Milestone Scenes: Buscemi, His List, and The Lipstick in BILLY MADISON

I first attempted to watch Billy Madison in fifth grade, alongside my disapproving parents. Disapproving of the film, not of me, although they weren’t crazy about the way I was behaving that year either. Probably part of the reason why the turned the movie off after the scene in which Adam Sandler deliberately pees his pants–afraid I would get some ideas. And they were probably right to do it; I don’t think I soiled myself for attention afterward, but it’s the kind of thing I totally could have done at eleven, with enough prodding from the friends that my parents also disapproved of. In any case, I regret that we didn’t make it to the above scene, which I wouldn’t see until a year or two later. I have no idea how my mom and dad would have reacted to Steve Buscemi languidly smearing lipstick on his face in my presence.

I have a theory that the lipstick scene in Billy Madison was many millennials’ first encounter with legitimately subversive cinema. (Unless you count a faceless hunter killing Bambi’s mom as a brazen anti-hunting message or something, but even that’s more text than subtext–not subversion proper. Also, spoiler alert.) Billy Madison is a cleverly-built comedy in that children of all ages can enjoy it at (roughly) age-appropriate levels. Teens appreciate Billy’s chemically-induced vision of a giant penguin in the film’s opening scenes, and for pre-teens, the presence of a giant penguin is enough.

Is the scene all that funny? Not really, at least not today, not to me. But Billy Madison‘s ruthlessly designed for mass appeal, is the point.

Given the skillful construction of Billy Madison–not P.T. Anderson-style constriction, but still skillful construction–the inclusion of the first scene with Buscemi is a minor miracle. Because there’s really no amount of contextualizing a young viewer can do to avoid the scene’s fundamental weirdness. There are plenty of other instances of grown-up humor in the movie, particularly during interactions between Adam Sandler and his love interest Bridgette Wilson, most of them played broadly enough that young’uns can giggle at the silly stuff and let the rest pass them by. Not so here–the scene isn’t even funny enough, not by the film’s usual terms, to give the kids an out. Buscemi’s character is a disturbed dude, and whether or not the young viewer understands this in the way an adult would, he or she is likely to intuit it. The shorthand for Buscemi’s pathologies (the list! the lipstick!) could not be shorter.

The phone call scene in Billy Madison is good comedy, inasmuch as it milks an uncomfortable departure from the rest of the film (if, you know, you think that kind of thing is funny), but it’s remarkably confrontational for the same reason. And, for a lot of young viewers, it was maybe a brief, early glimpse into a darker corner of movie-making. From the moment Buscemi puts down the phone until the end of the scene, Billy Madison plays like mid-period David Lynch–we’re momentarily in Lumberton, in Twin Peaks. A scene like this is potentially more powerful than the stuff of more tonally-consistent films by more talented filmmakers–whatever odd digressions one finds in movies by the Coens or Jim Jarmusch, each moment feels as if it belongs. Buscemi-Sandler, meanwhile, is intrusive. And bold, and sublime, and it makes way for a later scene in which Steve Buscemi shoots a guy in the butt. We would be richer, if less comfortable, for more moments like it.

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