As the clichéd saying goes, “Art imitates life”. And thus, since film is a form of art, it also imitates life. And films that imitate life wouldn’t exist if people weren’t populating theaters to watch them… which is a part of life. Naturally, films have featured some really great scenes in movie theaters. Here are some of my favorites.
Taxi Driver (1976)
The unimaginably awkward Travis Bickle scores a date with the beautiful Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) and takes her to the movies. The punchline- the horribly uncomfortable punchline that makes the viewer wince- is that Bickle’s idea of a dream date is taking her to a pornographic film, even despite her protestations upon realizing where he’s taken her.
Annie Hall (1977)
It’s quite an intelligent scene. It establishes Woody Allen’s neurotic character; the over-the-top film critic guy behind him is someone we’ve all known; breaking out of the line to talk directly to the audience is a neat device; and the Marshall McLuhan punchline delivers.
Donnie Darko (2001)
First of all, a theater showing The Evil Dead and The Last Temptation of Christ to further establish the 1980ness of the film really tickled my nostalgia bone. And what kid in the 80’s wouldn’t have wanted to see The Evil Dead on the big screen just days before Halloween? Throw in Frank the Creepy Bunny Rabbit and a portal in the screen leading to a home intended to be burnt down and you’ve got a cult scene for the ages.
The 400 Blows (1959)
It’s not that surprising that in Truffaut’s mostly biographical work, the hero- Antoine Doinel- would be at his happiest coming out of a theater.
Inglourious Basterds (2009)
Not unlike when Spielberg opened the arc of the covenant to murder Nazis, Quentin Tarantino used a theater to do the same. Using the Jewish Shosanna Dreyfus to execute the plan further jarred the film from conventional war film fare into revenge fantasy. Her giant, theater screen-sized face looming over them as they burn is an enduring image from a really fantastic film.
Cape Fear (1991)
Scorsese and DeNiro strike again, this time by turning Max Cady into every theater patron’s worst nightmare.
Here’s a bit of movie math: Mickey Rourke + mischievous lurid sexual plot + popcorn box + date = movie magic
Ghost World (2001)
Giving Enid (Thora Birch) a job as a movie theater employee was a really excellent way to unleash the character’s cynicism, piling one glob of theater butter after another on patrons’ popcorn and pestering them to upgrade their drinks.
The Seven Year Itch (1955)
Richard, feeling the so-called “seven year itch” of marital boredom while his wife is out of town, takes his blonde bombshell neighbor (Marilyn Monroe) to the movies on a steamy summer New York city night. Following the film, Monroe stops atop a subway grate, wherein the rush of air from a passing train lifts her skirt, thereby sending hordes of pre-teen boys in the 50’s into an early puberty. It’s one of the most iconic scenes in movie history and it all happened thanks to two characters going to a movie.
O Brother, Where Art Thou (2000)
One of the funnier scenes in a very funny movie sees Pete (John Turturro) very unsubtly whispering “DO NOT SEEK… THE TREASURE” while Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) volleys back “WE THOUGHT YOU WAS A TOAD”. Given the rest of the film, it’s amazing how cogent and normal that whole exchange seems.
The menacing slimy green creatures famously overtook a theater showing Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in a scene that culminated with them singing along to “Heigh-Ho” with the on-screen dwarfs. I speak from experience here- humanizing these playfully malevolent creatures managed to take the pants-soiling fright out of them, if only for a minute, to eight year olds all over the country.
The futuristic theater scene was part of a larger sequence detailing just how idiotic the human race had become several centuries into the future. It’s so simple, and yet so over the top, and so funny to me. If you were trying to come up with the most awful form of entertainment that would win several Oscars (including best screenplay) in an intellectually bankrupt civilization, you’d be hard pressed to top “Ass”.
I thought it was quite clever that Fincher’s film featured movie patrons watching Dirty Harry, the 1971 film based on the Zodiac killer. It even included, as I recall, a cardboard cutout in the theater lobby of Clint Eastwood as Harry Callahan.
Blazing Saddles (1974)
The incredible finale of the film features a fight that breaks out of the imaginary world of the wild west into several modern day film sets and ultimately onto Hollywood Boulevard, in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater… which just happens to be showing the premiere of Blazing Saddles. As it turns out, “meta” isn’t such a new concept.