clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The real Los Angeles

In the 1980s, Hollywood churned out whitewashed, crowd-pleasing fantasies set in LA. Then came the 1990s and movies like “Pulp Fiction” and “Boyz N the Hood”

Miramax/Courtesy Everett Collection

As realistic depictions of Los Angeles go, the 1990s did not start out promisingly. Less than three months into the decade that would eventually give rise to a highly lucrative, culture-defining independent film movement, director Garry Marshall’s Pretty Woman served up an impossible fairytale about a fresh-scrubbed Hollywood Boulevard sex worker who hops in the right Lotus and becomes a Rodeo Drive princess virtually overnight.

Pretty Woman was a surprisingly old-fashioned (even regressive) romantic comedy about the transformative potential of true love. What most don’t realize is that the film that ended up onscreen sprang from a much darker script about a Hollywood Boulevard sex worker who would have been shooting up—not flossing—in Edward’s (Richard Gere) penthouse bathroom. Even more astonishingly, there was no final scene on the fire escape. In the immortal words of Vivian, “Cinder-fucking-rella” really was just a fairytale.

“[At] the end of the movie, she just left him, and that was it,” Pretty Woman cinematographer Charles Minsky tells Curbed. “There was no happy ending.”

Pretty Woman served up an impossible fairytale.
Ronald Grant Archive / Mary Evans

Given Hollywood’s history of churning out whitewashed, crowd-pleasing fantasies, that remarkable turnaround is less than surprising. Pretty Woman was, after all, developed and shot in the late 1980s, a decade that was all about deemphasizing the real and packaging myopic Reagan-era optimism as entertainment. And LA, still a center of actual moviemaking at the time, came to be depicted in similarly unrealistic ways, with its cultural, geographic, and ethnic diversity all but ignored.

Then came the ’90s. With the independent-film wave kicked off by Steven Soderbergh’s 1989 box office hit Sex, Lies, and Videotape in full swing, filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino, John Singleton, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Allison Anders—all of whom had spent at least a portion of their formative years in Los Angeles—were suddenly given freer reign to create personal films that opened the lens on areas of the city that had been underrepresented, or at least endlessly stereotyped, in Hollywood movies.

It’s not that mainstream films released in previous decades hadn’t taken occasional stabs at this. But the sheer variety of cultures, ethnicities, and neighborhoods represented had never been seen on quite the same scale—at least not in mainstream film. As a result, LA was elevated and given dimension on the big screen, leading to a richer, more diverse portrait of the city.

Even some of the decade’s more traditional studio releases set in LA exploded the gauzy geographical cocoon of Hollywood privilege, if only by virtue of their plots. In Speed, a runaway bus careened through a wide expanse of the city, from Long Beach to Venice to Mid-City. Director Joel Schumacher’s Falling Down engaged more directly with the city’s cultural, racial, and class divides when it took crew-cutted bad guy D-Fens (Michael Douglas) through a 15-mile stretch of the city on foot. The unlikely odyssey led the character through an array of the city’s less-privileged neighborhoods, bringing him face to face with the people of color he had come to resent, and even hate.

Falling Down’s themes of racial animus came to be reflected for real during the 1992 LA Uprising, which broke out just as the film was preparing to shoot a scene at a fast-food restaurant in Lynwood.

“That’s representative of where the temperature was at that moment,” says Schumacher. The production even received advance warning of the potential for violence in the lead-up to the Rodney King verdict. “[The cops] told us the day before [that] if the decision that the jury made… goes the wrong way, there is going to be big trouble,” he says.

It’s not that Hollywood stopped trafficking in LA-set fantasies altogether. The 1991 comedy L.A. Story, written by and starring Steve Martin, took gentle jabs at the self-obsession of its upwardly mobile residents, but nonetheless isolated its story within the privileged Westside enclaves of the white and the powerful. For its location manager, Jerry Ariganello, who worked on the film early in his career before eventually abandoning Hollywood altogether, that point of view could be a difficult one to swallow.

“I felt that it was coming from a very white-privileged view of the city,” says Ariganello, who grew up in what he described as a “rough” area of Detroit. He was particularly uncomfortable with scenes about some of the city’s real problems with violence and crime, issues that rarely impacted residents living in West Hollywood, Santa Monica, or Beverly Hills.

“I had problems with some of those scenes, making light of people shooting each other on the freeway or holding [people up] at the ATM,” Ariganello says. “Personally, I didn’t agree with that sort of vision of LA. But you know, it [was] my job.”

Still, as the ’90s unspooled, a crop of new, exciting, diverse, and gritty representations of LA were being produced and released by major (or at least “mini-major”) Hollywood studios, allowing a relatively more vivid, inclusive, and intoxicating vision of the city to emerge. In that decade, South LA moved beyond the “blaxploitation” genre to tell real stories about the city’s black population; the much-maligned San Fernando Valley was given depth; the South Bay was revealed to be more than the sum of its photogenic beachside cities; and Echo Park, a center of the city’s Latino population, was made beautiful again.

Below, a few of the ’90s films and filmmakers that helped paint that broader canvas.

Boyz N the Hood put the focus back on the black people who actually lived in South LA.
Columbia Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

South LA

South Central has parts of the ghetto, but it’s beautiful. It’s Los Angeles. There are palm trees. The colors are very vibrant. There are always kids playing in the streets, especially in the spring and summertime. I remember those times as being some of the best times of my life.

—John Singleton in a 2017 interview with The Washington Post

The “blaxploitation” movement of the 1970s was born in the city’s historically black neighborhoods (more popularly known as South Central) with the release of Melvin Van Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, which painted a gritty portrait of Watts. The film’s unprecedented box office success awoke Hollywood to the potential buying power of the black audience, and a slew of similar films were produced over the next several years.

Once the blaxploitation genre dwindled, it would take roughly a decade for Hollywood to return to South LA. The first wave of these new films—including titles such as Dennis Hopper’s Colors and William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A.—were made by white filmmakers and centered on white characters, mainly cops. It wasn’t until the arrival of John Singleton’s 1991 breakthrough Boyz N the Hood that the focus was put back on the people who actually lived there.

Shot in and around the Crenshaw neighborhood, Boyz N the Hood (which netted Best Director and Best Original Screenplay nominations for Singleton at the 1992 Oscars) tackled the area’s gang problems head-on, though location manager Earl West pushes back on its popular characterization as a crime film.

“It was actually depicting just regular black life,” says West. “Not so much emphasis on the gangs and the violence, although it was happening. It wasn’t about the gangs and the violence. It was about black life at that time.”

West understood the sensitivity involved when it came to filming in the historically underrepresented neighborhood, but at least one of his collaborators was not so diplomatic.

“Our producer”—he pauses—“you could tell he was from the Westside, okay?” says West. “He did not understand the politics of the neighborhood. He came in with this strong-arm [mentality] … [and I said], ‘No, no, no, you don’t tell people who’s been living there for 30 years what they got to do. ... You knock on the door and explain the situation, and you ask them for permission.’”

When Boyz N the Hood was released in July 1991, it was met with rave reviews and grossed more than $57 million at the North American box office, ushering in a new era of “hood” movies. The unrest of 1992 came after that, drawing international attention to South LA and exposing the city’s racial divides. But Hollywood continued to produce films set in the region.

One of the most successful was 1993’s Menace II Society, which took place in Watts, where factions of long-time rival gangs the Crips and the Bloods ran the streets. The rivalry was so intense that prior to shooting in the neighborhood, West says a full two to three months of prep work for location scouting was required.

“It was kind of a crazy situation,” says West. “In our case, we had to go and make deals. Explain to both gangs what we’re trying to do. And please, we don’t want any kind of violence or anything along these lines, because that’s the last thing that we want to try to depict as a result of us filming.”

To further appease the neighborhood’s power players, the production employed some of the gang members as security and extras. Additionally, West says he and his location crew agreed to turn an open field used for filming into a community garden.

In the years since those defining films, West has been employed on a number of others set in South LA, including the 2004 dance movie You Got Served, the 2008 crime thriller Street Kings, and the 2012 cop film End of Watch, starring Jake Gyllenhaal. With only a few exceptions, these and most other films that have used the region as a backdrop since Hood’s release feature some combination of drugs, gangs, and violence—a one-note portrayal West openly laments.

“Hollywood, if they find a shiny object, they’re gonna work it till it dies,” he says. “And that was their shiny object at that time. ‘Black crime. Black crime. Crack.’ ... Come on, man. That’s not all of black life.

“It does get frustrating,” he says. “It really does.”

Courtesy of Everett Collection

The San Fernando Valley

The San Fernando Valley has always been epic to me. I would watch Lawrence of Arabia, and think of my equivalent: Ventura Boulevard. As a kid, I would take my camcorder and recreate shots from other films. You do with what you have, and my goal was to make the valley cinematic. It seemed rather easy, because of my frustration with how others had tried to do it.

—Paul Thomas Anderson in a 1999 New York Times op-ed

In the 1980s, the Valley became a legitimate film star, though it was a limited and often-condescending portrayal. Beginning with Frank and Moon Unit Zappa’s hit 1982 single “Valley Girl,” the region was characterized in pop culture as a center of empty-headed consumerism, and the stereotype was only cemented by films like Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Valley Girl, Earth Girls Are Easy, and Night of the Comet.

That portrait remained largely intact by the end of the decade despite the arrival of more nuanced and diverse portrayals including the 1987 Ritchie Valens biopic La Bamba (partially filmed in Valens’s old stomping grounds of Pacoima and San Fernando), the 1980 Jodie Foster drama Foxes, and even The Karate Kid, which had Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) living at the rundown South Seas Apartments in Reseda.

Paul Thomas Anderson actually wasn’t the first filmmaker to recast the Valley onscreen in the 1990s. Quentin Tarantino beat him to the punch by several years when he set portions of both Reservoir Dogs and his 1994 breakthrough Pulp Fiction in less-savory parts of the region, from a dreary Sun Valley junkyard to a run-down North Hollywood apartment building.

Even Clueless showed off a grittier Valley with the mugging scene in the parking lot of North Hollywood’s Circus Liquor.

Like Anderson, Tarantino had grown up in LA and seemed intent on pulling back the curtain on its scuzzier corners. In that regard, Tarantino pulled no punches. In Pulp Fiction’s most notorious scene, a seedy Canoga Park pawn shop is revealed to have a (decidedly unlikely) secret basement, complete with two sadists and one creepy, zipper-masked gimp. Needless to say, Tarantino “wasn’t trying to show any kind of idealized Los Angeles,” says Pulp Fiction location manager Robert Craft.

Even Clueless—which was tonally more akin to ’80s comedies like Valley Girl—showed off a grittier Valley for a scene in which a gun-wielding mugger forces Cher (Alicia Silverstone) to dirty her expensive Alaia dress in the parking lot of North Hollywood’s Circus Liquor.

But Anderson’s view of the Valley was far and away the most multidimensional of that decade in film. Raised in Studio City, the writer-director made it his mission to recast the Valley onscreen, and he at least partially succeeded via the 1997 porn odyssey Boogie Nights and the sprawling, three-hour epic Magnolia, named after one of the Valley’s famous boulevards.

Both films offered a comparatively more realistic portrait of the Valley thanks in large part to Anderson’s familiarity with it. As is the case for anyone who grew up rooted in a place, Anderson’s ostensible “hometown” came saddled with a set of complicated memories and emotions, and that translated into his art. His intimacy with and deep love for the Valley made the job of his Magnolia location manager Tim Hillman difficult, to say the least.

“Having grown up in the Valley, he knew what he wanted,” says Hillman, who showed Anderson a total of 65 houses for the character Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall) before he found what he was looking for. “Like the Fox Fire Room [in Valley Village]. He went there as a kid, and we had to get that bar.”

“[Magnolia is] very much what I would call a close-up movie,” says Celestino Deleyto, a professor of film and English literature at the University of Zaragoza in Spain and author of the 2016 book From Tinseltown to Bordertown: Los Angeles on Film. “It’s very intense, it’s about characters suffering, and trauma... family relationships... and yet there is a lot about the Valley [there].”

In Anderson’s Valley films the region is something of a character all on its own, and like any good character, its artifice is peeled away to reveal the truth as the director understands it. Counter to the prevailing stereotype created by the pop culture of the 1980s, its residents not only felt things, they felt them on a grand scale.

As if compensating for the comparatively surface-level emotions of films like Valley Girl and its ilk, the director literally took a page out of Exodus by raining down a deluge of frogs on Reseda and Van Nuys and Valley Village. In the process, he rendered the Valley not only “epic,” but biblical.

“His view of the Valley, what you saw in Magnolia, was what Paul saw in the Valley,” says Hillman. “And he really strived to make it that.”

Jackie Brown showcased the unglamorous side of LA’s beach cities.
Miramax/Courtesy Everett Collection

South Bay

I know the South Bay like the back of my hand. This was a way for me to make this movie personal to myself and to be confident that I could keep it real. In a South Bay context I knew exactly where each of these people would live, how they would dress, what their apartments would look like.”

—Quentin Tarantino in the press notes for Jackie Brown

Relative to the better-known Westside neighborhoods to its immediate north, the South Bay ranks as something of a Hollywood underdog. But the region boasts an extensive history of Hollywood production dating back to the industry’s earliest days, even as most of those films were shot in the region’s picturesque beach towns and Palos Verdes mansions. Ethnically-diverse inland cities like Hawthorne, Carson, Inglewood, and Gardena, meanwhile, were all but ignored.

But the South Bay birthed the quintessential auteur of the 1990s, Quentin Tarantino, who famously developed his love of movies at the Manhattan Beach video store Video Archives. A high school dropout with a love of low-budget exploitation cinema, the filmmaker was eager to show off the region’s seedier locales in his 1997 blaxploitation homage, Jackie Brown.

As with Paul Thomas Anderson and the San Fernando Valley, Tarantino’s personal relationship with the South Bay made him ultra-specific when it came to locking down locations. These included a bail bonds shop in Carson, the title character’s no-frills Torrance apartment, and the dusky bar of Hawthorne’s Cockatoo Inn, which in its early days had been a hangout for both mafiosos and Hollywood celebrities. As Craft notes, the Cockatoo had shut down and been condemned by the time the production arrived, requiring a last-minute intervention from Hawthorne’s mayor. But Tarantino seemed intent on shooting there.

“It’s possible it was written in[to the script],” says Craft of the hotel, which has since become a Comfort Inn. “These were places that he knew.”

Jackie Brown showcases the South Bay more extensively than any of Tarantino’s other films, though he had been there earlier with both Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. The latter was famously bookended by a robbery scene filmed at the since-demolished Hawthorne Grill, a greasy spoon located on Hawthorne Boulevard.

It’s worth pointing out that despite Tarantino’s obvious love for the South Bay, its treatment in Jackie Brown is not dignified. Unlike Pulp Fiction, which was shot in a comparatively heightened fashion, Jackie Brown cinematographer Guillermo Navarro filmed the movie in a naturalistic ‘70s style that underscores the flat, often-squalid landscape his characters lie, cheat, and occasionally murder their way through. Even the vibrant-by-comparison Del Amo Mall (where Tarantino once worked, according to Craft) looks drab and lifeless, as if the cool gaze of Navarro’s camera had bled out half the color.

’’He didn’t shoot it with slow-speed film, which produces lush color, but with faster film that makes for a flatter effect on screen,’’ said production designer David Wasco in a 1997 interview with the New York Times. In the same article, reporter Joseph Giovannini noted that the desolate locations merely reflected the pedestrian evils committed by the film’s characters.

“The protagonists rather than the city invent the problems they play out so vividly against the banality of the environment,” Giovannini wrote. “The South Bay serves only as an understated stage for a film that belongs to marred characters who get the interiors they deserve.”

Tarantino would return to the South Bay, if only in spirit, with a scene in his 2003 martial arts action film Kill Bill: Vol. 1. The moment in question involved the character of Sheriff Earl McGraw (Michael Parks), whose dashboard lined with sunglasses was a direct homage to the opening scene of the 1974 cult classic Gone in 60 Seconds, which filmed its breathtaking car chases down some of the South Bay’s down and dirtiest streets. Tarantino never really left his hometown behind.

Mi Vida Loca was far from the first film to be set in Echo Park, but it was the first to spotlight the neighborhood’s Latina population.
Sony Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

Echo Park

Our homeboys take pride in the history of our barrio, because white people leave out a lot of stuff when they tell it. On Saturdays and Sundays, everybody shops at Sunset and Echo Park Avenue. There’s no reason to leave. You can get anything you need in my neighborhood. When I first moved here from Mexico, all the signs in the stores were in English, and I couldn’t read them. Now there’s as much Spanish as there is English. This is where our stories happen—Echo Park.

—Sad Girl (Angel Aviles) in Mi Vida Loca

In the opening voiceover of Allison Anders’s 1993 film Mi Vida Loca, Echo Park resident Sad Girl tells of the “lake that’s been here since the ’20s, when movie stars had love nests in the hills.”

The film industry was born in Echo Park and its surrounding neighborhoods, which became a hub for upstart studios like Universal and Fox during Hollywood’s earliest days. Echo Park itself was the former home of influential filmmaker and actor Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios, which released hundreds of silent comedy shorts in the early 1910s and launched the careers of such notables as Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd.

By the time Anders moved to Echo Park in the mid-1980s, the neighborhood was largely made up of Central American immigrants and their families. The Hollywood shine had long since left, but the director felt that there were stories to tell in the faces of the teenage girls, many of them in gangs, who roamed the neighborhood together, their faces painted in over-the-top makeup and their hair done up in towering quiffs.

“They wouldn’t even look at you, they’d just come like a moving force,” says Anders, who broke into Hollywood with her 1992 Sundance hit Gas Food Lodging. “And you’d just move. You’d cross the street. So you know, I found them so terrifying that I thought, ‘Right, okay, I gotta get to know them.’”

Mi Vida Loca was far from the first film to be set in Echo Park, but it was seemingly the first that had taken an interest in the neighborhood’s Latina population. The neighborhoods south and east of Echo Park, commonly grouped together as the eastside, had cropped up in films of the fairly recent past, from the 1978 Cheech and Chong classic Up in Smoke to the 1979 gang drama Boulevard Nights (shot on and around Whittier Boulevard) to the 1988 classroom drama Stand and Deliver. Just a year prior to Mi Vida Loca’s theatrical run, the East LA-shot drama Bound By Honor—which centered on Latino gang members living in East Los Angeles—was released by Disney, of all companies. But Mi Vida Loca stood out for its sense of place.

As a white woman and a relatively recent transplant, Anders was sensitive to her place in the picture, and that comes through both in her casting choices (she estimates that over half of her actors hailed from the neighborhood), her commitment to pumping money back into the community (“we rented their cars, we rented their garages, we rented their bicycles, we rented their stuffed animals”), and the overall look of the film, which was inspired by the way the girls described the neighborhood to her. “They really thought of that neighborhood as the most beautiful place on earth,” Anders says.

It took awhile for Anders to find a director of photography who could execute that vision. “All the [directors of photography] that came to me said, ‘Oh I see this as really gritty, and I’m gonna shoot it really gritty,’ and I would be like, ‘That’s wrong, that’s wrong,’” says Anders. Then she met Rodrigo Garcia. “[He] came to me and he goes, ‘I think we make it really beautiful, because that’s how they see they neighborhood.’”

While some locals branded Anders’s film as inauthentic or too focused on the neighborhood’s negative aspects, at least some in the young cast appreciated the director’s approach.

”Allison didn’t go into the stereotypes,” cast member and Ric Salinas, who founded the prominent Chicano/Latino comedy troupe Culture Clash, told the LA Times in a 1992 on-set interview. “White people who don’t live in the barrio wanted to dirty (the interior scenes) up and make it look poorer. Allison made a point of making it like it really is, poor but neat. That was responsible.”

In the 25 years since it was released, Mi Vida Loca has become a classic for many, particularly the young Latinas who saw themselves in the characters of Sad Girl, Mousie (Seidy Lopez), Whisper (Nélida López) and others. If nothing else, it serves as an astonishing time capsule of a pre-gentrification Echo Park, which Anders (who has lived in Altadena for the past decade) now refers to as a “trust-fund palace.”

“As you do in LA, you start to forget, ‘Now what was there? What was there before?’” she says of the neighborhood. “And you hopefully have your pictures to remind yourself.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the car in Pretty Woman; it was a Lotus, not a Ferrari.

Film and Television | From Curbed

To all the rooms I’ve loved before

Film and Television | From Curbed

‘Parasite’ modern mansion recreated in the Sims

Film and Television | From Curbed

Goodbye Syd Mead: A conversation with the artist who illustrated the urban future

View all stories in Film and Television