One Movie Critic's View of—and Love for—California's Iconic Hollywoodland

Laura Redburn

A New York Times movie critic takes a cineaste’s view of L.A.—and finds that somewhere a film reel’s always rolling.

In July, four months after Los Angeles announced its stay-at-home order and on the verge of driving each other nuts, my husband and I headed to Sequoia National Park in the Sierra Nevada. We missed traveling and longed to visit some of the places we love in California. So we hiked and we drove, at one point passing some shaggy granite outcrops at the base of Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the Lower 48 states. I should have been blissing out on nature but I kept thinking about Humphrey Bogart scrambling on the other side of the mountain in High Sierra.

Wherever you are in California, you are never far from Hollywood. When Simone de Beauvoir toured California in 1947, she visited the eastern slope of Mount Whitney. Her guide that day was the director George Stevens, who explained how he’d used the mountain as a stand-in for the Himalayas in his film Gunga Din, turning a patch of dirt the size of a vegetable garden into a battlefield in northern India. During her California travels, de Beauvoir also visited Death Valley, which she already knew from Erich von Stroheim’s silent epic Greed. “Just as we see Holland through its old painters,” she wrote in her trip diary, “we discover California through movie images.”

The film industry’s favorite location, of course, has always been Los Angeles. When movie people invaded the city at the start of the 20th century, they turned the sprawling, sparsely populated city into the world’s most expedient soundstage. The city’s largest park became a favorite location—“a rock is a rock, a tree is a tree, shoot it in Griffith Park,” an old industry wag advised—as did downtown, which could stand in for any pitiless city (and has). When the impoverished heroine in Lois Weber’s sublime silent drama Shoes stares longingly at the finery worn by other women, she’s in Pershing Square, then a lushly landscaped park and the city’s elegant epicenter.

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I’ve moved from job to job since I settled in Los Angeles in 1994, but I’ve stayed because it’s now my city, a place that I love both for its easy access to natural wonders and for the richness of its movie history. I live, for instance, near an area once known as Edendale, where in the 1910s pioneers like Mack Sennett built the first studios and where Mabel Normand directed her costar Charlie Chaplin in Caught in a Cabaret, one of his earliest films. Then again, nearly every place in Los Angeles and its adjoining cities evokes another favorite: the titular neighborhood in Chinatown, an adult cinema in Boogie Nights, an architectural jewel in L.A. Confidential.

Some Angelenos resent the shadow that the movie business casts over Los Angeles, rightly arguing that there’s more to the city than the movies. Not me. I love seeing the city through its films and vice versa, and I really adore the Hollywood sign, which spells out the link between Los Angeles and the industry in towering white letters. But don’t try looking for the sign at night, as I naively did soon after I first moved to Los Angeles while showing out-of-town friends around: It’s been lit up only once since the 1940s. I soon learned that the best way to wow visitors is to take them on a hike in Griffith Park, where they can gawk at the sign and its famous neighboring observatory.

Set on the southern slope of the park’s Mount Hollywood, the Griffith Observatory is where James Dean gets into a knife fight in Rebel Without a Cause and the lovers in La La Land dance through the air. It also serves as the symbolically freighted backdrop for the tragic climax in Carl Franklin’s Devil in a Blue Dress, a hard-boiled mystery set in the late 1940s. It’s there, the brilliantly lit observatory glowing like a beacon, that a biracial woman finally sees that she has been betrayed by her politically ambitious white lover. “She was in love and couldn’t see for dreaming,” says the investigator played by Denzel Washington, a line that works as a credo for us film lovers.

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Perhaps because the sun shines so very brightly and predictably in Los Angeles, I tend to be drawn to the edgier, bleaker, more jaundiced visions of the city. In the 1962 film Smog, an Italian businessman on a layover wanders a foreign land that remains frustratingly out of his reach, making it a perfect movie about tourism. In one scene, he follows a romantic prospect back to her pad, which turns out to be the Stahl House, among the city’s most staggering, least popularized landmarks. With its hawk’s-eye views and walls of glass that nearly dissolve the divide between the inside world and the great (polluted) outdoors, the house is an apotheosis of Los Angeles modernism.

Right below the Stahl House is Sunset Boulevard, where sightseeing buses hauling star seekers still shuttle along the strip toward the typical destinations. Few, I imagine, ever travel farther west to pay homage to Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil, which was partly shot in Venice, a beach community with Italianate canals and colonnades some 15 miles from downtown. In 1957, Welles turned Venice into a seedy Mexican-American border town where a billboard welcomes visitors to “the Paris of the Border.” He holds on the sign just long enough for you to get the joke, one that I like to think was his fondly cynical take on movie-made Los Angeles.