Dear Hollywood: Stop Embarrassing Us. Love, Sacramento.
Back when I was growing up in Sacramento, California, it was always a big deal when a Hollywood production would come to town. Clint Eastwood, John Travolta, whoever... it was automatic front-page news, kind of an in-between moment for a growing city that always liked to think of itself as more sophisticated than it was. That introduction to Kevin Spacey in American Beauty -- when Lester Burnham soared over an anonymous, sprawling suburb? That was the tony, tree-shrouded enclave of Fair Oaks. We won Oscars! It was glorious.
And then Sacramento got its close-up. This summer alone, both The Ugly Truth and All About Steve have made my hometown the epicenter of romcom temblors better known for their shrill unlikability than anything resembling pride of place. And it could get worse before it gets better. So here is my intervention: Hollywood, will you please, please leave my fair city alone already?
Again, it wasn't always like this. I remember when Emilio Estevez and Demi Moore shot the climax of his directorial debut Wisdom at Beaver Stadium, the crown jewel of American River College -- about a mile from my home, where my 9-year-old movie-loving self practically shook from the buzz down the street. My parents and I were late lookie-loos on the set, and whatever was supposed to have happened on College Oak Drive had apparently transpired. The Brat Pack royalty had fled like the rest of the elite, back to the glamour of Anywhere But There.
No hard feelings, though! They would be back. They always were, the way they had for years prior when Charlie Chaplin substituted the Delta for the Yukon in 1924's The Gold Rush, or when Buster Keaton filmed Steamboat Bill Jr. on our namesake river in 1928. The brilliant local cinematographer and filmmaker Mark Herzig once insisted to me, in fact, that Eadweard Muybridge invented cinema during one of his myriad photographic experiments at a Sacramento racetrack in 1877. (The likeness of the horse he "filmed" still occupies street signs in the Boulevard Park neighborhood that once housed the track.)
We mostly got indie stuff, though, in the interim. The best of them were cult classics like 1978's Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (arguably the first real "Sacramento" movie) and, a decade later, River's Edge, which featured Keanu Reeves's grim discovery of a corpse alongside the American River. These were local legends among film buffs; Joe Carnahan would supplant both in 1998 with his no-budget debut Blood Guts Bullets and Octane, which he scraped together with equipment borrowed from the TV station where he worked. It went to Sundance, and Carnahan went to the big time.
But when the industry did drop back in, they made us look pretty great. Eastwood came first, shooting some of Bird's exteriors in Midtown in 1988, then returning a year later with his comedy Pink Cadillac. Travolta owned the '90s, first arriving in the Sierra foothills with Phenomenon, then staging a winter wonderland in the city proper (where, mind you, it has snowed maybe twice in the last 20 years) for Lucky Numbers. These were fun one- or two-day larks for the locals, a few of whom eventually had illusions of building a studio in the vicinity to support more productions in the region.
Those plans went nowhere. But what did thrive was a sort of daydream of Sacramento as California's great new cosmopolis, the kind of place where the only reason you'd know we were the 20th! Biggest! Media Market! In the Country! was because you were stuck there and plotting your escape. Hence The Ugly Truth. When Katherine Heigl's ambitious Sacramento morning-show producer rattles off all the reasons to remain in the city (equidistance to beaches and mountains, good schools, great place to raise a family, all of which are true), it's as a means to underscoring her denial. She doesn't want to be happy -- she wants to be secure.
So she entrenches herself in Sacramento, which wound up being one of the primary anti-woman implications for which critics excoriated Truth. I mean, yeah -- I moved to New York to get ahead professionally, and Sacramento absolutely is a careerist stepping stone, especially in the news media (NBC's David Gregory, ESPN's Dana Jacobson, and more meteorologists than I can count have all gone national from local network affiliates there). A lot of people get out, but the vast majority stay for the very reasons that the new Sacramento movie wave would have us judge as complacency.
And whether it's coincidence or not that Sandra Bullock's
crossword-puzzle constructor "cruciverbalist" flees her so-called small-town Sacramento newspaper gig (Sacramento County actually has a population of nearly 1.4 million) to stalk the title character in All About Steve, the city takes another yet mass-culture lump for the team. This time it's Hollywood blaming us for Sandra Bullock's idiosyncratic basket-case. I don't know what we ever did to screenwriter Kim Barker, but Sacramento's lunatics are no more or less freakish than those of, say, her own native Canada. And in any case, here's a tip: The true nutjobs are in real estate. And we have lots of those. Not quirky enough? Not Sacramento's problem! You don't take down a perfectly fine city of perfectly nice people so an A-list actress-producer can shriek, gape and self-immolate at our expense.
So what's next? I'm optimistic -- cautiously so, as native Sacramentan Deon Taylor brought Nikki Reed, Betsy Russell, Keith David, Brad Dourif and -- wait for it -- Bai Ling to Sacramento for his indie horror film Chain Letter. And I don't even know what to make of this Craigslist posting soliciting actors and extras for an untitled Corey Haim film to be shot in the eastern exurb of Folsom; it's paying, so that's a plus. In both cases, here's hoping they can help restore the tradition of a town the movies once took seriously and to which cinema may even owe its own provenance. For everything Sacramento gave you, Hollywood, it never asked for anything but a couple autographs and a thanks. The city deserves better. Provide it, or stay the hell out.