LA Plays Itself in the Movies: LA Confidential

I think about LA Confidential every time I go to Target.

Here’s why (and you may have guessed by now): The Target in West Hollywood (which I go to most of the time) is right next to the Formosa Cafe, which figures fairly prominently in the film — specifically, the scene where Detective Edmund Exley (Guy Pearce) accuses Lana Turner of being a prostitute made up to look like Lana Turner, after which she throws a drink in his face. Whenever I see the Formosa, I get a little sad. Not because I long for some imagined, bygone halcyonity of the 1950s; no, I just wish I had been able to see what Los Angeles looks like in the days before it was crusted over with Targets and Pinkberrys and CVSes and Ralph’ses.

But then I stop being sad and start thinking about LA Confidential. And let me tell you: Man, I love LA Confidential. Love everything about it, from Guy Pearce’s snotty Superman performance to the dramaturgically spot-on set decoration and costuming. I love it so much that I’ve been sitting here for the past couple of hours staring at a blank document, trying to think of something to write that could do the Curtis-Hanson-directed, Brian-Helgeland-written movie justice. I did not have this problem writing about Midnight Madness.

So. What to write about? A few days ago I mentioned to my girlfriend that Johnny Stompanato — the mobster whose wedding tackle ends up locked in the vise-like fist of Russell Crowe’s Bud White — was a real guy. And she’s a reasonably smart cookie, so I figure there have to be more of you out there who don’t know where the fantasy of LA Confidential ends and the reality begins. With that in mind, here’s a quick rundown of some of the real-life aspects of the film.

Mickey Cohen. One of LA’s most infamous gangsters, Cohen was played in LA Confidential by Paul Guilfoyle, who currently competes for screen time with David Caruso’s sunglasses on CSI. Cohen started out as a prizefighter in series of illegal boxing matches, then became an enforcer for Al Capone in Chicago. Eventually he moved back to LA, partnering with Vegas boss Bugsy Siegel until Siegel was murdered by fellow gangsters in 1947.

After Siegel’s death, Cohen became LA’s big cheese, reigning until the early 50s, when he was jailed for tax evasion. But on his release four years later he became a media celebrity… which lasted until he was jailed again in 1961 — again for tax evasion — and sent to Alcatraz. He was released in 1972, and died in 1976 of natural causes, his reign of tax-evading terror finally at an end.

Johnny Stompanato. Perhaps the most rewarding scene in LA Confidential is the scene where Bud White, portrayed by Russell Crowe, extracts information from famed mob enforcer Johnny Stompanato by squeezing his testicles. The scene became less rewarding when we all learned that Russell Crowe just seems to like squeezing testicles; Cinderella Man, A Beautiful Mind, and Mystery, Alaska all feature narratively prominent testicle-squeezing scenes, allegedly demanded by Crowe on-set. One Hollywood rumor abounds that Crowe has a standard rider in his contract that he be allowed to violently squeeze at least one pair of testicles a day. This task usually falls to a production assistant, but in State of Play fell, unsurprisingly, to Ben Affleck.

But, oh yeah: Johnny Stompanato. A barber’s son who hailed from the suburbs of Chicago, Stompanato joined the Marines in 1943 and spent much of World War II in the Pacific theatre. After the war, he moved to Los Angeles, where he worked as an enforcer for Cohen while dating Lana Turner. After abusing Turner for years, Stompanato was ultimately shot and killed by her daughter, Cheryl Crane, which was widely regarded as a good idea. Stompanato’s death was ruled a justifiable homicide.

Lana Turner. Lana Turner. C’mon, you know. Peyton Place, and Imitation of Life, and stuff. The Postman Always Rings Twice. Y’know, Lana Turner.

Hush-Hush. This wasn’t a real magazine, but it was based on one. Confidential was published between 1952 and 1978, and was one of the pioneers of gossip journalism, covering the private dalliances of celebrities back when celebrities were people with actual marketable skills and talent. Today, Confidential’s successors are the primary subject of my Supermarket Checkout Aisle Lecture Series, wherein I discuss, in detail, the inherent flaws of tabloid journalism until my girlfriend tells me to calm down. Popular lectures include “Who The Fuck Is Kendra And Why Is This Magazine Calling Her By Her First Name As If I Know Who She Is, Like She’s The Goddamn President Or Something” and “How In The Holy Hell Is Justin Bieber The World’s Biggest Pop Star If I Never Heard Of Him Until Last Week?”

Matt Reynolds. Simon Baker plays the anything-for-a-buck Central Casting reject who winds up dead after making a deal with semi-dirty cop Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey). I know a guy in real life named Matt Reynolds. He lives in Echo Park and used to date my girlfriend’s old roommate. Sadly, he has never been memorialized in film, nor played by Simon Baker.

Bloody Christmas. In one of the opening scenes of LA Confidential, several recently-arrested Mexican-American men are beaten by a group of cops drunk on eggnog and power. This was based on a true event; on Christmas of 1951, about 50 LAPD officers severely beat seven young men in their custody, sparking an investigation that saw eight officers indicted. But the LAPD’s recently-appointed chief, William Parker, had just instituted a “reform” campaign designed to encourage police professionalism. The campaign focused on police autonomy — meaning the department would handle internal discipline on its own. Fortunately, this was absolutely the last time the LAPD would ever be accused of any wrongdoing whatsoever, and during the remainder of the 20th Century the department became a behavioral model for cops around the world.

Movie Star Lookalike Prostitutes. In the film, Kim Basinger’s character is a prostitute who looks like Veronica Lake, employed by a brothel that advertises hookers who look like movie stars. This may or may not have been a real thing. Mickey Rooney wrote in his autobiography about the T&M studio, a similar brothel, which is appalling primarily because it makes us think of Mickey Rooney having sex. Another rumored whorehouse called Mae’s was run by a Madam dressed as Mae West, who employed prostitutes who looked like Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Crawford. Whatever floats your boat, I guess.

7 thoughts on “LA Plays Itself in the Movies: LA Confidential”

  1. Great choice! It’s like a love letter to L.A.
    If someone reading this really cares about how old L.A. is disappearing under chain stores, consider joining the L.A. Conservancy. They give a lot of tours for the locations for ‘L.A. Confidential’.

  2. Trivia: The Victory Motel in the Baldwin Hills oil fields was the only exterior that was a built set. All the other exteriors are real locations in modern-day LA, carefully framed and dressed so you don’t see the CVS drugstores.

    (And remember, before LA was overrun by CVS, it was similarly overrun by Owl Drugs. Retail chains are nothing new in LA, and Hollywood DPs have been shooting around them pretty much since Hollywood began.)

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