Saturday, March 26, 2022

Still Life with Robin: Our Oscar-Worthy Town

by Peggy Robin

Ten films are up for best picture this year and not a single one of them is set in DC!

This seems like a good time to look back at the many movies that did win Oscars -- or Oscar nominations -- with a story set in our cinematically beautiful city.

This is my own personal DC top dozen....followed by a half dozen other Oscar-slighted but still eminently DC-worthy contenders.

12. Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. (1939). A homespun idealist (James Stuart) is appointed to a vacant senate senate seat and arrives in Washington, starry eyed and full of great plans -- that run smack up against the brick wall of sleazy backroom dealing and outright corruption. Mr. Smith is almost defeated by the power players of the Capitol but in this Frank Capra classic, you know that the schemes of the high and mighty are no match for the goodness of plain, decent folk in a democracy like ours. Plenty of exterior DC scenes of Jimmy Stuart admiring statues of the founding fathers and touring the monuments. But most of the movie was shot on Hollywood sound stages, where the look of the Senate chamber was meticulously recreated. Ten Oscar nominations; one win (for the screenplay). Although Jimmy Stuart did not win Best Actor for his role as Jefferson Smith, his career of playing straight-arrow good-guys and champions of the people was off to a great start.

11. Dave (1993) is another story about an ordinary joe suddenly thrust into the halls of power -- this time as president of the United States -- and it's a comedy. Kevin Kline plays Dave, who by the coincidence of looking exactly like the sitting president, ends up as his stand-in -- and then some. This somewhat slight and offbeat comedy took the Oscar for best screenplay but no other nominations. Interior scenes were all done in L.A. -- with all the obligatory exterior shots of the White House, the Mall and the monuments to make it seem real -- despite the contrived plot.

10. Independence Day (1986). Not sure this really qualifies as a film that showcases Washington, DC, when its main role is to be blasted to smithereens onscreen. But it sure showed you what that would look like, if it really happened. It deservedly took the Oscar for special effects, plus a nomination for Best Sound.

9. The Exorcist (1973). Set in Georgetown, this massive box office hit/horror show turned the narrow outdoor stairway on Prospect Street into a tourist attraction that endures to this day. The movie garnered ten Oscar nominations - and won just two: (Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Sound Mixing). And it's still scary as all get-out!

8. Forrest Gump racked up thirteen Oscar nominations and six wins (Best Picture, Best Actor in a Leading Role, Best Director, Best Visual Effects, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Film Editing). Yes, there are better Washington movies, but you've got to admire the way real historic news footage of DC events and locations has been blended smoothly into the fictional story -- most most memorably when as a wounded Vietnam veteran, Forrest Gump is awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, and you see the real life President Johnson hanging the medal around the neck of Tom Hanks in what looks like a contemporary TV news report. Later, Forrest Gump attends the massive 1967 anti-war rally at the Pentagon, where he meets the real-life Abbie Hoffman. It's not brilliant use of the Washington setting so much as it's brilliant use of film editing tricks.

7. Being There (1979) won two Academy Award nominations: one, a Best Supporting Actor nomination/Oscar win for Melvyn Douglas, and the other, a Best Actor nomination for Peter Sellers (playing Chance the simple-minded gardener who becomes President), who lost out to Dustin Hoffman in Kramer vs. Kramer. Being There made good and frequent use of its location shooting in and around DC -- although the millionaire's mansion where Chance tends the flowers was actually the Biltmore House in North Carolina.

6. The More the Merrier. This 1943 wartime comedy (yes, that was a whole genre!) is not well known these days, but you may have run across it on Turner Classic Movies -- and if you haven't, look it up and tape it sometime. You'll be glad you did. The story is basic farce: A man and woman are thrown together by the extreme housing shortage in Washington during wartime - and due to some fairly standard comic mishaps, they end up forced to share an apartment -- chastely, of course! Then, well what do you know -- they fall in love! Who woulda thunk it! Mostly shot in Hollywood but with a lot of DC exteriors, this little romp won lots of Oscar nominations: Six! Best Picture, Best Screenplay, Best Original Story, Jean Arthur for Best Actress, George Stevens for Best Director, and a win for Charles Coburn as Best Supporting Actor.

5. A Few Good Men (1992). You may think of this as mainly a courtroom drama -- but there are lots of great location scenes, including on the ball fields near the Mall, and in quiet residential streets in Georgetown, and along 20th Street, at the Navy Yard and at Memorial Bridge. The movie picked up four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Supporting Actor for Jack Nicolson's memorably glowering Colonel Jessup.. Bet you thought he actually won, if only for the way he delivered the immortal line: "You can't handle the truth!" Well, he lost to Gene Hackman in Unforgiven. He was robbed!

4. The Contender (2000). Fun, political backstabbing drama - with fairly standard use of Washington, DC locations (portrayed purely as a political arena, not a place where real people live) -- but it did have two big Oscar nominations: Best Actress for Joan Allen (who lost to Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich), and Best Supporting Actor for Jeff Bridges, who lost to Benicio Del Toro in Traffic

3.  The Post. (2017). Two Oscar nominations, no wins -- but the two nominations were for Best Picture and Best Actress. Meryl Streep as Katherine Graham lost out to Frances McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. While many scenes take place in Mrs. Graham's spacious, well appointed home in Georgetown (a studio set, not, of course, the real thing), you realize how in her decision to defy attempts to suppress the publication of the Pentagon Papers, this Grande Dame could have easily ended up spending a few nights -- or maybe longer -- in the DC Jail.

2. All the President's Men (1976). Some would call this the quintessential Washington movie -- and I won't dispute it. The Washington Post newsrooms and offices were so perfectly reproduced; no wonder it won the Oscar for Best Set Design. Some other iconic sets: the underground garage where Bob Woodward met Deep Throat, the balcony of his apartment where he put out a plant as a signal to his source, the Library of Congress where our two heroes combed through the files for hours on end, and of course, the Watergate itself. Jason Robards won a well-deserved Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Ben Bradlee. Out of a total of eight nominations, it won four -- but lost out on Best Picture to Rocky

1. Broadcast News (1987). I put this one at #1 because it's got my all-time favorite Washington-specific movie scene: Holly Hunter plays a tightly-wound TV news producer, who, every time she jumps into a cab, proceeds to give minutely detailed driving directions to the cabbie, taking into account the shifting rush hour traffic patterns on Rock Creek Parkway and other considerations that really do make sense! It's just what I used to do in cabs, back in the days before GPS navigation! The writers clearly knew Washington inside and out!. Seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. Zero wins.


Not even nominated for an Oscar - but good use of DC as setting:

6. No Way Out (1987). This is a crazy spy thriller, in the paranoid style (you're never sure who is out to get whom) but it makes great use of DC streets -- that is, as long as you don't know the real layout! Spy/naval officer played by Kevin Costner does a mad getaway rush from the Pentagon to the Capitol (the street sequence in the chase makes zero sense!) and then ends up in the (mythical) Georgetown Metro! The inside of the station was filmed in Baltimore, and you can tell, if you know Baltimore's system at all.

5. Taxi. This 1983 comedy about a motley bunch of cab drivers is one of the few DC-set films that doesn't revolve around politics. It shows you a lot of the real city where people actually live -- and as in real life at the time, most of the characters are Black. Perhaps the funniest -- and most on-target -- scene in the movie is when an out-of-towner gets into a cab and the cabbie tries to explain the "zone system" of DC's then-un-metered cabs. The hapless passenger doesn't understand a word -- and in fact, even many long-term residents of DC never figured out how to calculate a fare under that system. Not a great DC movie by any means -- no awards, not even a nomination -- but a loving, funny, down-home one.

4. National Treasure (2004) - Totally loopy plot, but it moves so fast, you don't have time to poke holes in the story. Great use of the Pennsylvania and Constitution Avenues, and the exterior of the National Archives -- but then there's that gift shop! What's it doing open for business during a gala taking place after hours? OK, I'll stop quibbling right here. After a few exciting DC chase scenes, the action moves to Philadelphia and then NYC and gets even crazier there. (The scene on the deck of the Intrepid, docked on the Hudson, is the best!)

3. Fail Safe. (1964) While "Fail Safe" mainly takes place in underground bunkers, safe rooms, and Pentagon war rooms, the claustrophobic, paranoid ambiance of any-minute-could-bring-nuclear-annihilation hangs over the city of Washington in a black-and-white miasma. The absence of any sort of musical score highlights the realism and adds to the tension. You don't need to see the streets of Washington in the early sixties to get the sense of a city on the brink.

2. The Day the Earth Stood Still. (1951) You may not think of the sci-fi classic as a Washington movie but it actually has a lot more on-location shooting than some of the more mainstream movies about presidents and politics. The Mall is actually a nice, flat place to land an alien spaceship. Klaatu Barada Nikto, anyone?

1. And the winner is: Advise and Consent (1962). Classic political drama about the nomination and confirmation hearings of a secretary of state. How's that for an action flick? Starring Henry Fonda as the troubled nominee of a dying president. Best local fun fact: the big society party scene was filmed at the Tregaron Estate right here in Cleveland Park. When the be-gowned and tuxedoed guests stride out onto the back veranda, you will definitely recognize the stone balustrade -- if you have ever been there before. So this movie wins my personal vote for Best Movie Set in Washington, DC! (But no Oscar wins - not even a nomination!)


Here are some pretty good also-rans:

Lincoln (2012). It earned 12 Oscar nominations and won two (Best Actor for Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role and Best Production Design for the look of mid-1860s Washington. But it seems to me a movie set so far in the past doesn't really count, as it's not about a city any of us would recognize today. And of course, none of it was filmed here. Even the US Capitol scenes were shot in Richmond, VA. 

Night at the Museum 2: Battle of the Smithsonian (2009) probably should have been up for a special effects Oscar, but it was snubbed - no nominations at all. Not quite as much fun as the original Night at the Museum (2006) -- the one set at the Museum of Natural History in New York -- NATM 2 still makes great use of the Smithsonian museums, including Air and Space, and American History, with side trips to the White House and Lincoln Memorial, among other sites.  

Then there's Suspect, (1987), starring Cher as a determined DC defense attorney in a high-stakes courtroom drama that got the look of the DC criminal courts exactly right -- but it was all a Hollywood set - and it failed to get a single Oscar nomination.

The American President (1995) did get nominated for an Oscar for its musical score but I didn't think that was quite enough to put it in the top dozen of Oscar-winning or Oscar-nominated films set in DC. It's a charming rom-com of a movie, but you could make the lead character a powerful anybody and the plot would be more or less the same. In other words, there's nothing incontrovertibly "Washington" about the movie. The White House and the monuments are but a picture postcard backdrop to a slight and forgettable plot. But I do understand if you disagree!  

Think I've left out any big ones? You are undoubtedly right, and I'm happy to hear about any movie you think should have made this list!

Still Life with Robin is published on the Cleveland Park Listserv and on All Life Is Local on Saturdays.


  1. Best Movie about the Real D.C.

    This film was really filmed in D.C., except for one scene, and has real D.C. people in it. It is an incredible movie. Much of it takes place in the D.C. Jail - really with the real prison guards and prisoners. The court scene will amaze you.

    Slam: The Movie

    In the film Slam, Ray Joshua is the local bard of his Washington, D.C. housing project, entertaining children with verse and composing poems his friends recite to impress their girlfriends. When he is arrested on trumped-up drug charges and sent to prison to await trail, poetry is his only means of survival. He recites to himself on the prison bus, improvises a duet with a prisoner in the next cell whom he can't even see, and scribbles furiously on yellow legal pads. When threatened in the prison yard by rival gangs, he responds with an explosive poem that startles the prisoners and sends them back to their respective corners to reconsider their feud.
    While in jail, Ray meets a passionate writing teacher who encourages him to pursue his poetry. After he is released on bail, the teacher invites him into her circle of spoken word artists and persuades him to take the stage at a poetry slam. In this inner-city fable, poetry is the means of redemption that allows Ray to discover a different path and recognize his true potential.
    The story is punctuated by performances of poems written by the film's cast of slam luminaries, including Saul Williams in the lead role, and cameos by Taylor Mali and Bob Holman. Many of these moving pieces represent deeply felt reactions to the desperate conditions in Washington, D.C.'s inner city.
    Written and directed by Marc Levin. Poetry by Saul Williams (1998). Rated R.

  2. Adding a classic: Born Yesterday (1950), quintessentially DC, starring Judy Holliday, William Holden, and Broderick Crawford. Crawford is a corrupt junkyard tycoon who comes to Washington to buy himself a Congressman. He's embarrassed by his highly decorative but uneducated girlfriend (Holliday) and hires journalist Holden to give her some couth. Crawford's plan works...a little too well. The hotel scenes are shot at the Statler Hilton; Holliday's "education" takes her to the National Archives, the Library of Congress, the National Gallery, the Lincoln Memorial, the Watergate Steps and many other iconic spots.

    The dialogue snaps, the pacing is superb, the film was nominated for five Oscars including Best Picture and won one (Best Actress for Judy Holliday, who specialized in playing dumb blondes but reportedly had an IQ of 172). My favorite DC movie.

    1. Yes, how could I have missed that one! It's a real standout -- should have been in the top five, or maybe even the top three. As for Judy Holliday's Oscar was a real come-from-behind surprise knockout. She beat out Bette Davis and Anne Baxter from All About Eve, Gloria Swanson from Sunset Boulevard, and Eleanor Parker from Caged. What a match-up!

  3. Hi Peggy,

    Thanks so much for sharing. So many to choose from. My personal favorite is "Enemy of the State" (1998), the Gene Hackman classic which includes several great shots of Dupont Circle area, Georgetown, and even a quick, uncredited, shot of my darling husband (don't blink or you'll miss 'im) in the wide screen version.

    P.S. I remember seeing Clint Eastwood running across roofs in Adams Morgan some years ago, but don't recall the name of the film.

    1. Yes, that's a good one - sorry I missed it! As for that Clint Eastwood movie -- it's called "In the Line of Fire" (1993) -- it's another one that easily could have made the list. Clint Eastwood plays a secret service agent on the JFK detail on that fatal day in Dallas - and he's been wracked with guilt ever since -- and has to track down a new threat to the president's life. It earned three Oscar nominations: for editing, screenplay, and best supporting actor for John Malkovich as the would-be assassin.