Thursday, October 6, 2011

Close Encounters of the Meat Loaf Kind

In one of the best acted scenes in all of American cinema, Richard Dreyfuss, playing Roy Neary in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, fashions the Devil’s Tower out of mashed potato to the dismay of his family. This scene requires an ungodly amount of discipline; Roy Neary is compelled to recreate images of the Devil’s Tower by forces he cannot explain and becomes aware, after seeing his wife and children’s bewilderment, that his actions are scaring them. Dreyfuss has to not only convey his illusion that the mashed potato is the Devil’s Tower to the audience with conviction, but he has to actually mold it into shape without getting an acute attack of the giggles.

Emotionally it rides the razor’s edge between humor and despair, especially on the part of the children, who at first are puzzled by their father’s odd behavior — which would be silly under any other context — but which now signals his mental breakdown. They cry real tears. Eventually, Roy’s wife leaves him, taking their children with her. Although Roy loves his family (which he assures them in this scene), he decides to join the aliens who eventually land at the Devil’s Tower, and leave the planet, thus making his mashed potato scene even more poignant.

The part was turned down by Steve McQueen because he could not cry on cue. It was also rejected by Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Gene Hackman and Jack Nicholson.

For a long while after 1977, mashed potato suffered the indignity of being molded into the Devil’s Tower on countless dinner plates while people sang out the film’s distinctive theme tune. By 1979, when the New Junior Cook Book was published, mashed potato was reduced to a kind of edible Play-Doh being smeared on meat loaf. The mash in the film was clearly made from instant potato (tell-tale signs: its gummy texture and brilliant white color), as is this.

If Roy’s wife had used real potatoes, perhaps he would never have climbed aboard the mothership. Just sayin’.

New Junior Cook Book, Better Homes and Gardens, 1979

Also from this book: Scrumptious Sweet Potatoes

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