Overtures and Undertows

‘Overtures and Undertows’: When San Francisco Plays a Supporting Role in Films

By Noma Faingold

There are a lot of highly regarded movies filmed in San Francisco, including Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 noir masterpiece, “Vertigo” and the 1968 slow-burn, groundbreaking action thriller, “Bullitt,” starring Steve McQueen as a brooding but honest police lieutenant. Every cinephile has seen those classics. 

I’d rather explore a few other significant (and more recent) films, where San Francisco does more than provide a dramatic, textured backdrop. The City is actually a supporting character.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019) 

What I remember about seeing this indie film was sitting in the theater with my cousin and her husband, unable to move as the closing credits rolled. All three of us are native San Franciscans and we needed to digest what we saw – a realistic story about what happens to people who once were welcomed and embraced by the inclusive and creative city they loved, only to be spit out and discarded through gentrification, economic disparity and an erosion of community.

In the most artistic of ways, the film asks the question, “Does San Francisco still have a soul?”

Jonathan Majors (left) and Jimmie Fails co-star in “The Last Black Man in San Francisco.” The 2019 film, co-written by longtime friends Fails and director Joe Talbot, is based on Fails’s life. Photo credit: A24 Films.

The personal, yet universal, story, co-written by longtime friends (and San Franciscans) Jimmie Fails and Joe Talbot, along with Rob Richert, stars Fails, Danny Glover and a pre-famous Jonathan Majors. It was the first full-length feature directed by Talbot and garnered critical acclaim. The film won many festival awards, including the Dramatic Directing Award and a Special Jury Award for Creator Collaboration at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

It’s both a love letter to The City and an indictment of how alone and powerless one can feel, even when surrounded by people, businesses and buildings. 

Filmed in such neighborhoods as the Mission, Portola, Tenderloin, Castro and Bayview, the story is based on Fails’s life, about a man trying to hold onto what once was, including the Victorian home his family no longer owns. Cinematographer Adam Newport-Berra captures texture and contrast in the old house, showing us the dust and decay, as well as the gorgeous molding. While promoting the film, director Talbot told a reporter with the local online news outlet Curbed SF, “We wanted to find a place that would hopefully make the audience feel those things Jimmie is feeling. We needed a house to feel like a character, to feel developed, to go through its own arc.”

Exteriors are also lovingly shot, including a skateboarder confidently heading down a steep hill at sunset. 

My favorite line in “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is when the character Fails watches a couple of young women rip on San Francisco while riding the bus. His response is, “You don’t get to hate it unless you love it.”

Big Eyes (2014)

I’m not a huge fan of director Tim Burton. I do favor his quainter stories like, “Ed Wood” (1994), “Edward Scissorhands” (1990) and “Big Eyes,” to his popcorn blockbusters, such as “Batman,” (1989), “Batman Returns” (1992), “Planet of the Apes” (2001) and “Sleepy Hollow” (1999).

“Big Eyes,” starring Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz at their best, is based on the true story of artist Margaret Keane, who allowed her con-artist second husband, Walter Keane, to pretend he was the one painting those oversized-doe-eyed portraits mostly of children. While the paintings (wildly popular in the 1960s) were considered kitschy at best and “tasteless hack work” at worst by art critics, the popularity of the work soared in the 1960s due to Walter mass marketing the images as posters, on postcards, plates and other objects.

At an outdoor art show in North Beach’s Washington Square, Margaret (Amy Adams) meets future husband Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) in the 2014 Tim Burton film, “Big Eyes. Photo credit: Weinstein Company.

When a divorced Margaret moved to San Francisco with her young daughter in the mid-1950s, she landed in North Beach during its artistic renaissance (and Beatnik era), which is heavily depicted in the film. We see several angles of Washington Square, charming shops on Grant Avenue, a typical North Beach alley where Margaret lives and a re-creation of the hip Hungry i nightclub where Keane’s paintings were first publicly hung. There’s also a scene of Margaret and Walter at the Palace of Fine Arts painting plein air style (at least Margaret was painting).

The mid-century modern set design (production designer Rick Heinrichs) and period costumes (Coleen Atwood) are luscious and accurate to the times and culture. “Big Eyes” deserved a bigger audience.

Blue Jasmine (2013)

Maybe you don’t want to see a Woody Allen movie. I wanted to take a “Silkwood” shower after watching the disturbing 2021 docuseries, “Allen v. Farrow” and reading Ronan Farrow’s investigative “Catch and Kill,” about Hollywood predators like Harvey Weinstein and the author’s biological father, Allen. 

However, “Blue Jasmine” is so worthy. I’ve seen it three times. The female characters are so well drawn, especially Jasmine, for which Cate Blanchett earned a Best Actress Academy Award. She plays a New York socialite, who has a severe fall from grace, once her arrogant husband gets arrested for fraud in a Bernie Madoff-type scheme.

The fragile Jasmine has a breakdown and attempts to re-invent herself by moving in with her working-class sister in San Francisco. 

Cate Blanchett as an unhinged Jasmine in “Blue Jasmine” sitting on a bench in South Park. Photo credit: Sony Picture Classics.

The blueprint for “Blue Jasmine” is the Tennessee Williams play, “A Streetcar Named Desire,” with Jasmine embodying a modern-day Blanche DuBois. It’s fascinating to watch Blanchett’s character try to outrun the scandal her life became in her lived-in Chanel boucle jacket. Her refined taste fools some men, like her suitor, Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard), an aspiring politician. But eventually, when the truth is revealed, she reverts into a delusional mess. 

San Francisco plays a big role in the setting. Her non-pretentious sister, Ginger, played by Sally Hawkins, works at a produce market in the Mission and lives in that neighborhood, in a dilapidated apartment on South Van Ness Avenue. I’ve passed by it many times. 

The production filmed in Chinatown, the Marina, Belvedere, Tiburon, Ocean Beach and in the Outer Sunset. The Ramp restaurant and bar was featured in one scene and an office space on Ulloa Street was used as a dental practice where Jasmine was temporarily (and grudgingly) employed as a receptionist, until the dentist sexually harassed her. Another scene was filmed at Gaspare’s Pizza in the Richmond District, where an impaired Jasmine (from liberally mixing Vodka with Xanax) takes Ginger’s two sons out for pizza. She thinks she is imparting seasoned wisdom. The two boys have no idea what the hell she is talking about. 

One of my favorite scenes takes place on a bench in South Park. When I lived in South Beach for many years, I used to walk there often with my dog. An unglued Jasmine is in deep conversation … with herself. I have seen this scene in real life several times. 

Milk (2008)

The Gus Van Sant film covers an important part of San Francisco’s turbulent history in the 1970s. While the life of Harvey Milk (Sean Penn, in an Academy Award-winning performance) was inspiring and ground-breaking, it ended in tragedy, when he and SF Mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber) were assassinated by former Supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin).

Sean Penn won an Oscar for his portrayal of gay activist and San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk in “Milk.” Many historical scenes were faithfully re-created, including the 1978 Gay Pride Parade filmed in Civic Center. Photo credit: Focus Features.

Penn does a great job showing what a free spirit Milk was as he developed from being a gay activist to the first openly gay elected official in California, as a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. The portrayal had a spontaneous quality, as if Milk was making important decisions in the moment. From a historical perspective, the story unfolds as if Milk somehow knew that the movement he led was just the beginning of hard-fought cultural changes to come for his community.

Locations include the Castro, of course, as well as City Hall. The filmmakers recreated scenes in the spots where events actually took place, including using the store where Milk’s camera shop was on Castro Street. The production paid the owners of a gift shop a hefty amount to temporarily convert their shop back into Milk’s campaign headquarters/camera store.

A Few More Standouts

Let’s not overlook these other films set in San Francisco:

“Zodiac” (2007). A true-crime thriller. The serial killer terrorized the Bay Area in the late 1960s. It is considered an unsolved case.

“The Game” (1997). A thriller from director David Fincher with a lot of twists and turns.

“Mrs. Doubtfire” (1993). Robin Williams’s best physical and family friendly comedy.

“So I Married an Axe Murderer” (1993). Offbeat romantic comedy starring Mike Myers.

“The Joy Luck Club” (1993). Generational family drama, based on the novel by the Bay Area’s Amy Tan. 

“Basic Instinct” (1992). Erotic neo-noir launched Sharon Stone into superstardom, playing the chilling, unpredictable femme fatale Catherine Tramell.

“Dogfight” (1991). A somber, coming-of-age love story with River Phoenix.

“Foul Play” (1978). Mystery/comedy/romance with Goldie Hawn. One of the few tolerable movies starring Chevy Chase.

High Anxiety” (1977). Mel Brooks parodies Hitchcock.

“The Conversation” (1974). Francis Ford Coppola’s psychological thriller was ahead of its time. Gene Hackman’s scenes without dialogue are the most powerful.

“Harold and Maude” (1971). The most unconventional love story you will ever see, disguised as a dark comedy.

“Days of Wine and Roses” (1962). A heartbreaking, realistic look at addiction in a marriage. 

Noma Faingold is a writer and photographer, who lives in Noe Valley. The native San Franciscan, who grew up in the Sunset District, is a frequent contributor to the Richmond Review and Sunset Beacon newspapers, among others. She is obsessed with pop culture and the arts, especially film, theater and fashion.

2 replies »

  1. For a really unusual view of San Francisco I recommend The Penalty, a 1920 film starring Lon Chaney. Many views of a barely recognizable Chinatown and a dream sequence on the steps of the Old Mint at Fifth and Mission. Plus an excellent chance for us to see why the name Lon Chaney still lives!

    Regarding the reply about The Lineup, the view of the Sutro Baths includes an extensive view of the now lost forever balcony “museum.”


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