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Not Another Chicago Cliché!

If you’ve seen one of these 10 tropes Hollywood keeps trotting out about our city, you’ve seen them all.

Photo: Courtesy of Paramount/The Kobal Collection

In the 1980s, Hollywood rediscovered Chicago through movies like The Blues Brothers, Running Scared, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Ever since, film and TV directors have been rediscovering the same few parts of Chicago, and the same few Chicagoans. Here’s a list of places, people, and things guaranteed to turn up in anything set in Chicago.

Bad Chicago Accents

Playing a South Side politician, Irish actor Colin Farrell allegedly attempted a Chicago accent in the 2018 film Widows. GQ called it “phoned in,” and one Internet commentator wondered whether it was “revenge for every time someone’s screwed up an Irish brogue.” His father also should have had an accent, but Robert Duvall didn’t even try. (When you’ve got an Oscar and starred in The Godfather, you don’t have to.)

Jason Clarke’s native Australian kept slipping out through Detective Jared Wysocki’s accent on the short-lived TV show The Chicago Code; in contrast, costar Jennifer Beals — who is actually from Chicago — managed to sound like a local cop. But by far the most cringeworthy exaggeration was perpetrated by Louis Mustillo on Mike & Molly, doing his worst “Superfans” impression as Uncle Vince.

Al Capone

Years ago, I took a Latvian sailor shopping in South Chicago. He pointed at the four-star flag on a police car.

“Flag for Illinois?” he asked.

“No. Chicago.”

“Chee-cago,” he cried. “Gangster movie. Brother 2.

The sailor was referencing a Russian-made gangster flick that is set in Chicago and was released in 2000, yet still includes a character who dresses like Capone. Then he cocked his fingers and made machine-gun noises with his lips, pretending to spray the street. That’s international sign language for Chicago.

The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, allegedly ordered by Capone, inspired the plot of Some Like It Hot: Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis have to disguise themselves as women after accidentally witnessing a mass murder. Robert De Niro played a baseball-bat wielding Capone in The Untouchables. And when Commander McBragg (of The World of Commander McBragg cartoons) visited Chicago, he captured a gangster named “Al Baloney” by posing as a vacuum-cleaner salesman and sucking him through the hose.

The Shady Alderman

In the classic sitcom Good Times, Ald. Fred C. Davis was always threatening to evict the Evans family from the projects if they didn’t support his re-election campaign. He turned out to be an early iteration of an endlessly-repeated trope.

In Continental Divide, John Belushi played a Royko-like newspaper columnist who lights out for the mountains after receiving a beating from two cops dispatched by an alderman he’s investigating. As Ald. Ronin Gibbons on The Chicago Code, Delroy Lindo shot a 15-year-old boy who tried to assassinate him in a barbershop, then killed the gangbanger who ordered the hit: a Four Corner Hustler jealous that Gibbons was protecting the Irish mob.

As a more recent example, Widows follows a plot to steal $5 million from a safe in the home of Ald. Tom Mulligan, whose son is running to succeed him. (Wonder if Ed Burke has that much money in his house?)

Wrigley Field

On his day off, Ferris Bueller had to go to Wrigley Field. In Sleepless in Seattle, Sam Baldwin’s family posed in front of the neon marquee to illustrate the perfect life that ended when his wife died. Chicago Sons, which ran on NBC for six months in 1997, was about three brothers (played by Jason Bateman, D.W. Moffett, and David Krumholtz) who live in an apartment overlooking Wrigley Field, just like everyone in Chicago.

Most implausibly, in The Break-Up, Vince Vaughn — who plays a guy named Gary Grobowski, another cliché right there — meets girlfriend Jennifer Aniston over a hot dog (because of course) at Wrigley Field. What, that’s not how all Chicagoans meet their significant others?

The Irish or Eastern European Guy (or Gal)

Speaking of Gary Grobowski, Hollywood loves to give Chicago characters Irish or Slavic names. Here’s a partial list of Chicago characters who were given white ethnic surnames, apparently to emphasize their local authenticity.

  1. Bill Swerski and Todd O’Connor, “Bill Swerski’s Superfans”
  2. Molly Flynn, Mike & Molly
  3. Det. Jarek Wysocki, The Chicago Code
  4. Bernie Litko, About Last Night… (taken from the David Mamet play Sexual Perversity in Chicago, and played by Jim Belushi, the living embodiment of Chicago movie and TV clichés)
  5. Harry, Mike, and Billy Kulchak, Chicago Sons
  6. Ernie Souchak, Continental Divide
  7. Danny Muldoon, Only the Lonely
  8. Stephen, Brian, and Helen McCaffrey, Backdraft
  9. Tom and Jack Mulligan, Widows
  10. Adam Ruzek, Chicago P.D.
  11. Francis Majcinek, a.k.a. “Frankie Machine,” The Man with the Golden Arm (adapted from the 1949 Nelson Algren novel of the same name, which helped kickstart the trend)

Buckingham Fountain

Of course, the fountain’s most famous appearance is in the opening credits of Married… With Children, but it’s also the backdrop for romantic scenes in Love Jones and Return to Me.

Aerial shot of the Chicago River downtown

The bridges, the water, the skyscrapers, the lights — Hollywood loves this shot. AV Club film critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky did a bit about the corner of State and Wacker, which has been seen in Mercury Rising, Jupiter Ascending, The Dark Knight, and multiple Transformers movies. He called it a “one-of-a-kind collection of architectural styles on two sides of the Chicago River… an area that can play a futuristic cityscape in one direction, and a Depression-era metropolis in another.”

Car chase on Lower Wacker Drive

“Well, this is definitely Lower Wacker Drive,” Elwood tells Jake in The Blues Brothers, as they’re pursued by every police car in Illinois. “If my estimations are correct, we should be very close to the Honorable Richard J. Daley Plaza.”

“That’s where they got that Picasso,” Jake says.

Lower Wacker was also the setting for the dramatic Batman vs. Joker chase scene in The Dark Knight. The roadway’s tight corners and pillars guarantee the collisions filmmakers love.

Driving/running/brooding on the lake

Lake Michigan is so photogenic that filmmakers put it in movies even when it shouldn’t be there. In When Harry Met Sally, the main characters drive from Hyde Park to New York City along Lake Shore Drive, but heading inexplicably northbound, towards the Loop. In the TV series The Red Line, Noah Wyle’s character stepped off the ‘L’ at Thorndale, and in the next scene was standing on North Avenue Beach, staring out at the water. And in ER, Wyle’s first Chicago-based show, the doctors were always jogging on the lake.

The ‘L’

Want to prove you shot your movie on location in Chicago? Include an establishing shot of an ‘L’ train. Trains are always rumbling past Elwood Blues’s flophouse (the old ones, with the green undercarriages).

“How often does the train go by?” his brother Jake asks.

“So often you won’t even notice it,” Elwood assures him.

In Mahogany, Billy Dee Williams campaigns for alderman as a train passes overhead. In High Fidelity, John Cusack delivers a soliloquy on a Purple Line train bound for Evanston. The ‘L’ also plays a big role in Running Scared (a chase scene on the tracks), The Fugitive, Stranger Than Fiction, and the opening credits of The Bob Newhart Show.

Finally, let’s not forget Tom Cruise and Rebecca De Mornay in Risky Business, which makes very suggestive use of the ‘L.’

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