Oscar nominee Heath Ledger stands tall in the Wyoming setting of Brokeback Mountain.
One of the delicious ironies about Brokeback Mountain is that it is likely to do more for the tourism profile of the state of Wyoming than any of the movies that were actually shot there, from Shane to Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
This despite the fact that save for a small portion filmed in Grand Teton National Park, Ang Lee's groundbreaking western was staged entirely in Alberta, Canada, the site of 1992 Best Picture winner Unforgiven and many other contemporary big or small screen oaters. According to the producers, this apparently helped keep the budget low – in fact its distributor Focus Features has said that it was able to recoup production costs during the first week of limited release.
Just a few years ago, a quintessentially American story, Cold Mountain - nominated for seven Oscars in 2003 - was raked over the coals by Hollywood guilds for having filmed all of its mountain scenes in runaway Romania. There has been far less furor from American unions this awards season about the Great White North lineage of Brokeback Mountain, or for that matter that of fellow Oscar honorees Capote (filmed mostly in Manitoba), A History of Violence (Ontario) and Cinderella Man (Ontario).
It's just one of the many fascinating aspects of Oscar's rich lore when it comes to the filming locations of its major winners. Here's a look at a few more noteworthy pages of the Academy atlas, as seen through the prism of the latest Oscar honorees.
Out Of A Different Africa
Twenty years ago, the Robert Redford-Meryl Streep romance Out of Africa won seven Oscars, including Best Picture, and in so doing cast a golden glow over the African nation of Kenya, where it was filmed. Its success enticed a new wave of safari seekers and western travelers to take in its breathtaking sunsets.
But today, the Kenya Tourist Board (KTB) is singing a different tune with regards to another locally filmed production, The Constant Gardener, because of its unflinching portrait of the Kira slums of its capital, Nairobi. Despite the fact that many Kenyans feel the gritty British drama accurately portrays both the splendor and squalor of their country, the KTB is refusing to include it in any travel outreach campaigns.
Walking In Memphis
This year's two most musically marvelous Oscar contenders, Walk the Line and Hustle & Flow, were both largely filmed in Memphis, Tennessee. In fact, it was while filming his first movie, The Poor and the Hungry, that Hustle & Flow writer-director Craig Brewer was propositioned at a traffic light by a low-rent pimp and his passenger, planting the seed for this year’s Sundance-to-Kodak triumph.
Thanks to Hustle & Flow and other recent films like 21 Grams, Memphis was recently included for the first time in Moviemaker Magazine’s influential list of the ten best U.S. cities to film in. So in this case, the residual effect will be not tourists but rather key grips, gaffers, craft service people and more. It’s all part of a rich Oscar year for U.S. regionalism, as represented by other on-location dramas such as Transamerica (Arizona, New York), North Country (Minnesota) and Junebug (North Carolina).
Strange Clooney Bedfellows
Buried deep among this year's Oscar nominees were two political offerings - - Stephen Gaghan's serpentine Syriana and George Clooney’s stark Good Night, and Good Luck - - which stand as vivid reminders of two very different kinds of old-style Hollywood filmmaking.
The former is the kind of treatise perennial Best Director nominee David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai) might have made were he alive today. Syriana offers a strong, willful leading man and swirling geopolitical subtexts cast against the backdrop of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, Switzerland and the U.S.
On the other hand, George Clooney’s Good Night, Good Luck, true to its original incarnation as a proposed TV movie, is a self-contained soundstage illusion, akin to something like Stanley Kubrick’s Shepperton Studios bred Dr. Strangelove, or the Southern California set of Memoirs of a Geisha. In the case of Clooney’s above-the-line Oscar contender, it was shot entirely at CBS’ Television City facility in mid-town Los Angeles, a place whose leading men usually tend towards the likes of Bob Barker, Bill Maher and Dennis Miller.
A New Zealand Makeover
Before The Lord of the Rings, which of course culminated with Oscar’s only 11-for-11 sweep, the country of New Zealand could lay claim to nary a Hollywood production, despite an abundance of breathtaking natural vistas.
But bankrolled by the success of the Tolkien franchise, Peter Jackson’s special effects outfit Weta Digital Ltd. has proved to be the magical, missing ingredient for the Kiwi film industry. Now, without the prospect of having to hop on a plane to Australia or beyond to find good post-production facilities, Hollywood can blend Kiwi beauty with Kiwi know-how for everything from King Kong’s Skull Island to the fanciful forest of The Chronicles of Narnia.
Will those making their travel plans later this year decide to venture to the southern Hemisphere for a Narnia, Kong, Lord of the Rings or perhaps even a March of the Penguins-inspired Antarctica sojourn? Probably only the most adventurous of American moviegoers. For along with its unique narrative tapestry, one of the biggest reasons Brokeback Mountain has caused the Wyoming Business Council’s travel and tourism department to be inundated with calls is that it is also a resonant touchstone for what some argue is the only 100% homegrown narrative genre to come out of Hollywood: the Western. When it comes to movie travel, some folks are still looking for mythical landscape, whether it’s real or not.
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