At the Cannes film festival in 2014, Julianne Moore won the Best Actress award for her performance as an ageing Hollywood actress in David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars. Amid the astonishing display of naked egotism, neurotic insecurity and brutal close-ups, one scene stands out as even more fearless than the others – Moore issues instructions to her flustered assistant (Mia Wasikowska) while sitting, constipated, on the lavatory. Complete with flatulent sound effects.
There was a time when toilets were taboo. Louis B. Mayer was so disgusted by a glimpse of one in King Vidor’s groundbreaking silent movie The Crowd (1928) that he publicly denounced the film as obscene, even though it had been produced by MGM, his own studio. I can’t find any mention of bathrooms (or of any other euphemism for toilet, which is itself a euphemism) in The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 (better known as The Hays Code), but one can safely assume they were classed under the heading of “Vulgarity”, and thus to be avoided.
Hence, when the Joad children encounter a modern W.C. for the first time in The Grapes of Wrath, it remains offscreen so we don’t share their view of it – though we do hear it flushing as they flee in terror. In 1960, the sight of a toilet being flushed centre-frame in Psycho shocked audiences almost as much as the murder in the shower, but it still took a couple of decades before the limits of WC decency were seriously tested by gross-out comedies and splattery horror.
Julianne Moore is not the first award-winning actor to play a scene punctuated by flatulence, but it might be the first example in a straight drama since Michel Piccoli expired from a surfeit of gastric wind in La grande bouffe. In Moore’s case it’s a demonstration of her character’s arrogant oneupwomanship and not intended as comedy, though audiences have been reacting with uneasy laughter because we’re not used to seeing serious actresses letting it all hang out like that. We’re more accustomed to bowel activity being played for laughs in films like Dumb and Dumber, in which Jeff Daniels runs an impressive gamut of facial expressions when his date with Lauren Holly is threatened by a violent laxative-induced purge, or Along Came Polly, in which Ben Stiller’s evening with Jennifer Aniston gets off to a rotten start thanks to Irritable Bowel Syndrome and a shortage of toilet paper, leading to blockage and flooded bathroom.
The blockage-and-flood trope was first offered up in its full slapstick glory in The Party (1968) when bumbling Peter Sellers breaks his host’s cistern, unravels an entire roll of toilet paper, and floods the bathroom. It’s seen at its most sinister in Coppola’s paranoia thriller The Conversation, where the lavatory disgorges blood, a grim sign that confirms Gene Hackman’s fears that a murder has taken place in the otherwise pristine hotel suite, but staged so extravagantly you can’t help wondering if it’s all in his mind. There’s an echo of this, this time with the water coloured blue, in Scorsese’s nightmarish screwball black comedy After Hours, with Griffin Dunne’s evening in SoHo going from bad to worse when he floods a Good Samaritan’s bathroom.
And don’t forget the dunking. Jeff Bridges gets dunked in his own lavvy at the start of The Big Lebowski (“Where’s the money, Lebowski?” “It’s down there somewhere, let me take another look”) and Clive Owen shoves Benicio del Toro’s head into the pan in Sin City . There’s yet more dunking in Austin Powers; International Man of Mystery, which reverses the usual gross-out gag when Tom Arnold mistakes the sounds of Mike Myers’ fight-to-the-death with an assassin in a neighbouring stall for constipated groaning and yells, “Yeah, that’s it! You show that turd who’s boss!”
As if head-dunking weren’t unpleasant enough, movie toilets have also been known to swallow people whole. In Deep Rising (still Stephen Sommers’ most enjoyable film, with the possible exception of Odd Thomas) a hapless cruise passenger is dragged into the toilet by what is later revealed to be a gigantic Cthulhu-like creature with tentacles. In Street Trash, a prime 1980s example of what came to be known as “Melt Movies”, consumption of toxic liquor makes a vagrant dissolve into goo on the loo in a riot of colourful pre-CGI gloop . In Trainspotting, Ewan McGregor dives into the “Worst Toilet in Scotland” to recover some drugs; director Danny Boyle would later explore his scatological streak even further when the young hero of Slumdog Millionaire jumps into a cesspit.
People are at their most vulnerable with their pants down; Danny Glover’s plight when he finds his lavatory has been rigged to explode in Lethal Weapon 2 is exacerbated by the humiliation of half the L.A.P.D. seeing him like that. (“Guys like you don’t die on toilets,” says his partner, Mel Gibson.) When John Travolta goes to the loo in Pulp Fiction, he’s setting himself up for the least dignified fate imaginable for a professional hitman – but it also makes the character seem more human and poignant when the film skips back in time and we see him alive again.
Stanley Kubrick turned out some memorable toilet scenes in the latter part of his career: Jack Nicholson meeting the dead caretaker in the men’s washrooms of The Overlook in The Shining, Vincent D’Onofrio shooting his drill sergeant and then himself in the disturbingly open-plan washroom in Full Metal Jacket, Nicole Kidman sitting on the loo in full view of Tom Cruise at the start of Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut.
But the definitive W.C. statement by an auteur was surely the one filmed back in 1974 by Luis Buñuel. The old provocateur’s Phantom of Liberty includes a memorable scene in which the well-dressed bourgeoisie sit around on toilets, chatting happily to one another about excrement, before one of them excuses himself to visit a small cubicle at the end of the hallway – where he furtively eats dinner.
This piece was first posted on the Telegraph website in October 2014. It has since been lightly edited.