Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Virginia is for Lovers; Los Angeles is for Filmmakers: “L.A. Confidential” and “L.A. Story”

It’s not exactly “Virginia is for Lovers” or “I ♥ New York,” but a longtime slogan for my hometown has been “L.A.’s the Place.” It’s a catchy reminder that there’s a lot going on here: glamour, intrigue, possibility. And of course movies.

 One reason Southern California attracted moviemakers early on was because it could look like many other places. Though today location shooting is the norm, even some quintessential NYC movies were shot in L.A. Like, for instance, Martin Scorsese’s breakout film, Mean Streets. Still, L.A. over the years has sometimes had the chance to play itself. Particularly in the film noir era (1940s-1950s), L.A. sunshine was transmuted into a view of the city emphasizing dark shadows and darker morals.

 In the 1990s we saw two major films with L.A. in their titles. One, picking up on the mood (though not the look) of film noir, focused on the City of the Angels as a place of rampant corruption. The other, an outrageous comedy, focused on L.A.’s sexual hedonism before climaxing in a candy-coated embrace.

 L.A. Confidential (1997) is a worthy follow-up to Roman Polanski’s L.A. masterpiece, Chinatown. Based on a twisty 1990 novel by native son James Elroy, it uses the year 1953 as a springboard to a world where policemen, pimps, and politicians run roughshod over ordinary folks. Perhaps the film’s number-one victim is the lovely Lynn Bracken, who has slipped from showbiz aspirations into the life of a call-girl outfitted (or, in the movie’s parlance, “cut”) to resemble Veronica Lake. Filling out the cast is a cop with a hair-trigger temper (newcomer Russell Crowe), a devious chief of police (James Cromwell), a detective who’s gone Hollywood (Kevin Spacey), and a sleazy gossip columnist (Danny DeVito) who narrates the sordid goings-on “off the record, on the QT, and very hush hush.”

 Though much admired in its day, L.A. Confidential didn’t take home the big prizes. Yes, Kim Basinger won a supporting actress Oscar for playing vulnerable but clear-eyed Lynn, and the film was also honored for its adapted screenplay. But this was the year Titanic picked up most of the marbles (11 Oscars), so L.A. Confidential was very much an also-ran.  I want to salute the late Curtis Hanson, the film’s director, producer, and co-scriptwriter, for a job very well done. Hanson, who provides thoughtful commentary on the film’s DVD, is yet another Roger Corman alumnus who made good. Debuting as a director with a cheapie Corman thriller, Sweet Kill (1972), Hanson went on to showcase his skills as a maker of genre hits like The Hand that Rocks the Cradle and The River Wild before L.A. Confidential thrust him into the spotlight. Alas, he could never quite repeat the film’s success.

 At the start of L.A. Confidential there are quick shots of the city at work and at play in 1953. There we glimpse the grand opening of an L.A. freeway. By 1991, the year of L.A. Story, freeways are a given. So are backyard swimming pools, complicated espresso drinks, the Hard Rock Café, and of course earthquakes. SoCal native Steve Martin and company have fun smirking at Angelenos’ social peculiarities, like driving to a friend’s house instead of simply walking down the block. It’s an uneven film, with some brilliant moments. Two of the best: an opening that parodies the start of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, with a giant hot dog (and not a statue of Jesus) being transported through the air. And of course Martin blithely roller-skating past the abstract expressionist canvases at the county art museum. (In real life he’s a trustee.)

 By the way, my colleague Michael Coate, whose Digital Bits site explores film history, has just posted a nifty tribute to Raiders of the Lost Ark on the occasion of its 40th anniversary. I'm quoted in chapter 10 on Deborah Nadoolman's iconic costume design for the film.




  1. Beverly, I’m going to use you as a guide on these films as I’ve not seen any of them; that will change soon. ******An important note for you-Look up the Arts Section of the 10/7 NY Times as it has two pieces that I think will interest you1) an article on Bill Kramer and the opening of The Academy of Motion Pictures and 2) A story on Amos Fogel, a legendary “film programmer,” a term I had never heard before the article. Last thing, my favorite LA movie is City of Angels ,with Meg Ryan on my man, Andre Braugher. Oh the frailty of life. Best. Bob

  2. Hi Bob, I read the Bill Kramer profile -- very interesting. (I had met the previous director, and wondered what happened to him.) I actually don't know City of Angels, but it sounds as though it's related to Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire. Is it?

  3. Hi Beverly, You. Are. CORRECT! As always, that City of Angles is an exact replica of Wim Wenders’ “Wings of Desire”. How do I know, well, I looked it up (had never heard of it) and it read identically! Great goin’. Bob.

  4. I forgot to tell you that it’s Death Angel Nicholas Cage, convinced by former Death Angel Denis Franz, who gives up eternity to become human for MD Meg Ryan. Andre just watches as Nicholas celebrates his one day of human life/love. Well worth Cage says. I’m left to believe it’s true. Hope it is.