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Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze make some pottery (Everett)
In the middle of the night, a woman sits alone at a pottery wheel. A vintage jukebox in her apartment switches records, and “Unchained Melody” by the Righteous Brothers pours into the room. Her boyfriend, shirtless, approaches, sits behind her, and reaches out his hand, accidentally ruining her pot. No matter — they begin a new one together, his hands interlaced with hers, stroking the wet clay. He begins kissing her, and she leaps into his arms, the pottery wheel abandoned in the heat of passion.
Sure, it sounds ridiculous on the page — but on the big screen in 1990, with Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze as the clay-spattered couple, it was pure magic. This is the scene everyone thinks of when they think of Ghost, the supernatural romance that opened in theaters 25 years ago this week. The film starred Moore as artist Molly and Swayze as her banker boyfriend Sam, who dies at the hands of a mugger and must find a way to communicate with Molly from beyond the grave. The pottery scene takes place early in the film, before his death, and it shows the audience everything we need to know about the passion between these two people. Like most great movie moments, the scene came about through a combination of hard work and happy accidents. “We had no idea that was going to turn into the most famous love scene in history,” Patrick Swayze said in a Ghost DVD featurette. “We were just actors trying to do the best job in the world.“ Here’s a brief history of the scene that made millions of people consider, just for a moment, taking up pottery as a hobby.
Watch the pottery scene from ‘Ghost.’
When screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin first conceived of the character of Molly, he wrote her as a wood sculptor in the vein of ‘60s artist Marisol. “I envisioned her with these big blocks of wood and with big hammers and really going at it and really powerful,” Rubin recalled in a DVD featurette about the scene. But director Jerry Zucker worried that the idea was “a cliché.” During a scoring session for his 1988 comedy The Naked Gun, Zucker noticed one of the sound editors reading a pottery magazine and had the revelation that Molly should work with clay. Rubin liked the idea, and since his wife was a potter, he had no trouble with the rewrite. (Little did he suspect, however, that he was bringing a lifetime’s worth of dirty jokes on himself. “Now when people come over to my house and see the pottery studio, they wink at me, ‘Oh, now we know what you do at night,’” Rubin told the Chicago Tribune in 1991.) Molly became a clay artist, and the pottery scene emerged.
To prepare for her role, Moore took a few pot-throwing lessons. “I just didn’t want my pot to wobble,” she said in a Ghost featurette. “It was like a sure-fire sign that I was no good, and I was faking it.” Swayze didn’t receive any formal training, but he did sit at the wheel to rehearse the scene with Moore — which was when Zucker got his first inkling of how hot the finished scene could be.
“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,” Zucker said on the Ghost DVD commentary. “They both had all their clothes on… but it was still… even then, there was something about it that was sensual.”
On the day of shooting, the two actors and a small crew filmed on a closed set. Professional potters were on hand, and they started some of the pots in the scene, which Moore then completed on camera. But working with the pottery wheel proved challenging from a technical standpoint. “There’s a lot of footage of things flopping and spattering,” Zucker admitted. Production designer Jane Musky recalled the challenge of achieving “that wetness, so it was sensual, but not that it splattered all over their faces.”
Swayze claimed that he didn’t mind the mess. In Wendy Leigh’s biography Patrick Swayze: One Last Dance, he’s quoted as saying, “Getting all that mud stuff all over my arms — that was pretty sexy. Definitely got my juices going.”
At the same time, Swayze has admitted that he finds shooting love scenes extremely nerve-wracking. “I always felt extra pressure, since I was supposed to be Mr. Sexy, if you believed all the magazines,” Swayze wrote in his autobiography Time of My Life. “Of all the scenes I ever shot, I probably felt least confident about the love scenes. So it’s ironic that the clip of Demi and me at the pottery wheel is one of the best known of my whole career.” In Leigh’s biography, she reveals that Swayze rehearsed the Ghost scene with his wife Lisa Niemi in order to get past his embarrassment. Even so, Demi Moore claimed that "Patrick’s face turned bright red when we would even talk about the [love] scene.”
Moore, too, felt awkward during filming — particularly when the pottery scene transitioned into a full-on make-out session. In a 1991 People interview, she said that doing the scene with Swayze "felt like we were in high school on a first date. And here we had to act like we had known each other and were comfortable with each other. We were all arms. His face was so beet red! I would say, ‘Please don’t let my breast be exposed.’ And he would say, ‘Okay.’ If he noticed my shirt coming up over my rear, he would pull it down. We finally just said, 'I’m really nervous and I hate this.’ Then it was okay.”
And yet, it was clear to everyone present that Swayze and Moore were magic onscreen. One of the scene’s most endearing moments — when Swayze reaches over to help with the pot and accidentally collapses it — was unplanned.
“Nobody expected [the pot] to fall,” said Rubin. “Demi recovered so quickly…. She wasn’t angry, she wasn’t disappointed. In a way, the whole nature of their relationship was shown in that moment.”
The heat of the make-out scene was also more intense than anyone anticipated. “It was one of those times in both of our careers when something happened and both of us came alive,” said Swayze. Wrote the star in his autobiography: “Demi was really good in these situations. She was very warm — much warmer than she’d been in the other scenes we shot together. She showed a vulnerability that was very attractive, and that really came through onscreen.” The footage was so sensuous that, after seeing the dailies, Zucker decided not to shoot a more explicit sex scene that was in the script. (During the same sequence, Molly and Sam were supposed to make love under a sheet that covered one of Molly’s sculptures.)
This decision to cut the extended scene led to a continuity error that fans point out to this day: Between the pottery wheel and the groping session, the couple’s clay-covered hands become magically clean. On the DVD commentary, Zucker is unapologetic. “I just assumed that it was a time cut, that they didn’t get up right from the machine and go right to this,” he said. Then he added, “Actually, I just didn’t assume anything. I just wanted their hands to be not all full of clay.”
The other key element to the pottery scene, of course, is the song — a contribution from producer Lisa Weinstein, who brought Zucker a cassette tape of “Unchained Melody” during filming. “The longing of that music, the pain of the music is wonderful,” said Zucker. Coincidentally, Righteous Brothers singer Bill Medley also sang “Time of My Life,” the theme song from Swayze’s biggest hit before Ghost, 1987’s Dirty Dancing. “I think we’re gonna have to do a duet soon or something,” Swayze joked in a 1990 interview.
Medley himself received a major career boost from Ghost. Written for the forgotten 1955 prison film Unchained (hence the title) and recorded by the Righteous Brothers in 1965, “Unchained Melody” became a resurgent hit in 1990, climbing to No. 19 on the Billboard Hot 100. Even more impressive: It made Medley cool again. “My kids were about nine and ten at the time, and all of a sudden I became the hero of the neighborhood,” he told Rolling Stone in 2003.
Ghost was a massive hit — the highest-grossing film globally of 1990, besting Home Alone and Pretty Woman — and the pottery scene became instantly iconic. Pop culture has since become cluttered with parodies and homages; faux-sensuous pot-throwing scenes have been featured in the film Naked Gun 2 ½ (directed by Jerry Zucker’s brother David), and on Family Guy, Glee, Two and a Half Men, Community, and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, to name a few. An Iowa reporter made headlines two years ago when he spoofed the scene during a live interview at a Cedar Rapids ceramics studio. Swayze and Moore’s scene is frequently cited as one of the sexiest, most romantic film moments of all time.
A pottery teacher explains his “zero ‘Ghost’ tolerance policy” in this clip from ‘Community:’
Before his death from pancreatic cancer in 2009, Patrick Swayze spoke proudly of the pottery scene. “I was happy — and relieved — with how it turned out,” he wrote in his autobiography. “Demi and I had managed to capture a moment between these two people that made everything that happened later in the story feel that much more wrenching and emotional.”