Don't Try This at Home: The Sequel

Can the schemes and incidents Hollywood blithely depicts in the movies actually be recreated in real life? Joe Queenan risks his life to prove, once again, the answer is: NO!


Two years ago, this magazine published an extremely controversial article ("Don't Try This at Home," October 1991) proving that movies bear no relation to reality as we know it. Specifically, the article demonstrated, through a series of meticulous reenactments of famous scenes from motion pictures, that almost no scam, gambit, stratagem, scheme, trick or ploy that worked in the movies could be reproduced in real life. Scrutinizing scenes as varied as the concealed latchkey incident in Dial M for Murder and the time when Woody Allen orders 1000 grilled cheese sandwiches in Bananas, the article proved, without the shadow of a doubt, that pranks and ploys that work to perfection in the movies cannot be duplicated in real life. The conclusion of the study was that ordinary people should try to organize their lives around time-honored principles they have learned from their parents, the Bible, or valuable self-help books, but should not try to run their lives by imitating the movies. This can only lead to heartbreak, sorrow and even madness.

The response to the article was overwhelming, as the magazine was literally deluged with mail from readers all over the planet. Numerous readers expressed their gratitude that someone had actually gone out and proven--scientifically--that it was not possible to masquerade as a corporate raider and get a hooker to attend a formal dinner with a chief executive whose company you were planning to take over, and that therefore the entire premise of Pretty Woman went right out the window. Others were relieved that someone had taken the time to prove that women cannot successfully fake orgasms in crowded restaurants the way Meg Ryan did in When Harry Met Sally... because real men can spot fake orgasms a mile away. Still others were pleased to have in their possession irrefutable scientific evidence that a layman suffering from severe amnesia could not land a job as the director of a famous psychiatric institution (where he would occasionally be called upon to practice surgery) without at least coming in for a face-to-face interview, thus proving that the maverick hiring techniques immortalized in Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound are a complete joke that bear no relation to reality.

For the most part, Movieline readers were thrilled with the data presented in "Don't Try This at Home," and edified that someone would have the time, motivation, energy and money to go out and put various cinematic assumptions to the test. Nevertheless, a small but vocal minority found the article to be juvenile, methodologically suspect and even stupid. One reader wondered why I had not attempted to canoe down a river in rural Georgia to see if it would be possible to negotiate this arduous trek without getting sodomized by dysfunctional mountain men. Another thought I should have attempted to recreate the scene from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid where Robert Redford and Paul Newman leap several hundred feet into a roaring torrent of water without suffering any lesions, cuts, contusions or even bumps. Perhaps the most memorable response came from a man doing five years in a Massachusetts prison, who wrote: "If only I had read your article before robbing that bank I would have known that crimes that work in the movies won't work in real life."

Speaking personally, I was enormously gratified at the extraordinary response to the article I had written at such vast personal risk to life and limb. But one question that perplexed me ever since the article was published was whether the powers-that-be in the movie industry would respond to my research in any way. Now that the public realized that movies were a huge joke that sought to purvey a fatally skewed, hopelessly unrealistic image of ordinary life, would Hollywood producers take steps to improve their products, to make sure that films more accurately reflect life as we know it? Or would they simply dismiss my findings as the addled ramblings of a disgruntled fuckhead?

To answer this question, I decided to go back out into the streets and update my experiment. Once again, I would select a handful of memorable scenes from recognizable and/or important movies and attempt to determine whether the incidents depicted could be reproduced in real life. But this time, instead of choosing scenes from movies spanning the past 40 years, I would limit myself almost exclusively to films that had been released in the past year, films that most movie lovers would have either seen or read about somewhere along the line. The results appear below.

White Men Can't Jump.

Ron Shelton's highly entertaining 1992 release starts with an extremely suspect scene in which a pasty-faced Caucasian played by Woody Harrelson sidles onto a blacks-only basketball court at Venice Beach and succeeds in humiliating a talented black playground legend played by Wesley Snipes. From the moment I saw this film, I had my doubts about this scene. Neither Woody Harrelson nor the Billy Hoyle character he plays look sufficiently fast, muscular or talented enough to sidle onto a blacks-only basketball court and humiliate a playground legend. Neither do I. I too am a pasty-faced Caucasian short on speed, talent, muscles and guts, and although I play basketball twice a week, I never play very well and I never play against playground legends. Thus, I seemed like the perfect candidate to step into Woody Harrelson's shoes and find out how plausible the opening scene from White Men Can't Jump actually is.

I showed up about 7:00 p.m. on a torrid summer evening at a basketball court located at Sixth Avenue and Houston Street in Lower Manhattan. I immediately approached the tallest, blackest, most athletic man on the court and said, "I've got $62 that says you can't beat me." ($62 is the amount that Woody Harrelson won from Wesley Snipes in the movie.) The expression on the young man's face suggested that it had been quite some time since any pasty-faced white person with a baseball cap twisted backwards around his skull had used this unconventional approach. But he was more than game, happy to have an opportunity to win the $62. He suggested we play a one-on-one game to seven points, with airballs and steals going straight up, but anything off the backboard or rim going back to the chanty stripe. He shot a long jumper to see who would take the ball out first; he missed and I inbounded. I pumped twice, getting him to leave his feet, and shot an airball directly into the fence behind the backboard. I checked up and handed him the ball; he hit a no-rim jumper from 18 feet, then a no-rim jumper from 15 feet; then he blew past me for two reverse lay-ups. Four-zip.

"Bend your knees and guard him," said a paunchy black man from the side, but I ignored him. I am 42 years old and last bent my knees when Gerald Ford was in office. The third time my opponent drove to the basket I partially blocked his shot, causing him to miss his lay-up--though not by much--and I hurried back to the foul line, from which I promptly launched another airball. He inbounded and blew past me for two more lay-ups. Game point. Then he got too cocky. The last two times he'd scored, I'd noticed that he would first bang the ball off the backboard, catch it in the air, and then lay it home. So this time, as he tried to go past me at 220 mph, I drifted back, waited till he reached the ball, and blocked it off the board. It flew over to the far side, where I grabbed it, retreated to the foul line, lined up an easy 15-footer, and drilled it home.

"Nobody beats me seven-zip," I sneered as I prepared to drive home to the hoop. I missed a jumper, he rebounded and whipped past me for another easy reverse, winning the game 7-1. Incidentally, the entire contest could not have taken more than two minutes and 10 seconds, 2:17 at the outside.

Purists may complain that my study was rigged because I am about 15 years older than Woody Harrelson, and because the character he plays in the movie is supposed to have played college ball. Also, Wesley Snipes is short. To these criticisms, I say: bullshit. The average white person watching White Men Can't Jump is going to see a somewhat clumsy-looking white guy about six feet tall who is not especially fleet of foot putting a whipping on a fast, talented, muscular black man on his own court. The entire point of my experiment was to warn white men who look like Woody Harrelson not to go out and try to beat muscular black men on then-own court unless they are prepared to lose $62. All white men look like Woody Harrelson.

I should point out two things: when I handed the victor a pile of fives, tens and singles that I thought totaled $62, he counted them, found that I had overpayed and said, "Hey, man, you gave me $14 too much." This illustrated something I have always suspected about this wonderful sport: basketball is an essentially chivalrous activity, with its own iron-clad rules of dignity, where nobody tries to cheat anybody else. The second thing I learned on the court was about talking the kind of trash they talk in White Men Can't Jump. At no point during our mano a mano confrontation did I ever say anything like, "Your momma's so fat she fell over and broke a leg and gravy poured out" or "Your momma's so old she used to drive chariots to high school." If I'd said anything like that, I suspect my opponent would have really kicked my ass.

Body of Evidence.

Hey, I like sadomasochism as much the next person, but they should have cleared this flick with the Consumer Product Safety Commission before releasing it. As the four people who saw it during its theatrical run will recall, Willem Dafoe plays a well-meaning lawyer who's a bit slow on the uptake, and Madonna, in a piece of truly inspired casting, plays a kinky slut. (What will they think of next? Brad Pitt as a good-looking young guy? Melanie Griffith as a moron?) About halfway through the film, Madonna pinions Dafoe's arms behind his back, then lovingly drips scalding candle wax all over his chest, then douses the wax with champagne, and then licks it off. Dafoe reacts to her offbeat ministrations by whimpering mildly, perhaps wincing slightly as the wax is applied. But he doesn't do anything terrifically visceral or emotional like, say, screaming bloody murder and begging her to stop.

Let me tell you a few things about candle wax. Candle wax burns like hell. Candle wax doesn't feel good when it's applied to any part of the human body. Candle wax hurts. I know, because I used to accidentally drop the stuff on my forearms and fingers when I was an altar boy, and because I spent about 15 minutes this morning trying to reenact the candle wax session from Body of Evidence. My wife, who is constitutionally opposed to any sexual practices utilized in films by Madonna, Mickey Rourke or Marlon Brando, begged off on the experiment, so I had to do the whole thing myself. First I dripped candle wax on my chest. Then, unlike Willem Dafoe, I screamed.

I tried to wait five seconds, just like Madonna does, before spilling the champagne onto the wax, but there was just no way. Candle wax, spilled onto the human chest, burns like hell. What's more, it dries quickly, so unless Madonna was using some special, upscale, slow-reacting, professional S&M wax she bought from one of her deviant entrepreneurial friends, I can't see any way she could get the champagne onto the wax without having it cake, making it difficult to lick or suck, even if you have an extraordinarily versatile tongue like Madonna's.

Let me tell you another thing. In Body of Evidence, Madonna drips candle wax onto Dafoe three separate times, and the third time, the viewer gets the idea that she's dripping it directly onto his cock. Dafoe winces. Winces--like he already had calluses on his cock or something. This is the one part of the experiment I deliberately chose not to recreate. I already knew how much the candle wax burned on my chest. I didn't want to try it on my favorite organ. This is where my Body of Evidence experiment parts company with my White Men Can't Jump experiment. If you, an ordinary white person, try to go out on a black basketball player's home court and challenge him to a game, you're probably going to come away with a few bruises and a damaged ego. Try doing to yourself what Madonna does to Willem Dafoe in Body of Evidence and you can just put that cock of yours in the deep freeze for the next six weeks. That's why I cannot emphasize too emphatically: Don't try this at home.

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