1940) with so much elegance that you can almost see Laurence Olivier turn ashen at the sight of someone stealing the scene—all with a chicken leg stuck in his kisser. When Sanders plays a hedonist based on Gauguin’s biography in The Moon and Sixpence (1942), he takes a hefty piece of rack of lamb with his hands and strips the meat from bone in a few bites. It surpasses the culinary trick of peeling an orange in one piece, because fatty roasted lamb proves a great deal more slippery and juicy. He cleans the bone in seconds without pause or splattering his face and clothing. Had most actors tried that they would have resembled what viewers imagine Ty Power did to the chicken as the geek in Nightmare Alley (1947). Otherwise dapper men like Cary Grant take as few bites as possible in a meal scene. During the luncheon when he hosts the police inspector in To Catch a Thief (1955) he puts his napkin and utensils at rest after maybe three bites of quiche.
During the Depression, audiences saw plenty of women onscreen who sat with an appetite at table, who tucked into dinners they savoured when the next one was uncertain. Amid widespread hunger that culminated in bread lines and soup kitchens, circumstances permitted heroines to eat onscreen without censure. In Thirty Day Princess (1934), not only does Sylvia Sidney steal food from the Automat by slamming her hand against the display case holding a turkey leg and all the trimmings until it opens, she later uses a knife to shovel food in her mouth, much to the horror of straight-laced Cary Grant. For a woman with ‘prospects as high as the gutter’, she doesn’t have time to pay attention to table manners. She’s penniless and starving. She can’t get her fill fast enough.
After the 1930s viewers see fewer depictions of women enjoying food and more pretend eating in film. Marilyn Monroe wrestles with a candy bar in Clash by Night (1952) making it seem as though she’s taken a huge bite and has a cheek stuffed with chocolate, when it really appears to vanish in her mouth with just her tongue standing in for the treat. Instead of chewing the candy, she concentrates on licking her fingers, because I suppose men in the audience find more interesting. Monroe’s boyfriend echoes male displeasure at seeing women enjoy food when he first plucks the chocolate from her hands and warns ‘you’ll spread.’ Perhaps the worst fake eater award falls to Audrey Hepburn’s character in Charade (1963). She’s supposed to play a woman who eats her feelings, but meanwhile, it looks like she chokes and gags on each bite in an anorectic revulsion. Her arms rival match stick silhouette and her throat stretches paper thin from want. She’s the least likely binge eater in cinema.