The Myth of the Diner Waitress
Like my favorite Miyazaki heroines, I have taken on service work in a foreign land, and so return to one of my favorite cinematic archetypes: the wayward diner waitress. Cast away from her destiny, she strings up her apron and embraces the grimness, and the glory, of quotidian service. These waitresses rarely want to be in this line of service, or care much about the people who frequent their booths. Rather, they’re lost souls, long fallen down Hecate’s crossroads, with only the possibility of chance to change their fate. The actresses who play them must dial their star power to a low, crackling hum; their natural incandescence skillfully subdued under the pastel uniform.
Here’s my top ten favorite diner waitress performances, from film and television. Of course, there are caveats: This list does not include movies about restaurants. Though Waitress should fit the bill, it’s too into the diner itself, and there’s no sense that the characters are going anywhere else. Support the Girls and certainly True Blood get the culture, but they’re set at restaurants, not diners. I’m looking instead for the distinct dissociation of a modern woman conforming into the tableaux of a lost Americana. That can only go down at a diner. Lastly, I’ve never watched Twin Peaks, so don’t expect that one here. Many greats didn’t make it, particularly from the Robert Altman oeuvre: Lily Tomlin in Short Cuts and Cher in Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean will remain eternal forever. Now, onto the legends.
RANKING THE GREAT AMERICAN DINER WAITRESSES
10. Susan Sarandon in Thelma & Louise (1991)
To be clear, she’s barely a waitress for more than a few seconds of screen time, but as the road trip to higher consciousness unfurls, we understand that Sarandon’s Louise had been playing it small for far too long. Her apron is a disguise; what she’d survived had to be silenced for a world of chipper, consumerist femininity. By the end of the movie, we have come to know two immortal outlaws; the diner, and its sleepwalking submission to the man, represents the life they can never return to.
9. Juliana Donald as Jenny in The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984)
In the ’80s, movies like Adventures in Babysitting and After Hours would remind suburban nobodies that the big city could be fun for a weekend, but not for a long stay: it’s too dangerous, and disgusting, for your bourgeois sensibilities. Don’t move here. Unfortunately, those glory days are gone. The Muppets Take Manhattan contributes to the cause by celebrating the literal rodents who work in the city’s kitchens, and letting them sing at the Muppet’s favorite diner. The staff includes humans, too, like the sweet Jenny, a friend to Kermit who inevitably unleashes the volcanic jealousy of Miss Piggy. When it comes to acting with muppets, Juliana Donald is no Jennifer Connelly, but she doesn’t try to steal anyone’s show. Besides, nothing in this movie, or any movie, compares to construction workers catcalling Miss Piggy. Nothing.
8. Julia Roberts, Lili Taylor and Annabeth Gish in Mystic Pizza (1988)
Technically, Mystic Pizza shouldn’t make the cut: it’s about a pizzeria and not a diner, and its coastal New England setting is far more idyllic than our usual NYC/LA/middle-of-nowhere locales. And yet, one can’t overlook the three perfectly-realized waitress archetypes, all navigating liminal life crossings: meek, bookish Kat (Annabeth Gish), clearly on her way out of this small town; her smashing sister Daisy (Julia Roberts), doomed to go nowhere fast; and Jojo (Lili Taylor), lovelorn to her high school sweetheart. Mystic Pizza feels more contemporaneous to its times than the other portrayals of sharp women sleepwalking through a suspended America; but for depicting the transient nature of the service worker, it’s essential.
7. Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jane Watson, Spider-Man (2002)
"Excuse me, Miss Watson, I’m talking to you!” A brief scene that led to a legendary meme. Debuting just months after 9/11, Spider-Man would not only launch the superhero boom of the millennium, but would reanimate cinematic New York with life and vigor, airing out the smoke from ground zero and welcoming back the sun. But for all their outsize spectacle, Sam Raimi’s Spider-man movies do capture the bleak hardship of getting by in Giuliani’s New York. While Jennifer Aniston served coffee and skate through rent on Friends, Kirsten Dunst had to hoof it to survive in the city. This is no charming diner, and Dunst, pissed as all hell, captures the spirit of Venus fallen to hell, wrapped in a trench coat to cover her shame.
6. Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Waitress Porno on The Deuce (2017–2019)
It bears repeating: If the United States is ever called to compete in some form of acting olympics, we’ll need Maggie Gyllenhaal at bat. The Deuce is one of the best shows ever, and perhaps the best show about New York City ever made: a vivid history of sex workers, AIDS activists and the forgotten hopefuls of the Disco years. Gyllenhaal’s Eileen goes from street worker to porno actress to director, and finds inspiration for her magnum opus at a late night diner in Times Square, watching a waitress endure workaday harassment from her customers. The waitress is transient, invisible, forgettable. But in the eyes of a feminist visionary, she may be worthy of vindication, and the chance to be a protagonist.
5. Jan Hooks as Brenda the Waitress on Saturday Night Live (1990)
Is this even a comedy sketch? Is it something less, or something more? “Brenda the Waitress” is so subtle that it feels like a fluke on SNL, an experiment in language and timing that could only happen in the days before Adam Sandler. And yet, something stays with you, like a painting you can’t quite forget, an impression of beauty that doesn’t need to have a punchline. Jan Hooks, underrated as ever, captures the romantic simplicity of the country diner waitress, and her one prerogative to excitement: the possibility, and danger, of a handsome stranger walking through the door.
4. Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor in The Terminator (1984)
“Look at it this way: in a hundred years, who’s gonna care?” In a coral pink apron and matching barrettes, Linda Hamilton couldn’t be further away from her role as Mother Mary of the machine-war messiah. Nearly a decade later, in Terminator 2, Hamilton would embrace her destiny as the definitive shotgun-toting motor mamma. But even at the origin, as a tabula rasa waiting tables with no end in sight, Hamilton still sparkles with something unnamable: she’s meant for more. When the robot from the future comes to kill her, the bows come off, the awakening begins, and no doubt remains that this woman is the future.
3. Sarah Michelle Gellar as Buffy the Vampire Slayer (“Anne,” Season Three, Episode 1)
In 20 Feet from Stardom, Darlene Love recalls rising to fame, then being erased from her own musical legacy by Phil Spector. She wakes up, years later, cleaning houses, wondering where it all went wrong. That is the mystery of the diner waitress: What if the most powerful person in the world fell and never got up? Why is Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, a force of nature, pouring coffee and dissociating through sexual abuse? Sarah Michelle Gellar is bone-chilling during her brief detour into L.A.’s mean streets; her checkered uniform can barely cover the gushing blood of her broken heart. Of course, Buffy, and Darlene Love, would rise again and again, more powerful than ever before. But for the comeback to be worth it, the hero must climb her way out of the darkest anonymity, even with no light at the end of the tunnel.
2. Ellen Burstyn as Alice in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)
“Don’t look back, or you might turn into a pile of shit.” For the sad-sack single mother Alice, the past is a growing mound of disappointment: her limp-dicked husband is dead, her son is weird, and her ambitions to sing have yet to bear fruit. Of course, by taking on a job at Mel’s Diner, Alice must face a fate of mediocrity and contentment, even if it conflicts with her dreams. As the definitive country waitress Flo, Diane Ladd perfectly foils Alice, who insists she isn’t going to be here for very long. Burstyn won an Oscar for Alice, and Ladd would continue her part in the long-running TV adaptation. This diner may bubble with charm, but for Alice, it represents the end of the road. In surrendering to it, she finally gives in to her destiny.
1. Michelle Pfeiffer as Frankie in Frankie & Johnny (1991)
Kathy Bates originated the role of Frankie onstage, and campaigned to inherit it in the screen adaptation. Of course the casting of Pfeiffer, the most beautiful woman in the world, would incite backlash. And yet, she tears it. Her Frankie is shattered, perhaps never to be fully restored, a hard shell surviving the grime of the city. Of course, Al Pacino, the new line cook, eventually thaws her heart, but not with a promise of salvation. For Frankie, this diner isn’t a mere blip in her great story; it’s the purgatory she’s come to call home, the mirror clouded with grease and shmutz. This is who she is. From here, can she begin again?
You can read more of my work at davidodyssey.com/articles. Let me know if I missed any of your favorites.