The recent passing of Beth Howland, who memorably played the scatterbrained Vera on the TV sitcom Alice, reminded me that the entertainment media are full of female characters who look for love while waiting tables at cafes and diners across our land. Some live with the fact that they’re treated badly; others rise above their circumstances and discover they have talents other serving burgers and chicken-fried steak.
Back in 1970, Five Easy Pieces didn’t portray its waitresses with much kindness. The film, which memorably starred Jack Nicholson as an oil rig worker trying to distance himself from his aristocratic family, paired Nicholson with Karen Black, playing his waitress girlfriend. Not only is Black’s Rayette something of a whiny bimbo but Nicholson also makes a hash of his encounter with a waitress unfortunate enough to tell him (in what is probably the film’s best remembered scene) that he can’t order toast.
In 1974, Martin Scorsese shifted away from his usual mean streets to present an endearing portrait of a waitress in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Much of the film’s action takes place in a Tucson diner where a recent widow (Ellen Burstyn) with dreams of becoming a singer works alongside the sassy Flo (Diane Ladd) and the spacey Vera (Valerie Curtin), eventually finding romance with an attractive rancher (Kris Kristofferson) who warms to her and her young son. So appealing was this film that Burstyn won a Best Actress Oscar, and the TV series Alice, starring Linda Lavin and Polly Holliday along with Howland, soon followed.
Most waitress movies seem to take place in the Southwest or in Dixie, but Mystic Pizza (1988) sets its three attractive young servers (including a then-unknown Julia Roberts) in a New England town, adding an ethnic touch to its story of young women looking for love. More typical – and much more morose -- is Allison Anders’ 1992 indie, Gas Food Lodgings, in which a single mom (Brooke Adams) and her two young daughters cope with diner work in a dull desert town.
Then there’s Waitress, which in 2007 was an upbeat Sundance favorite, despite the tragic murder of its writer/director Adrienne Shelly (she also appears in the film) just before the film’s debut. The waitress played by Keri Russell is a genius at pie-baking, but she’s also in thrall to a miserably self-centered husband. Then, oops, she realizes she’s pregnant by the jerk to whom she no longer wants to be married. An unexpected affair with her ob/gyn leads her to sort out her priorities, and the end result is an empowered young woman ready and able to make use of her talents.
It’s typical of today’s Broadway that modest movie successes can lead to hit musicals. Waitress, which opened recently with Jessie Mueller in the central role, has just been nominated for four major Tony awards, including best musical and best score (by Sara Bareilles). The cast has a ball with all the pie-baking and jolly Southernisms, and Mueller – along with fellow waitress chums played by feisty Keala Settle and ditsy Kimiko Glenn of Orange is the New Black – sing up a storm. I also enjoyed the presence of veteran Dakin Matthews, whom I interviewed many moons ago, as the crotchety owner of Joe’s Pie Diner. But while fairytale endings are fun, the rosy conclusion of Waitress seems to work against a story about the realities of a working gal’s life. Still, it’s lovely to leave the theatre and go hunting for a good piece of The-Show-is-Over pie. Served, probably, by a waitress with Broadway stardom on her mind.