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In this edition of 2 Movies 1 Moment, we park our cars and let the ladies put on a show, comparing two car wash moments, one from the 1967 Paul Newman classic Cool Hand Luke and the more recent Cameron Diaz 2011 comedy Bad Teacher. The movies themselves couldn’t possibly be more removed from each other in terms of story, tone, and overall significance, the what the two car wash moments say much within their own plots. Yet each have much to say. Let’s compare and then choose which one does it best.
THE FILM: Elizabeth Halsey (Diaz) is hardly a role-model for her middle school English students, treating her class like an extended recess, thinking she’s about to escape it all with her rich boyfriend. But when that falls through, she turns her gold-digger eyes to new substitute teacher Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake), a nice, handsome, and very wealthy young man. But she’s not the only one looking to catch this prize fish.
THE HOT CAR WASH MOMENT: Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch) seems to have the upper hand in winning Delacorte’s attention, with Halsey’s vacuous attempts to catch his eye failing, including her promise to get breast implants. But she doesn’t have enough money to get the surgery so she plans a 7th-grade car wash to raise cash for “school funds” though has schemes to funnel the money for herself.
Either way, on the day of the wash, the kids are all dutifully scrubbing parent’s cars when Elizabeth shows up in Daisy Duke denim shorts and a cropped, very revealing button-down top. She goes about sexily washing cars, splaying herself all over hoods, spraying herself with water, and gyrating to the delight of on-lookers utterly taken by her sexual display. It’s quite a show and Diaz, with her gift for timing and charisma sells it.
WHY IT MATTERS: To be sure, Bad Teacher is not a great film, serving as another in a trendy string of crass films that spend more time on site gags that plot, but there’s a reason the car wash scene was added and why it works. The arc for Halsey is a fairly predictable one of course, but it requires her to understand some basic personal values and to cleanly separate herself from the definition of ‘woman’ she currently has, especially the one that she feels is the reason why a partner would want to be in a relationship with her. The vulgar nature of her actions on car wash day represent this, with most of the boys in slack-jaw awe, juvenile of course, with a few grown men simply unable to handle it (a cop ogling drives into another car and then speeds away).
Her display is meant only to present what she believes is the physical desire men want from her, and of course, men respond on a baser level, but as Delcorte reveals, this is not the primary want a man looking for a relationship responds too. Naturally, he represents the extreme on this, not seeing the positives of her sexuality either. That car wash is a powerfully visual moment that pulls us in with Diaz’s natural allure and playfulness, but also hints to an emptiness within Halsey, a sense that she is ‘bad’ per se but more so, misguided, and that result of this might be the lesson she needs to help her find the right path. It’s a great car wash scene but is it as good as the one in …
THE FILM: Luke (Paul Newman) ends up on a southern chain gang after a night of some mischievous vandalism. Refusing to follow rules, be becomes a symbol of resistance to the other inmates, forcing the guards to work hard to try and shut him down. Supporting actor George Kennedy won an Academy Award for his work and the film is now considered a classic.
THE HOT CAR WASH MOMENT: Early in the film, the men are digging a ditch along a lonely stretch of road, the sun baking them in the summer afternoon. Shirtless, sweaty, and under armed watch to shovel dirt, they are within sight of a country house just up the way. As they work, a young blonde woman (Joy Harmon) comes out with a bucket and a hose, headed for her 1941 De Soto Custom car parked in the drive.
Flaxen, tussled hair covering much her face, she is wearing a skimpy sun dress two sizes too small, her ample chest bursting it nearly open. As she commits to scrubbing, she makes sure plenty of soap and water end more on her than the car, all to the agonizing delight of the men unable to do anything but work and watch, struggling to keep themselves together. The Girl captivates with torturous allure.
WHY IT MATTERS: The brilliance of The Girl, or ‘Lucille’ as she comes to be named by Dragline (Kennedy), is not just the sexuality she represents but the passion these men have for freedom. While she teases and flirts from afar, using her body to prime these men from the safety of her distance (and a few loaded shotguns), she is a beacon that for many of the inmates means hope. As Luke notes though, while she eyes the boys and makes sure they get a near scandalous view of her fleshy handiwork, she knows exactly what she’s doing, driving them crazy, and it’s clear that she does.
There’s a sense that seeing these men digging in the front of her property, all of them restrained, she took the opportunity to inspire and perhaps exact a bit of social justice of her own, and while there is a danger to her methods of course, there is a staggering confidence to her that utterly dismantles the boys. We don’t get any feeling that she is being malicious, but rather opposite, understanding well the plight of these prisoners and with a sensuous nod, seems to offer permission to them that later tonight, while they lie in the damp southern heat of their bunks, think of her and feel free for however long they can. It’s brief moment in a powerfully good film, but its impact and influence has had tremendous weight over the decades and makes this hot car wash scene arguably the best ever filmed. What do you think?