It’s as iconic an image as the Hollywood sign: a fluted glass and a plastic straw, maybe a cherry bobbing on top, probably sipped at by a fifties high school ingénue idly wondering whether Bobby, Billy, Buck or another corn-fed football player will ask her to the prom. Or perhaps there are two straws, one for each dreamy teen to make eyes at each other over on a first date…
Milkshakes in the movies are shorthand for sweetness and goodness. Like lollipops and curls, they’re accessories of uncorrupted youth supped by virginal Sandra Dee-types, or at least, that used to be the case. Filmmakers are well aware of milkshake’s chaste connotations, and have subverted the drink’s clean-cut image to make it the chosen beverage of coke-sniffing gangster’s molls, Edinburgh smack addicts, and cynical Irish garda. Don’t be fooled by its virtuous persona, milkshakes in the movies run with a tough crowd.
Before we come to milkshake’s dark side in cinema, let’s remember its vanilla days. An early link between milkshake and youth in the movies, or youthful folly to be more precise, came with 1937’s Captains Courageous, in which a spoilt, boastful rich kid on a cruise with his wealthy father drinks multiple milkshakes to impress a crowd. The milkshakes in this instance function as part of a moral lesson, causing the child to become sick, fall overboard and be rescued by a fishing schooner on which he learns humility and the value of old-fashioned hard work.
Milkshakes are less of a plot point, and more a symbol of naivety in later appearances. In Joseph L Mankiewicz’s All About Eve, Bette Davis’s Margo is riled upon discovering her man chatting animatedly to her much younger, fresher-faced assistant, (the titular Eve). Margo puts in a drink order for a dry Martini, then mockingly suggests Eve will have a milkshake. It’s a characteristically snide dig at her ambitious assistant, and an attempt at asserting womanhood over girlhood through milkshake’s associations with virginity.
Steve Buscemi’s Seymour in Ghost World is similarly mocked by catty teenager Enid, this time from afar, as he orders a virginal vanilla milkshake whilst waiting for his blind-date to arrive (thanks to another of Enid’s cruel pranks, she never will). Also starring Buscemi, the Coen brothers’ Fargo uses milkshakes as a stand-in for wholesomeness, after Scotty Lundegaard’s grandfather warns his daughter and son-in-law that they shouldn’t let young Scotty out to meet his friends at McDonalds, asking “Whaddya think they do there? They don’t drink milkshakes, I assure you.”
Woody Allen’s 1979 comedy Manhattan emphasises the age gap between Allan’s 42-year-old character Isaac and his 17-year-old girlfriend Tracy by showing her drinking a girlish milkshake in a bar, while an even less appropriate age gap is explored in the 1997 Lolita using the same symbol as Dominique Swain’s Lolita sips from a chocolate shake on her road trip with pervert academic Humbert Humbert (Jeremy Irons).
Noticeably, neither Isaac nor Humbert share their young partner’s milkshakes, sweetheart sipping being a move Hollywood tends to reserve for actual sweethearts. The milkshake is a default date drink in US movies, and one coincidentally enjoyed by Gwyneth Paltrow in both 1998’s Sliding Doors and 2001’s Shallow Hal.
It’s not always a lovers’ move. A non-romantically paired couple memorably did the milkshake share in 1996’s Trainspotting, as Renton and Spud sucked up a joint shake before Spud’s infamous amphetamine-fuelled job interview in the film.
The best-known instance of shake-sharing in a film involves one of the most famous (and most expensive) milkshakes in cinema: Mia Wallace’s Five Dollar Shake in Pulp Fiction. After sampling the shake in question and declaring it yummy, Uma Thurman’s Wallace allows John Travolta’s Vega a taste, telling him, “You can use my straw, I don’t have cooties”. His expletive-ridden response is heard just as the first bars of Link Wray’s Rumble play: “Goddamn, that’s a pretty fucking good milkshake”. Virginal no longer, Mia’s milkshake was as retro glam as her vampy nails.
Of course, in the movies, you’re just as likely to see a milkshake dripping thickly from someone’s head as you are one behaving itself in a glass. It must be the unctuousness that’s so attractive to the thrower – any other beverage would splash and disappear, but a milkshake drips humiliatingly slowly down a face it’s been thrown at. Milkshake leaves its mark.
We could list face-meets-milkshake movie moments for hours, so popular is the method of attack for film characters. Probably fondest remembered is spunky Rizzo in Grease, launching her shake at boyfriend Kenickie with the words “Finish this!”. Innocent bystander Frenchy also gets a face-full and is taught a valuable life-lesson by diner waitress Vi: “there’s no use crying over spilt milkshake”.
Not crying over spilt milkshake is something The Goonies’ Chunk also has to learn, as his youthful enthusiasm for watching police cars racing past a fast-food joint’s window causes him to crush what looks like a delicious strawberry shake (in a well-positioned Pepsi cup). Much more seriously, the precise landing position of a spilt fast-food milkshake forms a crucial part of the evidence in Errol Morris’ 1988 documentary The Thin Blue Line about a wrongful murder conviction.
Nicholas Cage’s divisive TV weatherman in Gore Verbinski’s The Weather Man can’t walk around in the street without ‘fans’ hurling milkshakes at him, Michelle Pfeiffer’s sleazy boss in Married to the Mob gets the milkshake-in-the-face treatment, as does Cindy’s ex-boyfriend Brent in John Hughes teen flick Can’t Buy Me Love. It’s not only film characters under threat, Piranha 3D takes advantage of its third dimension to lob a milkshake into the audience (or pretends to at least using digital jiggery-pokery).
It’s not just faces either, movie milkshakes are handy projectiles to throw from a distance, as seen in the closing moments of Alexander Payne’s Election. Matthew Broderick plays a teacher fired after wrongful accusations are made by former student, Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon), who sees Flick years later in the back of a limo in Washington D.C. His best move to get back at the scheming ex-student is to lob the milkshake he’s holding at the car, and then like Brave Sir Robin, to bravely run away.
After all that exertion, movie characters may well need a stiff drink, another area in which the humble milkshake comes into its own. Using the shake as an alcohol substitute (or mixer, as we’re about to see) is an established trick, as seen in Back To The Future. In another fifties diner-set scene, wimpy George McFly is working up the guts to ask his prom date out, but needs some Dutch courage before he does so. “Lou, give me a milk, chocolate” he asks, before catching the drink that’s slid to him whisky-like down the bar and knocking it back in one, cowboy-style. The same joke is used repeatedly in Bugsy Malone, set at Fat Sam’s speakeasy/milk bar, where the kids’ moustaches are either stuck-on with glue or made from milk.
Those are the virgin-shakes standing in for alcohol, but there are also movie milkshakes you wouldn’t necessarily want your kids drinking. The Korova milk bar in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange serves ‘milk plus’ – cow juice laced with stimulants and hallucinogens, while 1986 horror Crawlspace saw the addition of tequila to a sleepover milkshake, and Marlon Brando’s devious character lies to inexperienced Jean Simmons in Guys and Dolls that the Dulce de Leche he’s plying her with are only milkshakes, and not rum cocktails.
Alcohol and drug-laced milkshakes would be infinitely preferable to some of the ingredients movie characters blend together. Comedy horrors My Best Friend’s a Vampire and An American Werewolf in Paris boast a stomach-churning human heart and raw liver shake respectively, while the concoction Brian Bosworth whips up in action movie Stone Cold would hardly be preferable to those flavour revolutions (luckily, it’s for his pet iguana rather than human consumption). Jane in crime spoof Naked Gun pulls a similar trick, blending an extremely odd selection of items for her own extremely interesting milkshake creation.
Again, playing on the disconnect between the white stuff’s innocent connotations and the less-than-innocent characters who drink them, there’s a hard-core of movie tough guys who enjoy a good shake. Brendan Gleeson’s Sergeant Gerry Boyle in brilliant comedy The Guard downs his in one, and fellow hard (but not necessarily well-adjusted) men Mickey Knox from Natural Born Killers and Léon from Luc Besson’s Léon are also fans of a frothy glass of milk. Even Jedi knights are in on the action, with Luke Skywalker seen enjoying a cup of blue space milk in Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope. Extracted from Tatooine’s blue desert mice perhaps?
The unwitting spokesperson for milkshakes in the movies though, is one man, and one man only: Daniel Day-Lewis. Thanks to a particularly zealous performance from Day-Lewis in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2007 film There Will Be Blood, a metaphor for oil drilling has become one of film’s most quoted lines of recent years. “I drink your milkshake” is now a smack-talk phrase wheeled out whenever a victor is in need of a boo-ya/in your face/hell yeah moment, and it’s popped up not only on t-shirts and coffee mugs, but in Saturday Night Live sketches and TV adverts. There’s not even a milkshake in the scene, but Day-Lewis still tops the list.
Which leaves us with the miscellanea, the fringe milkshake appearances in the movies, from the kooky Cap’N Crunch and peanut butter concoction whipped up in Benny And Joon, to Before Sunrise’s milkshake-inspired poem written by a Viennese bum. And of course, to the end-credits sequence in 2004 comedy Dodgeball, wherein a popular milkshake-themed song by Kelis gets an unusual new dance courtesy of Ben Stiller in a particularly repulsive fat suit.
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