Cinema Style: 20 Unforgettable American Movie Interiors

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(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

I love movies, all kinds of movies: historical, thought-provoking, independent, and even simply entertaining, films. But I especially love movies with great design! Some of these are fantastic, Oscar-nominated movies; some are quirky all-time favorites; and some are most significant for their style contribution. Each makes its own unique contribution to the American cinematic canon…

First Row:
Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) According to biographer Donald Spoto, “Hepburn as Holly, carrying an oversized cigarette holder, is considered one of the most iconic images of 20th century American cinema.” With that in mind, it’s not surprising that the film itself oozes style, from Hepburn’s infamous little black dress to her oversized sunglasses and form her bathtub sofa to her “go-lightly” lifestyle. Today, it’s as notable for its depiction of the “lush” life of Manhattan’s social set as it is for its ill-conceived casting of Mickey Rooney as Holly’s Japanese landlord.

Something’s Gotta Give (2003) It goes without saying that the interiors of the oft-pictured Hamptons house in this film are amazing. Yet, for me, the greatest contribution this film has made to movie history has to do with the manner in which it engaged its sophisticated, aging baby boomer audience. I can still hear my mom and her best friend’s hysterical laughter as they watched this movie for the first time together. Now, these were actors and issues they could relate to!

Pillow Talk (1959) A Kodachrome confection of a film, Pillow Talk’s Oscar-nominated interiors are almost enough to distract you from the not-so-subtle innuendos now synonymous with the “sex comedies” of the early Sixties. It was released in 1959, when the film censors were beginning to loosen their grip on morality in art and “good girl” Doris Day was on her way to becoming every girl’s modern heroine. As is the case with many films made during this time, gender politics provide a loaded subtext.

A Single Man (2009) Some films are stylish. Some films have style. In this film, style plays such a large role it has its own trailer. After all, the director is legendary fashion designer Tom Ford and the production design is by the geniuses behind Mad Men. Add a stunning John Lautner house as the backdrop, and mediocrity never had a chance. In fact, there’s so much style in this film, you might almost miss the superb acting of its carefully-chosen cast. Which would be a shame, because that’s where the elegance of this piece really shines through.

Gone with the Wind (1939) A no-holds-barred, sweeping Hollywood epic that in many ways set the bar for stylish sagas to come. The line “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” has been voted the most memorable line in cinema history, and the AFI has ranked the film #2 on their list of greatest romances of all time. Hattie McDaniel also became the first black American to win an Academy Award for her role in the film. And, while the film has since been maligned for its portrayal of the slave experience, there’s no denying the impact, good or bad, that it has had on America’s collective awareness of the Civil War.

Second Row:
Auntie Mame (1958) Based on the book and play by the same name, Auntie Mame (the film) evokes the grab-life-with-both-hands mentality espoused by its lead character, the mercurial, bohemian Mame Dennis. She’s a woman who’s ahead of her time, poised on the precipice between the propriety of the Fifties and the free love of the Sixties. The stylistic gymnastics of her home alone are worth every viewing minute.

It’s Complicated (2009) One of the most recently coveted houses on film comes from a designing director, Nancy Meyers, and the creative team behind Something’s Gotta Give. Like that film, this movie’s stellar cast speaks to the baby boomer generation, though not quite as successfully. The real star in this film is the protagonist’s location, lifestyle and home décor. Her 1920’s Spanish-style home, nestled in the Santa Barbara hills, stirs the imagination and invites one to escape to the idylls of indoor/outdoor living, a place where John Krasinski is your charming son-in-law to-be, chocolate croissants are whipped up on the fly and charcoal claw foot tubs are the norm. With all that, who cares if it’s complicated??

Chinatown (1974) As a neo-noir depiction of the great water battle of Los Angeles, Chinatown hits all the right marks. Screenplay? Check. Acting? Check. Set design? Check. As a director, Roman Polanski may have a checkered past, but here he gets everything right. Chinatown’s grittiness and style pays homage to forties noir films while serving as inspiration for a whole new generation of noir. (It doesn’t hurt the film’s authenticity to have John Huston, director of the Maltese Falcon, playing a seemingly benign villain, either). Without water, Los Angeles wouldn’t exist. Without this film, there would be a hole in the fabric of stylish cinema.

The Graduate (1967) What makes this movie so much more than a comedic drama is the way in which it engaged an entire generation of dissatisfied young adults who were, like the titular hero, adrift in a pool of uncertainty. The time was 1967, and American youth were torn between adhering to a status quo promoted by the corporate establishment and their anger and disillusionment at the escalating conflict in Vietnam. The film features tons of stylish interiors (the enclosed patio with bar springs instantly to mind), but it’s the stunning visual snapshots employed by avant-garde director, Mike Nichols, that make it so memorable.

You’ve Got Mail (1998) The Upper West Side is as much a character in this film as Kathleen Kelly and Joe Fox. And Meg Ryan’s home left all of us believing that we, too, could live very comfortably in a New York studio apartment. As inviting as these interiors are though, this is ultimately a movie that perfectly captures the early excitement of email technology and the duality of our online and real world existences.

Third Row:
Rosemary’s Baby (1968) Actresses such as Tuesday Weld and Sharon Tate were originally considered for the role of Rosemary, but it is Mia Farrow’s waif-like naiveté that makes this movie so chilling. An adorable pixie haircut, cheery shift dresses and the storied Dakota building turn what could have been just another horror flick into a stylishly haunting classic.

North By Northwest (1959)
Of this film, Time Out London said, “Fifty years on, you could say that Hitchcock’s sleek, wry, paranoid thriller caught the zeitgeist perfectly: Cold War shadiness, secret agents of power, urbane modernism, the ant-like bustle of city life, and a hint of dread behind the sharp suits of affluence.” This is a film swimming in style, from Grant’s well-cut suits to Eva Marie Saint’s Bergdorf Goodman wardrobe to the Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired Vandamm house perched atop Mount Rushmore. Aspirational to the end, every inch of this film was created to underscore the idea that wealth is irrelevant in the face of danger.

The Fountainhead (1949) One would be hard-pressed to find a work that so completely represents the idea of the modern architect. Based on the book by the same name, The Fountainhead captures the early resistance to modernism in America, delving into issues of individuality and conformism within the field of architecture, and highlighting an archetype of the future: the starchitect. Its ideas, that the individual is “of supreme value,” “the fountainhead of creativity,” and that “selfishness, properly understood, is a virtue,” have resonated with generations of young people and have inspired the careers of numerous architects.

Down with Love (2003) An homage to the previously mentioned Doris Day and Rock Hudson sex-comedies, Down with Love is most celebrated for its style and cotton-candy depiction of an era just before the sexual revolution. Its set designs are “deliberately fake” and meant to look not like early-sixties New York but, rather, a Hollywood version of early-sixties New York. Color and scale are exaggerated, with the intent to make design a larger-than-life character in the film. The result is an entertaining comedic romp with loads of saturated style.

Edward Scissorhands (1990) A fairy tale that is by turns funny, dark, touching and wistful, Edward Scissorhands was conceived by Tim Burton, and represents the director’s sense of alienation growing up in suburban Southern California. Color and form play significant roles in this imaginative film, in which tract homes are dressed in faded pastels and loneliness is cast as a darkened Gothic castle. Lively topiaries and ice sculptures lend magic to a world of almost stifling sameness. Suburbia hasn’t been seen in the same light since.

Forth Row:
The Best of Everything (1959) Little more than a glorified soap opera, The Best of Everything is most notable for its depiction of mid-century life and style. With its typing pool, corner offices and corporate ladder firmly in place, the life of the single career girl is explored and exposed. It’s a small film with a large impact, ultimately inspiring popular successors such as Mad Men and Sex and the City.

Sex and the City 2 (2010) Without a doubt the worst installment of the Sex and the City franchise, this film escapes pure rottenness only because of its décor. As Carrie says in the movie, “I’ve been cheating on fashion with furniture” – and it shows. Tremendous effort was made to design a space that would reflect the combined residence of Mr. & Mrs. Big: the scale, the fabrics, colors and accessories were all chosen to represent the individuals that inhabit the space. There’s even been an update to Carrie’s iconic studio apartment, proof that, like it or not, time has indeed marched on.

The Parent Trap (1961)
One of the most memorable children’s films ever made, The Parent Trap especially struck a chord with children of divorced parents. The idea that a child could somehow repair her broken home was appealing to those in a similar situation, and many were captivated by the determined twins’ hijinks and shenanigans. Style-wise, the film wooed viewers with Mitch’s magnificent ranch house and the glorious indoor/outdoor lifestyle for which California is famous.

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
Inspired by J. D. Salinger’s Glass family stories and Orson Welles’ film The Magnificent Ambersons, The Royal Tenenbaums is American cinema at its quirky best. The lives of the sibling prodigies provide fodder for decor rife with eccentricity and whimsy, and have resulted in some of the most remarkable interiors of recent memory. Zebra wallpaper? Ballrooms? Darkrooms? Libraries? Tents? These are things design dreams are made of! (Director Wes Anderson even had his brother Eric sketch out his ideas, so he wouldn’t forget them once it came time to design the sets).

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) A science-fiction film of epic proportions, 2001: A Space Odyssey would go on to influence filmmaking giants such as Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, not to mention numerous special effects technicians. Its themes cover human evolution, technology, artificial intelligence, extraterrestrial life and surrealism: an extreme scope that even extends to the parameters of design. Note the Djinn chairs that litter the lounge of Space Station Five and the way in which old and new collide in the Renaissance Room to startling effect. One need only look as far as the Hudson Hotel bar or “Safehouse” in Tron Legacy to see that the legacy of this space odyssey lives on…

There are so many well-designed American films out there! Which one is your favorite? Which films are not on the list, but should be?