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Connecticut On the Big And Small Screen

A Peek Into the State’s Movie and TV Past

Paul Newman, who was born and raised in Ohio, spent a large part of his adult life in Connecticut as a husband, father, homeowner, charitable businessman, arts patron, and activist. He liked it a lot. In fact, of the five motion pictures he directed, two were shot almost entirely in the state, even though one of them actually takes place on Staten Island. That says quite a bit.

But it also raises more questions than it answers.

Why, for example, do so few of the movies filmed here have so little to do with the heart and soul of Connecticut? And why is it that so many speak to issues and themes we may not be anxious to spotlight?

Of course, there are plenty of motion picture and television productions of which we can be entirely proud, such as Jane Fonda and Robert DeNiro’s Stanley and Iris, an emotionally touching 1990 film shot in Waterbury, and the 1988 coming-of-age comedy Mystic Pizza, filmed in Mystic, Groton, and Stonington.

Still, there’s the puzzle of why several movies actually have the name of our state in their titles but no connection to Connecticut whatsoever. Both versions of Christmas in Connecticut are among them. The 1945 feature starring Barbara Stanwyck and Dennis Morgan was filmed at the Warner Brothers studio in Burbank, and the 1992 television version with Dyan Cannon and Kris Kristofferson was shot in Wyoming and Altadena, CA. The 2009 supernatural thriller, A Haunting in Connecticut with Virginia Madsen wasn’t filmed here, either. It was made in Canada.

Where does that leave us?

With as much confusion as the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey—which incidentally starred longtime Westport resident Keir Dullea. In other words, figuring out just where Connecticut stands in the annals of film and TV production is nothing less than… well… an odyssey! A titanic endeavor.

Speaking of which, both Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, the star-crossed lovers from Titanic, spent several weeks in Connecticut shooting 2008’s Revolutionary Road, which is one of those films that explores some darker themes of American life.

In the story, Frank and April are a married couple in the mid-1950s with unfilled dreams, unhinged ideas, and an unhappy marriage. The book on which it is based makes it clear that the story takes place in an affluent suburban town in southern Connecticut, and much of the actual filming did occur in Beacon Falls, Darien, Fairfield, Greenwich, and Trumbull. One commentator referred to the story as a sort of death of traditional suburbia.

This is not the kind of advertising slogan our real estate agents would be anxious to use to draw people to Connecticut suburbs.

Three other prominent films, Gentleman’s Agreement starring Gregory Peck, The Swimmer, with Burt Lancaster, and The Ice Storm, featuring Toby McGuire, present a similar conundrum.

Gentleman’s Agreement, portions of which were shot in Darien, is about a journalist (Peck) who poses as a Jewish man as part of his magazine research into antisemitism in New York City and affluent communities in Connecticut. Despite its tough subject matter—or maybe because of it—the 1947 film was highly lauded and won three Oscars, for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress (Celeste Holm), and Best Director (Elia Kazan).

The Swimmer was a 1968 film based on a John Cheever short story about a man battling inner turmoil who feels compelled to commute from work by swimming in one built-in pool after another until he gets home. The original story never postulates that it takes place in Connecticut (Cheever was born and raised in Massachusetts), but still, most of the swimming pool scenes were shot in Westport and Fairfield.

The Ice Storm, much like Revolutionary Road, has often been referred to as a frigid look at marriage in suburbia. The 1997 film takes place mostly in New Canaan over a Thanksgiving weekend in 1973 and is fraught with adultery, sexual shenanigans, coming-of-age craziness, booze, and drugs—all in the shadow of a winter weather accident. There were news reports at the time that local residents weren’t pleased that their town was the epicenter of such a sordid tale.

Where many movies focus on suburban sadness, sitcoms often bring lightness and humor into the mix. Still, many are placed here but not shot here. Gilmore Girls, often referred to as a dram-com set in a place of perpetual breeziness, is set in the fictional Litchfield County hamlet of Stars Hollow, but it was filmed mostly in Burbank. American Housewife, which placed its comedic family action in Westport, was also a West Coast production. Visually speaking, it wasn’t especially obvious that the story took place here, but if the show had kept its original title, that impression may have been much harder to avoid. While in the planning stage, the sitcom was titled The Second Fattest Housewife in Westport.

Fortunately, there are a number of romantic movies that not only were filmed here, but that present mature and thoughtful subjects that will embarrass no one. Hope Springs is a 2012 Meryl Steep and Tommy Lee Jones picture that actually takes place in Maine but was filmed in Guilford, Stonington, Norwalk, Mystic, and Darien. And So It Goes, a 2014 drama with Diane Keaton and Michael Douglas, was shot in Bristol, Bridgeport, Southport, and Greenwich, though the film itself gives no decisive indication that it actually takes place in the Nutmeg State.

So why were they shot here?

“Connecticut truly has a variety of excellent filming locations,” says George Norfleet, director of the Connecticut Office of Film, TV & Digital Media. “There is practically no location we can’t provide, from cityscape to countryside to shoreline. We also have access to a talented crew base and offer an industry-recognized incentive package.”

Tax breaks encourage many production companies to shoot in Connecticut, and so does the variety of locations all within easy driving distance which, in addition to what Norfleet mentions, includes factory towns, affluent hamlets, and suburban communities.

And then there’s Yale, which lends itself nicely to certain images and impressions intrinsic to many fiction and nonfiction stories. On the other hand, there often seems to be logistical and contractual challenges associated with actually shooting on campus, so of the hundreds of productions that reference the school or even have scenes asserting to take place there, the number that actually set up shop in New Haven is very small.

One of the early features that did have a crew roll in was the 1950 Bette Davis melodrama, All About Eve. Also, the 2003 drama, Mona Lisa Smile, for which Julia Roberts returned to Connecticut, had a few exterior scenes shot at the university (though the story actually takes place at Wellesley and Harvard). For 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Indie’s place of employment, the fictional Marshall College, also used Yale for a scene or two.

Whether or not Harrison Ford himself stopped by is unclear, but director Steven Spielberg did—several times, in fact. In addition to that fourth Indie installment, Spielberg shot scenes from Amistad and War of the Worlds in the state.

Amistad, with a stellar cast that included Anthony Hopkins and Morgan Freeman, is the 1997 retelling of the actual 1839 revolt of slaves aboard a Spanish ship captured off Long Island, and the legal controversy that ensued. Much of it was filmed in Rhode Island, but some scenes were shot in and around the Mystic Seaport and in Groton.

“I wouldn’t want to show favoritism,” comments George Norfleet at the Office of Film, TV & Digital Media, “but Amistad sticks out in my mind.” It’s one of his favorites of all the movies that spent at least a little time here in production.

War of the Worlds, Spielberg’s 2005 sci-fi thriller starring Tom Cruise and based on the novel by H. G. Wells, has what many regard as one of the eeriest scenes in recent movie memory: dozens of human bodies floating in the Farmington River near Windsor. Gruesome to be sure—but there are many who agree that the excitement of a movie crew nearby and the influx of dollars into local economies are all good things.

That leads us, naturally, to All Good Things, a 2010 murder mystery starring Ryan Gossling and Kirsten Dunst, whose producers were looking for tax incentives and scenic locations with an old-time feel. It filmed in Brookfield, Shelton, Bridgeport, Stratford, Waterbury, Fairfield University, and Gaylordsville.

The 2012 dramady, Hello, I Must Be Going, starring Melanie Lynskey (Rose on Two and a Half Men), took place almost entirely in Westport. One motivating factor may have been that the writer, Sarah Koskoff, grew up there. The story is about the emotional consequences of a thirtysomething-year-old woman who moves back into her parents’ home after a divorce. Despite yet another broken marriage theme, Westport at least seems as pleasant in the movie as it is in real life.

Which brings us back to Westport’s Paul Newman.

His 1968 movie, Rachel, Rachel, shot in Danby, Bethel, Georgetown, and Redding, was nominated for Best Picture of the Year, and his wife, Joanne Woodward, was nominated for Best Actress. To top it off, the movie received nominations for Best Supporting Actress (Estelle Parsons) and best screenplay (Stewart Stern). It was Newman’s debut as a director.

In it, Woodward plays a lonesome, unhappy, inwardly withdrawn woman in the fictional town of Japonica, where she teaches second grade. She daydreams. And while the withdrawal eventually fades away, what it is replaced with builds quite a drama. It probably could have been shot anywhere, as it is far more about emotions than about Connecticut. But Newman, who had the clout to do what he wanted to do, shot it close to his house in Westport.

That’s also what he did for 1972’s The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, filmed primarily in Bridgeport. Based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Paul Zindel, it is about an eccentric woman (Woodward again) and her daughters—one rebellious, the other introspective—as they attempt to get through each day in one piece despite uphill battles revolving around mistakes of the past and the realities of their present-day lives. It had been reported at the time that most of the locations for the film were less than a 20-minute drive from Newman’s home.

All told, over the decades, there have been hundreds of movies and TV shows that filmed here, some for hours, some for days, some for weeks (as well as hundreds more that simply take place here). It’s a given that diehard movie and TV lovers will rail against the exclusion of their favorite movies and programs in this report. Chances are they can name dozens. It is obviously a topic that will never make everyone happy. That’s the truth. Our only hope is that they can handle the truth.