Hollywood's golden age

From "Bathroom Frivolities" to "Gladiator," a semi-comprehensive guide to film's greatest pee scenes.

Published August 30, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

Earlier this season on "Sex in the City," the usually open-minded heroine, Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker), was dumped by a politico who otherwise seemed perfect. There was only one problem: He asked her to incorporate golden showers into their relationship. She refused. Instead, Ms. B. suggested alternatives. She would pour warm tap water on him, she offered, or maybe, just maybe, she could leave the door open while she sat on the toilet.

The boyfriend called it quits. But Carrie got the last word, titling one of her columns "To Pee or Not to Pee?"

Obviously, this Carrie character spent the off-season buying shoes and dishing the dirt with her trampy friends. If she'd been at the movies, she'd be desensitized to the whole idea of pee as play -- and plot point.

In the past year or so there's been a bumper crop of flicks showing micturition, both male and female, both involuntary and willful. And it's not just X-rated movies. There's been pee trickling, leaking and all-out gushing in everything from "Magnolia" to "Gladiator" to "Holy Smoke."

Not that the current cinematic urination obsession is anything new. Bathroom scenes and humor have been around since pictures started moving. The Internet Movie Database lists two early, silent black-and-white zingers: "Bathroom Frivolities" (1898) and "A Bathroom Problem" (1913). (And then there are non-filmic pee scenes, such as Alice Neel's exquisite untitled 1935 watercolor of a bathroom scene on display at the Whitney Museum of American Art. It depicts Neel on the toilet, peeing and playing with her hair, while her lover, John Rothschild, stands in front of the sink doing the same.)

The first filmed pee scene I saw was on the little screen, back in the 1970s. In Michael Landon's made-for-TV movie "The Loneliest Runner" (1976), Lance Kerwin -- a blond, straight-haired boy who we all thought was the next best thing to Leif Garrett -- played a kid with a bed-wetting problem. In an effort to shame her weak-bladdered son into a cure, Lance's hardhearted mother would hang his soggy yellow bedsheets out his window for all the world to see. Each day after school, Kerwin hightailed it home to remove the damp evidence of his incontinence before his friends could see. He was so successful that by the end of the movie the fair James had become an Olympic running champion with brown, curly hair, played by Landon.

Unfortunately, the movie never really showed Kerwin in the act of urinating. And it appeared on TV, not the silver screen. "Wet Wayne's" Pee Movie List -- "the world's most comprehensive and thorough guide to urination in the cinema" -- pointedly notes that "The Loneliest Runner" features only wet pants and wet sheets. But really, if you think about it, the whole hour and 15 minutes of the thing was basically about urine as a transforming force, which means that it qualifies as one long pee scene.

A more up-to-date example is the recent hit "Gladiator," which boasts an exquisitely brief shot of a frightened slave wetting himself before entering the ring. The "Gladiator" episode is a refreshing departure from similar scenes in other movies in its brevity. In other words, the camera doesn't linger or cut to a wet spot on the ground. If you missed it, you missed it -- kind of like a TV show without a laugh track.

But most pee scenes are long, drawn-out affairs that fall into a handful of categories. "Gladiator's" is in the whoops-I-lost-control- out-of-the-bathroom (OOB) variety, a subset of the wet clothing genre (see "The Loneliest Runner") in which the character lets go out of desperation, fear or from laughing too hard.

The most glaring of these too-long OOB pee scenes is in Paul Thomas Anderson's 1999 opus "Magnolia." It's everything the "Gladiator" scene is not: long, heavy-handed and patronizing. The excruciating (for both the character and, in my case, the audience) scene takes place for what seems like hours, as poor little child-genius Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman) suffers in silence on the set of a game show when no one will let him use the bathroom. Finally, after much crosscutting, agony and what seems like hours of film, we get a shot of his anguished little face. We get the wet sound effect. And then, in case we haven't gotten it yet, we get a shot of the expanding wet spot on the carpet. (Note to director Anderson and others like him: We all went to elementary school, and we know when someone's about to wet their pants. Stop rubbing our noses in it.)

Scottish actor Peter Mullan's directorial debut, "Orphans" (1997; new on video), a sort of Glaswegian take on "After Hours," includes another OOB. The twist is that the urinator is a wheelchair-bound girl who loses it while crawling to the toilet after spending the night at a stranger's house. It's a pivotal moment. What will the family think? Instead of being angry, the matriarch cleans up after the girl. And instead of being annoying, the scene somehow works.

The most irritating, overdone type of pee scene is old-school, obstinate and willful frat-boy urination (FU), in which men stand and pee here, there and everywhere -- and which one sees too much of in real life to bother with here. However, Huey Lewis' piss in "Short Cuts" (1993) marks a notable exception for the full-frontal explicitness. (According to Wet Wayne, though, Lewis went prosthetic for the scene: "I have read that he uses a fake penis connected to a hose because it was too difficult to urinate on cue.") For the real thing, check out Mike Figgis' little-seen "Loss of Sexual Innocence," when Femi Ogumbanjo and Hanne Klintoe, as Adam and Eve, stand and watch each other urinate in a lake.

An important subset of the FU scene is the pee dis (PD), in which someone urinates as a form of scorn or insult. The plot of the Cohen brothers' "The Big Lebowski" (1998) takes off when two gangsters pee on the title character's rug. And in "X-Files: Fight the Future" (1998), David Duchovny pisses on a poster for the previous year's blockbuster, "Independence Day." In "Fight Club," Brad Pitt pees in the food at the restaurant where he works.

Then there's the elite FU subgenre -- pee as science (PAS). The opening sequence in the aptly titled "Waterworld" (1995) offers a primo example. In it, Kevin Costner urinates, recycles the stuff and then drinks it. No wonder the movie flopped.

A refreshing twist on the typical male pee scene is the long, excruciating-but-in-a-good-way introduction to Vincent Gallo's "Buffalo 66" (1997), which should be in a category by itself. It qualifies as a tables-turned (TT) scene. The film begins when Gallo's character, Billy Brown, is released from prison. Nature calls as he waits for the bus. He asks to use the prison toilet. They refuse. Instead of letting loose on the nearest tree, he obediently waits for his bus and takes it into town. When he finally arrives at the terminal Gallo searches, doubled over, for a pot to piss in. But all the johns are closed.

In desperation, he staggers down the street and skulks into the men's room at a dance studio. The other urinal is occupied by a male dance student who won't stop looking at his neighbor's large wand, and the homophobic, pee-shy Gallo attacks the poor guy. Gallo doesn't actually urinate until almost 15 minutes into the movie -- after kidnapping Christina Ricci and pulling over on the side of the road to whiz. "Don't look!" he admonishes her. He apologizes afterward. It's a clever scene, but not convincing enough, exposition-wise, to prevent us from thinking that Gallo, who directed the movie, just used the setup to make us think he has a big one.

There's an even more kinky twist in Nichole Hofocener's "Walking and Talking" (1996), a film about two best friends who grow apart when one of them gets serious with her boyfriend. At the beginning of the film Anne Heche's male pal is peeing in the bathroom (standing up) when she comes from behind and starts helping. "I've got it," he says, slightly annoyed, and pushes her away. Then he pulls what looks like a white birth control pill box from a shelf above the toilet. As he's hitching up his pants we hear, "Oh my God!" as Heche sees a ring inside. "I. Uh. Will you marry me?" he asks. In this case, at least, pee brings a couple closer.

The most prevalent TT pee scenes are ones in which the woman pees in front of the man. The first mainstream Hollywood movie to feature such a sequence was "Fun With Dick and Jane" (1977), in which the once-rich, now-destitute couple (Jane Fonda and George Segal) retreat to their bathroom after pulling off their first (accidental) robbery. Like "Walking and Talking," the scene falls into the "Pee at a Pivotal Moment" (PP) subcategory. As she contemplates giving the money back, the slightly pee-shy Fonda nonchalantly hikes up her skirt, sits down and asks Segal to turn on the faucet. While they discuss the pros and cons of becoming criminals, she pees, wipes and flushes. Then Fonda stands, smoothes her skirt and announces that she's keeping the money. They hug, and their crime spree begins.

Something similar happens at the beginning of "Eyes Wide Shut," when Tom Cruise and Nichole Kidman are getting ready to go out. Kidman is doing her business with the door open while talking to Cruise. She asks him how she looks. "Perfect," he says, looking at himself in the mirror. He also tells her that her hair looks great, as she's getting up to wipe. "You're not even looking at me," she says, referring to the film's title. (She should talk, since there wasn't even a sound effect when she was supposed to be peeing.)

Elisabeth Shue's prostitute in "Leaving Las Vegas" (1995) pees in front of her partner in an act far less crass than her conversation. Shortly after asking her shrink how she can "be herself" around suicidal alcoholic Nicholas Cage, Shue proposes that the ne'er-do-well move in with her. When he balks, she continues the conversation, going into the bathroom. "I'll go back to my glamorous life of being alone," she says, dropping her pants and sitting on the pot. "The only thing I have to come back to is a bottle of mouthwash ... to get the taste of cum out of my mouth," she adds, while expelling about a thimbleful of pee. After she wipes, stands, flushes and dresses, Cage explains that she can never ask him to stop drinking; she agrees, and he moves in. Just like that.

"Most mammals seem to experience the moment and posture of urination as exhibiting vulnerability," says Chuck Kleinhans, Northwestern University director of graduate studies in radio/television/film, though he notes the exception of zoo monkeys and apes, which sometimes seem to think of it as a game.

Nevertheless, it seems like "bad" or "alternative" girls do most of the female peeing in the movies. "In general, I think that instances of women peeing in front of others (in non-porno movies) signals a certain level of comfort," says Lisa Miya-Jervis, editor and publisher of Bitch magazine, which analyzes pop culture from a feminist perspective. "But it can also be kinda flirtatious, as it puts the watcher/listener in mind of the genitals without exposing them. It's also a test of a man -- is he man enough to deal with the fact that you pee?"

Not always. In Jonathan Demme's comedy "Something Wild" (1986), Melanie Griffith's lawless tart does a reverse Billy Brown, effectively kidnapping square businessman Jeff Daniels. While they're at a hotel, she sits on the pot, urinating with the door open (complete with water and wipe sound effects). Straitlaced Daniels, who had just started to loosen up and swagger a bit after getting laid the night before, regresses to his old self the minute he sees Griffith on the pot.

An even more interesting subset of the TT is the all-too-rare scene in which the woman pees standing up (WSU). Denise Decker, architect of the Internet's Woman's Guide on "How to Pee Standing Up," says her favorite WSU scene is in "The Full Monty" (1997), when some women decide to make use of the little boy's room. "One of the women uses the urinal, facing it, much like a man would," says Decker, who regularly receives e-mail accusing her of being a lesbian man-hater for running her Web site. "She laughs along with her friends, while the man in the stall, watching what the ladies are up to through a crack in the door, mutters to himself about women in general, 'My God, they're going to take over the world!'"

But the greatest of the standing-pee genre has to be Jane Campion's "Holy Smoke" (1999), in which Harvey Keitel tries to deprogram cult initiate Kate Winslet in Australia's outback. Halfway through the film, the naked Winslet breaks down and tries to kiss Keitel. He refuses and turns away. The sound of trickling water makes him look back, and he sees Winslet walking toward him, urine running down her legs. She embraces him, and this time he returns her kisses. The power balance has shifted, all because of urine. A few scenes later Keitel is crawling around the desert in a scarlet dress.

Winslet has said that she wasn't actually doing the deed in the scene -- what we see is a saline drip from a harness attached to her head -- though she did actually try it for real once. "The problem is, of course that the wee dribbles down one leg," she told Observer Life. (A little practice, using tips from Decker's Web site, and she wouldn't have had a problem.)

Whether they're real or not, the shock value of these pee scenes is undeniable. "I think it's basically just pushing it a bit further in the PG/PG-13/R slide game of the ratings system," says Northwestern's Kleinhans. "Hustler, now in a rather desperate struggle to recover losses due to its Internet competition, has begun using several photo layouts in each issue which include urination by females. This used to be a prosecutable no-no. But after the hair gel bit in "There's Something About Mary," all kinds of bodily fluids seem to have a new stature ... once you have the presidential stain on Lewinsky's dress, what further censorship can be evoked?"

Of course, pee scenes have been the dominion of hardcore porn mags since they first went to press. But Kleinhans is right. These days even tamer rags like Penthouse are in on the action. Maybe that's to keep abreast of the Web, which is a virtual clearinghouse of every type of pee (and other) fetish imaginable.

All that's left is poop, and that's already here. The recent remake of "Shaft" does not have a pee scene, as the title might suggest, but the second variety of bathroom activity. It involves a Puerto Rican gangster who's had it with a spoiled white fascist-type. During a conversation in the bathroom, he sits down, drops some kids off at the pool and continues his discussion. And on an episode of HBO's "Oz" last season, one inmate empties his colon on another. (These scenes, of course, fit into the PD subset.)

As if that isn't enough, there's an English TV show called "Drop Dead" that analyzes the stool of three contestants. In what is most certainly a low moment in the history of world television, the challengers must enter three onstage bathroom stalls and try to defecate. The one who produces excrement first wins 800 pounds ($1,200).

We're not at that point in the U.S. yet. But when you consider all of the imported television hits and Hollywood's current infatuation with reality TV, well, it's only a matter of time before someone figures out that it doesn't get much more authentic than real, live defecation.

In the meantime, something tells me that next season on "Sex in the City" Ms. Carrie Bradshaw may be a little bit less inhibited when it comes to pissing or getting off the pot.

By Cara Jepsen

Cara Jepsen writes for the Chicago Reader.

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