‘There’s Something About Mary’ at 20: Cameron Diaz on ‘Hair Gel’ Scene and Other Raunchy Gags

One of the most memorable scenes in the Farrelly Brothers’ classic romantic comedy “There’s Something About Mary” finds hapless high school student Ted (Ben Stiller) accidentally getting his penis stuck in his fly in the bathroom of the house of his beautiful prom date Mary (Cameron Diaz).

According to Bobby Farrelly, the sidesplitting “frank and beans” sequence in the box office hit, celebrating its 20th anniversary on July 15, is based on a real incident.

“Homer said it best,” Farrelly said. “He said, ‘It’s funny because it’s true.’ And so, the things that actually do happen are funnier to us. Pete and I said, ‘What could happen that could embarrass this kid?’’’

There's Something About Mary
There's Something About Mary

They remembered the time when their younger sister had a group of fellow eighth graders over to the house to listen to records in the basement. “My parents were upstairs,” Farrelly said. “One of the kids went up [to the bathroom] and he zipped himself up. He was in there for a long time. My dad, who was a doctor, actually had to go in and say, ‘Hey, kid. You alright?’”

His parents never told them the story until years later because they wanted to save the kid embarrassment. “When they told us, we were laughing so hard, we were like ‘Oh, my God.’ So we just worked it into the story.”

He was less open about whether the comedy’s best and raunchiest scene involving Ted and Mary exchanging “hair gel” is based on an actual event in their lives.

“Look, the kid in eighth grade, I could tell his story, but I can’t give away all my secrets,” Farrelly said. “It’s all loosely based on things that happened.”

But he did reveal that they didn’t know if they were going too far with the joke. “We were like, ‘This could definitely be way over the edge. If it doesn’t get huge laughs, we’re not going to leave it in. We’re not doing it to just shock people.’ We were trying to make people laugh.”

There's Something About Mary
There's Something About Mary

The brothers had asked Diaz if she was comfortable with everything in the scene. “She said, ‘Absolutely.’ But on the day, she’s like, ‘I’m having second thoughts about this. This could derail my career.’”

“At first, I had questions because you never know how something like that can go since it had never been done before,” noted Diaz in an e-mail interview. “I trusted Bobby and Peter, obviously, because they are so hilarious, but when we came up with the visual to the joke, it made me realize how right they were.”

Besides, she added, “Peter and Bobby have such heart in all of their movies. No matter how shocking the comedy is, there is so much that is inherently good about the story and the characters that really appeals to people and it makes the laughter at the jokes a little more forgivable.”

“When we made the movie, we didn’t think it would be for everybody,” Peter Farrelly said. That is, until the movie’s premiere in Rhode Island. Their neighbor Cindy, a longtime friend of their mother, was invited to the premiere.

“Cindy yelled to my mother, ‘Marion, I loved the movie, but you know what my favorite part was?’” noted Peter Farrelly. “My mother said, ‘What was it, Cindy?’ She goes, ‘When the girl has the [semen] in her hair.’ I remember thinking this could be a big hit.”

Diaz, who received a New York Film Critics Circle award for her work, was the key to the film’s success, the brothers said, because she perfectly captured Mary’s sweetness and kindness not only with the intellectually disabled Warren (W. Earl Brown), but the homeless and her eccentric, severely sunburned friend Magda (Lin Shaye)

“We did have her at the top of the list,” said Bobby Farrelly. “When we met her, she elevated herself. We both walked away like, ‘I love that girl.’ I remember some critic somewhere said something like, ‘She gave it the Good Housekeeping seal of approval.’ She grounded it because she was so lovely. You could see why these guys (Stiller, Matt Dillon, Lee Evans) were going to ridiculous lengths to try and win her affection.”

The directors, noted Diaz, worked as a team, “bouncing ideas off of each other and both giving directing. And occasionally they would ask everyone on the set, including the crew, for ideas that they would absolutely try. It was like a big family.”

Though Mary’s stepdad (Keith David) is based on their own father, they decided to cast an African-American actor in the part. ”It just kind of changed the dynamic,” Bobby Farrelly said. “We had auditioned a bunch of guys and when Keith came in, he just blew us away.”

“It was a wonderful sort of surprise,” said David, adding that several of his ad-libs made it into the film. “One that I remember most vividly is ‘Are you yelling at me in my own house?’”

He loved the family dynamic in the movie because it reminded him of his relationship with his stepdad.

“Sometimes a stepdad comes in at the right time in everybody’s life,” David noted, “It’s not about who sired you, but who raised you and how they raised you. My stepfather was an extremely lovely man. I based some of [my character] upon him because he loved his wife and when your wife comes with children, you love them, too.”

The Farrellys did encounter difficulties with 20th Century Fox about including the character Warren, because the studio thought that they were making fun of his disability.

But in fact, Warren is based on their longtime neighbor and good friend, who has a cameo in the film in the scene where Mary is working with people with special needs. “He’s the guy who comes up and asks for a kiss,” Bobby Farrelly said. “He’s a great guy.”

“We had a friend who broke his neck in high school, who was a paraplegic,” added Peter Farrelly. “So we were around a lot of people with disabilities. It was natural for us to put them in movies. Whenever you did that back then, it seems the studio was, ‘No, no, no! People are uncomfortable’ [with disabilities]. And I’m like, ‘No, they’re not. That’s bull. … People have disabilities, so let’s see them.’”

There's Something About Mary
There's Something About Mary

Brown’s performance as the young man who didn’t like his ears touched and was a whiz at Rubik’s Cube works so well because he doesn’t try to make Warren funny.

Even in auditions, he knew it was imperative to play Warren straight.

“I just feel instinctively, ‘If you goof this, if you play it broad and you try to be funny, it ain’t going to be funny. The audience is going to hate you because you are mocking somebody with a handicap,’” Brown recalled.

One of the nicest compliments he received for his performance was at the Roxy nightclub in Los Angeles a few years after the release of the film. “I was at a concert and there was a girl standing next to me and she does a double-take and says, ‘Are you W. Earl Brown?’”

She told Brown that one of her brothers had Down Syndrome and that her mother rented the film for the family to watch.

“So he saw the first scene where you show up at school and say, ‘Have you see my baseball?’ My brother got up from the couch. He didn’t say anything. He walks and points to the TV screen and looks at us and points and says, ‘He’s special like me.’ He came back and sat down. Then we laughed our asses off for the whole movie, brother included.”

“Mary” marked the third straight Farrelly Brothers film Shaye appeared in, having played memorable characters in 1994’s “Dumb and Dumber” and 1996’s “Kingpin,” but she’s best known as the man-crazy cougar Magda, with the unnaturally deep suntan.

There's Something About Mary
There's Something About Mary

It was no laughing matter for Shaye in the make-up chair, where she spent four hours a day to get Magda’s indescribable orange glow. And though somebody stole Magda’s $5,000 fright wig, Shaye made sure she got to keep the leathery breasts she wears in one scene.

“I thought, ‘I should hang on to those just for fun,’” Shaye quipped. “I literally put them in one of those window boxes [in my house]. It says ‘Magda’s Boobs. There’s Something About Mary. 1998’ at the bottom.”

Besides her “topless” scene, Shaye has a great bit in which she’s French-kissed by Slammer, the adorable border terrier who played Magda’s dog, Puffy.

“That was not supposed to be happy,” Shaye said. “The dog just went for me. The dog licked a hole in the latex. It was on the other side of the camera; fortunately, you don’t see that. I just hung in there with it. When the dog started doing that, Cameron was a laughing so hard, she was crying. The crew was busting.”

After Peter Farrelly yelled “Cut!” he told Shaye, “That’s what we all call cinema gold.”

The brothers weren’t as pleased with the response they were getting from Diaz and Shaye when Puffy falls out the apartment window, so Bobby Farrelly decided to drop trou.

“There was this big butt staring at us,” Shaye said. “Bobby loves showing people his butt.”

And the brothers got the perfect look of shock from their performers.

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