In February of 2013 I was invited to write an article for Printers Row Journal (they had received an advance copy of Hollywood On Lake Michigan, 2nd Edition). The piece was about some lesser known Chicago Films and ran in their February 23rd edition. Click here to read it.
When I emailed them the piece, I also sent it my publicist at Chicago Review Press (publisher of Hollywood On Lake Michigan, 2nd Edition). He told me that it might not be what they wanted, because it was in the form of a list and wasn’t “literary enough.” This threw me into a panic and I spent an afternoon furiously revising the content so as to have a clearer overarching theme and to be more “Authorly.”
Then I sent that revision to the editor at Printers Row Journal, telling her that they could use this version if the original was not highbrow enough (or words to that effect). As you can see from the link, they ended up using the first version I submitted.
I recently ran across the second version in my files, however, and decided that it deserved more than to just sit in my computer drawing pixel dust. Plus, I wanted to show off how well I can quickly revamp and revise content. Here it is (with a few added bells and whistles for the internet):
Seven Ways Of Looking At A City
By Michael Corcoran
Chicago has been involved in film-making since the very beginnings of the technology, and the world’s first movie studios operated here in the early 1900’s. And even from those early days of the nascent film industry, when neighborhood kids would sneak on to the Selig Polyscope lot at Western and Irving Park (many old Selig Westerns include children curiously peeking out from the bushes during shootouts), Chicago has managed to insert itself into the productions shot here and basically become another character in them.
The overwhelming presence of the city was imbued into the iconic Chicago blockbusters of the 1980s, such as The Blues Brothers, Risky Business, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and even recent hits like The Dark Knight still feature Chicago’s distinctive look as an integral part of their narrative landscape. And the city, much like the mercurial lake which it sits upon, never seems to appear the same way twice. Other lesser known productions have harnessed Chicago’s chameleon like qualities and also showcased areas not normally seen in the more mainstream Hollywood films shot here.
Unconditional Love (2002), a quirky comedy starring Kathy Bates and Rupert Everett, goes beyond the standard Lower Wacker Drive chase scene to explore Downtown Chicago’s vast and often foreboding underground labyrinth of streets, byways, parking areas and subterranean loading docks. There is also an extended scene in the legendary Billy Goat Tavern, which sits in the catacombs beneath The Magnificent Mile. Bates plays a frumpy Chicago housewife whose singing idol (Jonathon Pryce) is murdered right before a television appearance in Chicago. This inspires her to fly to England to attend his funeral, where she bonds with the singer’s longtime gay lover (Everett). The pair then return to Chicago to solve the murder, which leads them on an odyssey through the bowels of the downtown area.
Moving back above ground, Scriptwriter Zach Helm (a graduate of DePaul’s Theatre School) and Director Mark Forster succeeded not only in capturing the spirit of great 1970s Hal Ashby comedies such as Harold and Maude but also provided a unique view of downtown Chicago in their 2006 offering, Stranger Than Fiction. The story is set in an anonymous “any town” but the filmmakers chose Chicago for its plethora of International Style buildings, which function as a visual shorthand for the bland conformity of the film’s protagonist, routine bound IRS agent Harold Crick (played by Will Ferrell in an uncharacteristically subtle and brilliantly understated performance). Chicagoans will immediately recognize this forbidding landscape of glass and steel boxes set in concrete plazas, however, as the Daley Center, the CNA Building, Illinois Center Plaza and several other iconic modernist structures are utilized.
In the film, Ferrell’s character suddenly finds himself hearing the voice of a narrator describing his life, “accurately and with a better vocabulary.” When the third person omniscient voice portends his death, he seeks out an English Professor (Dustin Hoffman) to try and discover the origin and identity of the narrator. In a parallel story, an author (Emma Thompson) is locked in writer’s block over how to kill the protagonist of her latest novel, an IRS agent named Harold Crick. The audience is charmed and horrified as these two narrative threads move toward their inevitable meeting.
Another facet of Chicago architecture is pointed out by the film Crime Spree (2003), an amusing mob farce starring Gerard Depardieu and Harvey Keitel. Set in Paris and Chicago (with a few locations fudged in Canada), it not only visits some more obscure Windy City environs (such as The Heart ‘O’ Chicago Motel in the far North Edgewater area) but during an opening montage in Paris also illustrates just how much French-style Beaux Arts Architecture exists here, as shots of certain Parisian vistas make you think you are in Chicago. The plot revolves around a woefully inept band of French burglars led by Depardieu who after blowing a job in Paris are sent to Chicago for what is supposed to be an easy score. The victim turns out to be an Outfit underboss (Keitel), however, and the ragtag ensemble is thrown into a nightmare of mob reprisals, corrupt feds, and a series of double and triple crosses.
The Merry Gentleman (2008) is a darker mob related offering starring Michael Keaton. Keaton (who also made his directing debut) plays a depressed hit man about to commit suicide by leaping off a roof, but first is spotted by a woman on the sidewalk (Kelly Macdonald) whose scream startles him into not jumping. Keaton later searches her out and the two begin an awkward relationship; with her unaware of his identity and he unaware that she has fled an abusive ex (Bobby Cannavale) and is living under an assumed name. The Merry Gentleman (2008), uses the rarely filmed North side neighborhoods of Lincoln Square, Ravenswood, and North Center to provide a fresh look that is still unmistakably Chicago.
The powerful drama Proof (2005) is set on the University of Chicago campus in the South Side neighborhood of Hyde Park, and the ivy-covered Gothic structures there are used to great effect. The film’s plot revolves around a brilliant yet mentally ill mathematician and professor (Anthony Hopkins). When he dies after a long bout with delusion and dementia, his daughter (Gwyneth Paltrow) is left to deal both with her grief and with fears that she may have inherited the same mental instabilities. Her anguish is compounded by the arrival of her overbearing and manipulative older sister (Hope Davis) and by an increasingly complicated relationship with a young math student (Jake Gyllenhaal) studying her father’s notebooks. Although stunning, the campus buildings themselves (particularly the Rockefeller Chapel where Hopkins funeral is set) seem to loom disapprovingly over Paltrow’s character as she works through all her various issues and tribulations.
Back on the North side, Return To Me (2000), directed and co-written by Chicago native Bonnie Hunt, used several sites in Old Town (her old stomping ground during her Second City days) and Lincoln Park, most notably the Twin Anchors Restaurant. These urban yet almost homey locations shot during the midst of summer provide a perfect backdrop to this sweet romantic comedy, and Chicago seems like an dear old friend encountered by chance on a beautiful sunny day. Minnie Driver plays a woman who receives a desperately needed heart transplant, and David Duchovny is the grieving husband of the woman who donated Driver’s new heart. A coincidence brings them together and they begin a romance that is greatly complicated when they find out each other’s identities.
The superb drama A Family Thing (1996) provides a fascinating window into a Chicago almost two decades gone, with some seedier parts of Uptown (much more so than today) getting screen time as well as other off the beaten path locales. The story begins with rural Arkansas store owner Earl Pilcher, Jr. (Robert Duvall) discovering that his biological mother is actually an African American maid who died in childbirth and that he is of mixed race. Stunned by this sudden and jarring news, he gets in his truck and proceeds to drive to Chicago to find the half-brother he never knew existed. The brother (James Earl Jones) is understandably ambivalent about Earl’s appearance but is chastised by their Aunt T (Irma P Hall in a career making turn) into taking him in and giving him a place to stay. This vision of Chicago seen through Pilcher’s eyes is intimidating yet filled with wonder, much like the city must have seemed to the scores of southern blacks who migrated here in the 20th Century.
All of the aforementioned seven films highlight a different area of the city, and despite their disparate content and varied views of our metropolis, Chicago is the one constant. And, as in all films shot here, the city provides a powerfully photogenic tableaux.
Of course this is not surprising, for what is Chicago anyway other than an immense film set? Built on stilts of concrete, hovering above a swamp. A patchwork constructed of dreams from across the globe. A set for the greatest movie ever made, the story of Chicago.
Michael Corcoran is a historian, lecturer, and Certified Chicago Tour Guide. He and Arnie Bernstein are co-authors of Hollywood On Lake Michigan, 2nd Edition, available from Chicago Review Press. Visit www.brainsnack.net for info about Michael’s tours and lectures.
There you have it. It’s a bit clunky but I whipped it up over the course of a single long afternoon. The takeaway here is that I am an extremely bright penny when it comes to content manipulation and you should look to me for your freelance writer needs.