Brow Beat

How To Throw a Drink in Someone’s Face

Hope Davis and Jeff Daniels on The Newsroom

On air, Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), the news-anchor superhero at the center of The Newsroom (HBO), talks to America about important things while his staff looks on adoringly. Meanwhile, in his active dating life, Will is wont to assume a kingly hauteur when talking down to the very women he’s trying to woo. Tonight, in the decisively bad fourth episode of Aaron Sorkin’s wild pitch of a screwball, Will is more than once powerfully rude in denouncing the evils of gossip to his ladyfriends, and, more than once his lectures earn damp feedback—the little liquid smack of a drink thrown in his face.

The drink to the face! Say the phrase and visions of Joan Crawford flinging silver gin in black-and-white wash over the gray matter. Its film history dates at least to The Wages of Sin, a 1914 silent short in which a ruined woman takes a break from selling herself in a saloon to embarrass her seducer. When calibrating the impact of a pivotal moment in 1934’s Appointment in Samarra, novelist John O’Hara chose dialogue to make a proper splash: “Jeezozz H. Kee-rist. You hear about what just happened?… Julian English. He just threw a highball in Harry Reilly’s face.” Director Curtis Hanson frames a great one in L.A. Confidential (1997): At the Formosa Café in West Hollywood, Guy Pearce’s cop mistakes Lana Turner for a hooker, and Lana, going southpaw, douses him from a delicate coupe glass discreetly tucked at the bottom of the shot. We have been so spoiled with supercuts of late that I halfway expect to be forwarded a link to one on this theme—featuring Sydney Pollack’s Tootsie, Brian De Palma’s Scarface and Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind—by the time I finish this piece. I expect it to touch on The Turning Point; on the set of that 1977 ballet movie, the director (Herbert Ross) and the thrower (Anne Bancroft) colluded to set up the throwee (Shirley MacLaine) for an unrehearsed shock.

More recently, the GIF-ready drink-tossing of Eileen Rand on NBC’s Smash has proven central to the character’s camp appeal. (Here’s the Hollywood Reporter headline: “Anjelica Huston’s Eileen Will Throw a Drink in Your Face.”) In the second season of HBO’s Treme, Janette Desautel (played Kim Dickens) drenches food critic Alan Richman as payback for an article about New Orleans published, in real life, in the November 2006 issue of GQ. (In the episode, Richman identifies the substance absorbed by the mop of his mustache as the city’s signature drink: “You gotta be kidding! Nobody throws a Sazerac.” And have you heard about this HBO show called Girls? On the fourth episode, at a Questionable Goods show, after the band embarrasses Marnie with a song titled “Hannah’s Diary,” Marnie pitches the contents of her cup across Hannah’s chest, in a release of tension discussed by Slate’s Hanna Rosin. (I assume Marnie to be drinking, in the tradition of Alice and Charlotte in The Last Days of Disco, a vodka tonic.)

The act of throwing a drink is strictly gendered and highly sexualized, a wetly sensual act of disrespect. I hate to get all double-standard-y and heteronormative, but it seems clear that a man should never, ever throw a drink at a woman, except maybe on reality shows, where I suspect some on-air talent is obliged by contract to throw a minimum of two drinks per season. Yet even then he is a scoundrel and should prepare himself to be pilloried. (On VH1’s Basketball Wives 3, when journeyman small forward Eric Williams shoved the contents of his glass on his wife, the corner of the Internet that studies such matters adjudged him to be—this is a direct quote—a “p*ssy azz byyytch.”) Nor is it proper for a man to throw a drink at another man. As we have learned from rap videos, the most effective missile to launch at an offensive male glare is a wad of Benjamins.

Should a woman ever throw her drink? I am unwilling to hazard a statement on the matter because going around telling women what to do is the kind of thing that will get a drink thrown in your face. But I will venture to say A) that you gain crucial style points when doing so if you’re a fictional character wearing a floor-length gown; B) that the difference between tossing straight-up liquor and tossing a cocktail laden with olives or little paper umbrellas or anything else that might somehow put out an eye is potentially the difference between a misdemeanor and a felony; and C) that this is a move best executed at short range: It would be a stretch to say that you’re employing good drink-throwing form if you have to reach to hit your target.

Watching The Newsroom, we have the strong sense that Will McAvoy delivers many of his belittling pronouncements with the approval of his creator. The retaliatory splashes are grandiose slaps on the wrist, and the thrown cocktails merely polish the pillar of Will’s triumphant wisdom. Consequently, TV critics and feminist couch potatoes are in the process of constructing virtual Aaron Sorkin dunking booths.

Have fun! And be prepared! Ladies, whether or not you think Sorkin is all wet, you never know when the stars might align so that you have just cause to throw a drink. Memorize the guidelines on form offered in The Little Red Book of Fly Fishing. You can develop an ace technique from its description of “the gradual, controlled acceleration motion that is the foundation for any good fly cast.” “Imagine throwing a glass of water (or beer, if you’re so inclined) toward another person. You don’t just chuck it. You lift it off the table, accelerate as you aim, and then stop suddenly to let the liquid fly.”