Let’s face it: There is probably not going to be a summer movie season this year. But all is not lost. Each Friday for the next few months, we’ll be presenting “The Ultimate Summer Movie Guide,” honoring the greatest, goofiest and most memorable aspects of blockbuster seasons gone by. Maybe it will be a celebration of an iconic film or actor. Perhaps it will be a salute to Marty McFly’s DeLorean. Or, like today, it will be a look back at the most sensual pottery scene in all of cinema.
Early on, they had a sense that it was going to be pretty hot. “When we did the rehearsal, I just remember that it was sexy enough that it embarrassed Patrick and Demi a little bit when they were doing it,” Ghost director Jerry Zucker once said about a sequence that everyone knows as “The Pottery Scene.” “They both had all their clothes on … but it was still … even then, there was something about it that was sensual.”
He, of course, is referring to Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore, who play Sam and Molly, a couple very much in love whose relationship will hit a bit of a snag after Sam is murdered during a mugging gone wrong. But before that happens, they engage in some frisky foreplay while working at a pottery wheel together. Molly is a potter, and in the middle of the night she can’t sleep. So she flips on their jukebox, which plays the Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody” and focuses on her work. Sleepy and shirtless, Sam comes in to see what’s going on. Then things get hot and heavy.
“We played off each other and really made up the scene as we went along,” Swayze later wrote in his memoir The Time of Our Life. “It was pretty sexy playing in all that clay, so all we had to do was go with it, let our imaginations run wild and then touch each other’s arms for the sparks to fly.” (Not that there wasn’t some awkwardness, too. “We were all arms,” Moore said in 1991. “His face was so beet red! … We finally just said, ‘I’m really nervous and I hate this.’ Then it was okay.”)
The most famous scene from 1990’s biggest summer hit first seduced audiences almost exactly 30 years ago today. And while it’s possible that many people who were born since Ghost came out haven’t seen the movie, they almost certainly know about Sam and Molly’s pottery makeout session. Either they’ve checked out the original clip on YouTube or, just as likely, they’ve seen the innumerable parodies that have emerged in its wake. If a pottery wheel ever pops up in a movie or TV show, watch out: A Ghost homage is about to happen.
Because there have been so many pop-culture riffs on the scene, you may think you know it by heart. But you might be surprised by a few things once you revisit it. First, especially for its time, it’s remarkably lacking in male-gaze objectifying. This was Swayze during his heyday — a few years removed from Dirty Dancing, and with Point Break on the way — and the camera focuses on his hunkiness, giving the sequence a feminine energy. Where a lot of late-1980s love scenes had a music-video sleekness — you weren’t sure if you had stumbled into a perfume ad — Ghost felt grownup and sensual, erotic by implication rather than through a lot of nudity. Even the choice of “Unchained Melody,” a warm, romantic song, eschewed the era’s power-ballad overkill. These were adults who were comfortable in their skin, and so the slow buildup had real heat to it.
But there was also a lot of wink-wink playfulness: All that gooey clay and the phallic object they’re making together — which could also be read as a vagina — slyly hinted at the scene’s sexual undertones.
Not surprisingly, a lot of the parodies made those undertones obvious, turning the film’s subtle eroticism into farce. The best of all Ghost homages is probably the first, courtesy of Zucker’s brother David. As part of the ZAZ comedy team, alongside Jim Abrahams, they made such comedy classics as Airplane!, but by the late 1980s, they were doing their own thing. And so while Jerry Zucker went on to make the Oscar-winning Ghost, David Zucker was still in the spoof business, and in 1991’s The Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear, he took aim at his little brother’s hit film. “I make my living punching holes in serious movies,” David Zucker once said. “After watching that pottery scene the third time, I thought, ‘How ironic if I poked fun at Ghost.’” In fact, the parody scene, featuring Drebin (Leslie Nielsen) and Jane (Priscilla Presley), ended up as the centerpiece of the film’s teaser trailer, with the sloppy clay finally realizing its destiny to signify exploding ejaculate, flying in every direction:
The full Naked Gun 2 1/2 scene doesn’t just parody the pottery part, though — it even makes fun of the fabulous beefcake shot of Swayze’s muscular chest. (Nielsen is replaced by a hilariously ripped body double.) Drebin and Jane end up having sex — which leads to a hysterically suggestive montage of archival clips of random phallic images — but, ironically, Jerry Zucker ended up cutting the sex scene they’d filmed for after the pottery scene. “[W]e just kind of looked at each other and started to understand that what we had was really amazing,” Ghost’s Oscar-winning screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin later told Vanity Fair. “The pottery scene proved to be so erotic that we didn’t need anything else.”
Unfortunately, most parodies aren’t nearly as inspired — which is a perfect segue to talking about Family Guy, a show that has devoted several episodes to referencing Swayze. The show has done three nods to the pottery scene over the years — you can’t just make fun of Adam West every week, I suppose — and the 2017 episode “Don’t Be a Dickens at Christmastime” features Peter being mentored by the ghost of Swayze, a la A Christmas Carol. In this parody, Peter becomes the clay.
Family Guy, however, was hardly the first TV comedy to spoof Ghost. On Ellen DeGeneres’ 1990s sitcom Ellen, there’s an episode where she’s absentmindedly working at a pottery wheel. Instinctively, she has to start singing “Unchained Melody.”
And Community built a memorable 2010 episode out of the hobby, entitled “Beginner Pottery.” Tony Hale played the pottery instructor, who made it very, very clear to his students that he wasn’t going to put up with any Ghost homages in his class, “whether it’s ironic or sincere.” “Ever since that movie was released in 1990, I have seen every conceivable variation of what I call ‘ghosting,’” he exasperatingly informs his students — and, in the process, catalogs just about every lame pottery-scene parody type we’ve had to endure since Moore and Swayze first worked the clay:
Hale sarcastically mentions “the hilarious guy-on-guy” subset of Ghost parodies, which especially get his goat. Of course, that’s the one that happens in the Community episode, albeit accidentally.
But where Community was at least cheeky in its execution, that particular subset of Ghost sendups has always been a little cringe-y — no more so than in 2014, four years after the Community episode, when Two and a Half Men did guy-on-guy. In the scene, Jon Cryer’s Alan is working at a pottery wheel, when Ashton Kutcher’s Walden walks by and undoes his wetsuit so that he’s topless, just like Swayze. Well, you can guess what happens from there.
Beyond the homophobic implications of the “joke” — hee hee, two men — it was also meant to be funny that Kutcher, who was Moore’s ex by that point, was reprising one of her most iconic silver-screen moments. The fact that the scene is revealed to be “just a dream” made it all the more annoying: Walden wakes up totally freaked out that he got intimate with a bro. Years later, the image of Sam and Molly working a rotating, moldable phallus still has the ability to make straight men uncomfortable. They were okay with a woman playing with their symbolic penis — but a dude? Unacceptable. Here’s a rule of thumb: You know something is legitimately sexy if it quickly becomes an inspiration for gay-panic redos.
But Hale’s character hadn’t counted on every possible pottery-scene permutation: What about dog on dog? Hollywood Tails, a web series from Lifetime, recreated famous film scenes using only dogs (or sometimes cats). Well, someone had the bright idea of letting two canines work a pottery wheel. I don’t know if this qualifies as pooch porn, but I’m man enough to admit I found it deeply unsettling.
Swayze died of cancer in 2009 at the age of 57, and since his passing, his reputation as an actor and endearing heartthrob has only grown. And, right along with it, Ghost’s pottery scene continues to be a go-to parody, which might seem to be in bad taste. (After all, the movie is about his character dying tragically.) And yet, perhaps because the movie (and that sequence) are so beloved, it never feels ghoulish. Even today, just a few notes of “Unchained Melody” in a piece of pop culture are enough to signal that something’s about to get sexy — or jokily unsexy. Three years ago, Snoop Dogg and Martha Stewart decided to launch a racy teaser for their reality show Martha & Snoop’s Potluck Dinner Party. The world’s always thought it a bit weird that these two seemingly very different people have become close — so why not push their relationship to the next level?
And even earlier this year during the Oscars, ABC ran a promo for the new season of The Bachelor, featuring Peter Weber taking off his shirt, working the wheel and then enjoying the fondling of a ton of female hands. This one even costarred Whoopi Goldberg, who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar as the medium who connects Dead Sam with Alive Molly, repeating her signature Ghost line.
But not everyone referencing Ghost is making fun. Probably not surprisingly, Glee did a very sincere remake, with Jake (Jacob Artist) and Marley (Melissa Benoist) recreating the scene while, in her head, she wistfully imagines she’s actually with Ryder (Blake Jenner). Where other versions mocked the original’s lovey-dovey vibe, Glee dove headfirst into the romantic melodrama.
There are plenty of other parodies: Everything from Wallace and Gromit to Bob’s Burgers has spoofed the pottery scene. It’s been referenced in comic-book art and classical music. In 2010, there was even a Japanese remake, Ghost: Mouichido Dakishimetai, and pottery was a big part of that version as well. But, in some ways, the most entertaining Ghost riffs have been ones made by amateurs on the internet, of which there are many.
In 2013, a live local Cedar Rapids news segment about pottery became a carefully choreographed Ghost tribute.
Meanwhile, this 2016 clip from Ginger Cal + Les proudly gives off a homoerotic charge. It’s funny but it’s also sexy. (Why didn’t Sam and Molly think of bringing bananas into their pottery foreplay?)
People have also ingeniously replaced the original scene’s pottery wheel with a digitally inserted cat…
… and YouTuber Mario Wienerroither, who specializes in crafting “musicless music videos” — in other words, replacing a video or film’s original music and sounds with his own — gave us a Ghost that emphasized all the disgusting squishy noises the wet clay would make, alongside other goofy sounds and weird giggles.
Whether it’s in TV shows, other movies or online, what so many of these homages have in common is a palpable acknowledgement of how confidently grownup-sexy that original scene really is. But there’s also a sweetness to Sam and Molly’s rapport that feels genuine and unapologetic. Nothing about that scene has ever been edgy or cool, but as a snapshot of a happy love affair, it’s actually quite touching.
That earnestness has made Ghost such an easy comedic target all these years — the scene’s a setup waiting for a punchline. For decades now, comics, satirists, newscasters, sound designers and others have tried to provide the perfect response to Ghost’s most iconic and unguarded moment. But the scene’s power is such that none of those parodies can quite puncture what remains so intimate and moving. As a society, we have a tough time with unbridled sensuality in our entertainment, and so we try to laugh it off. But each and every parody only makes the original seem so much more special.
Sam and Molly’s love cannot be denied or diminished — whether it’s Snoop Dogg or a couple dogs trying to do it.