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Set & The City

Boston and Philadelphia are rich in Hollywood history with both cities being central to cinematic moments over the years.

February 23, 2014 12:35:19 am

By Preeti Verma Lal

Philadelphia was cold. In sub-zero temperature, my eyelashes laden with icicles, my parka awash with snowdust, my boots slimy in sleet, I made a wicked choice. Inside the warmth of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, lay Pierre-Auguste Renoir in a tan bowler hat, black coat and a charcoal scarf knotted lazily around a white shirt. I knew the gimlet gaze of his 1897 self-portrait could melt my frosty blues. But caught in a mighty snow flurry, I yearned to be with the bare-chested, sweaty, bruised Rocky Balboa. The underdog who climbed the 72 steps of the museum, his fist punching the sky, sporting a black-eye after a bout. I swoon over Renoir, but on that frigid day in Philadelphia, I walked up to Rocky — sculpted in bronze at the east gate of the museum. 

In Philadelphia, all film stories begin with Rocky. So memorable was the scene that the museum steps will forever be known as the “Rocky Steps”. No one really remembers that Toni Colette too huffed and puffed up with her four dogs as Rose Feller in the 2005 movie In Her Shoes.

Even on a snowy day, Rocky lovers were milling around me. A young Chinese girl was whooping like Stallone had, her dog in a polka coat wailed in the cold. A stout man with a pot belly wrapped his arm around the sculpture. I was about to do a “Rocky” myself when Crystal Hayes of Philadelphia Tourism said, “Turn around. There’s a mannequin walking”. My hands plopped by my waist and I turned askance. Mannequin? There were a million women cracking snow with their boot heels, but there sure was no mannequin. “Look harder,” she insisted. “Who knows you might see John Travolta”. That moment, I caught the reference. In Blow Out, Travolta’s car, in a heart-pounding climax, had careened by the Philadelphia City Hall and crashed into the windows of Wanamaker’s department store. The City Hall still stands in all its glory but Travolta’s store is now a Macy’s where Kim Catrall, the window mannequin, comes alive in the eponymous Mannequin. Big end of season sale posters were draped around Macy’s; I walked past imagining a window mannequin moseying up to me.

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Philadelphia was the first capital of the United States. Obviously, the city spills with a million George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Declaration of Independence stories. Of the tavern where they met, of the wine they sipped, and the Declaration drafts that they poured over. But in the old city, I was completely ignoring history and the men in powdered wigs and creased breeches. I was thinking of M Night Shyamalan, the local Philly lad, who lives in and shot most of The Sixth Sense, Signs and Unbreakable in the city. I love spooky movies and Shyamalan is a favourite. Soon, Hayes too dropped history by the sidewalk. As the frosty wind cut through our bones, she and I chatted. I about Shyamalan; she of the National Treasure that Nicolas Cage found by the Liberty Bell.

Boston was five hours away but before I left Philadelphia, I stood at the 30th Street Train Station, like the little Amish boy in The Witness. A big clock chimed in the hallway and a bronze statue of Archangel Michael stared down at me. In the jostling crowd, I imagined a killer hurrying to the men’s room, a violent scuffle, a gasp for breath, blood trickling and the innocent Amish boy witnessing it… I shuddered. The train hooted. I left for Boston.

Would I see as many Hollywood hunks in Boston? Unlikely. But soon, Maria Sperikados of the Massachusetts Tourism Board corrected me. Boston now has a million Hollywood connections. Why, I wondered aloud. “Because of the filmmaking incentives and subsidies doled out by the Massachusetts state government,” said Sperikados. I must have still looked sceptical because Sperikados continued: “Maybe you should do the Film Location bus tour? In three hours, you’d see 40 movie location sites. Or, do the Boston Movie Mile walking tour around Beacon Hill and Boston .” $38 for a bus tour? Naah. I pinched a penny, picked a map and thus began my Hollywood-hunk quest.

But first, I found a little princess. The one with a mop of curly ringlets, a frilly frock, sunk on a soft bed with teddy bears all around her. It was Shirley Temple when she was a little girl, a child who rescued America from the despair of the Great Depression of 1929. At the Taj Boston’s cafe, she smiled from a photograph framed in wood. She was in great company, too. Elizabeth Taylor hovered in a nearby frame, in a pale dress chatting up dignitaries in pin-stripes.

I look out of the window. Not far was the Boston Commons, America’s first public park. Poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow must have walked the elm-lined boulevard, but I remembered Will Hunting, the janitor with eidetic memory in Good Will Hunting, that won an Oscar for Best Picture. Just around the bend lay Commonwealth Avenue once described by Queen Elizabeth II as the world’s best street; a street that still resonates with the thump of Travolta’s shoes as he, the petty thief in black hooded coat, blue jeans, his hair moussed back, runs down the avenue in The Forger.

I could see the gold dome of Massachusetts State House which houses the three rooms from where the great treasures are stolen in the opening sequence of Pink Panther 2. Interestingly, in the scene where Jacques Clouseau is trying to ticket the car that drives off under the Eiffel Tower, the scene cuts from Paris to Boston in a jiffy — Boston dressed up like Paris with flower stalls and café tables. But if one really wants to talk about imposters, you can’t omit Martin Scorcese and his remake of Infernal Affairs, The Departed. Walking about, I found 10 Boston locations where the film was shot. I chose to stop by Charles Street Cleaners that was metamorphosed into Charles Street Brassiere, the headquarters of gangster Frank Costello, played by Jack Nicholson.

Gruff gangsters. Muscled boxer. Funny panther. Genius janitor. On a film-location spree in Philadelphia and Boston, I had seen them all. Almost stepped into their shoes. But my knees were wobbly with all the walking, my mind giddy with all the information. However, I could have not flown 22 hours into the country and not travel to Harvard University, into the library where Oliver Barerett IV met the quick-witted Jenny Cavalleri. How can one stop from getting nostalgic about that famous opening line from Love Story: “What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who died? That she was beautiful and brilliant? That she loved Mozart and Bach? The Beatles? And me?”

I took the train to Harvard University. To be “preppy” like Jenny. To love like Oliver. To remember that “love means never having to say sorry.” n

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