At the movies · Memories

The Formosa Café

Back in May I wrote extensively about my first trip to New York City. This was partly as a test of my memory and also to record, somewhere, the details of that week in 1999. Most of the stories we tell, however many times we tell them, remain unrecorded. Some of the pieces on this Blog provide an opportunity to record definitively something from my past, if only for my benefit. As I wrote last month, this Blog is beginning to become my exobrain, “a collection of things that no longer play on my mind in the way that they used to”. There are stories here that I no longer have to tell, memories that can be read by anyone with a web connection. Even if I’ve drafted them elsewhere (on paper, on my phone, on a computer somewhere) the final version is on these pages so I know where to find them.

Last weekend, at a college reunion, I spoke to someone I had never met before and might never meet again. We talked about movies. He had worked for an entertainment company and spent time in Hollywood. We discussed the Warners Lot, the only Hollywood studio I have ever visited, and the nearby Formosa Café. The café features in the movie “LA Confidential”, for which Kim Basinger won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1997. I note, from this piece in LA Weekly, that it had closed by January 2016. The LA Times tells us that there are plans to reopen it with a new operator in 2018.

The Formosa Café was used in “LA Confidential” because it had remained pretty much unchanged since the 1940s, when the movie is set. My journey to it was part of a trip my wife and I made before we had children, in August 2002. I mentioned it in this piece from last year about Missions and Cathedrals. We travelled from Sonoma down to LA on Route 1 and stopped to look at the Missions on the way. We were headed to Venice Beach, to stay with an old college friend who had an office on the Warners Lot. While fixing up arrangements beforehand he mentioned that it was very near the Formosa Café and asked if I had seen “LA Confidential”. I hadn’t, but even if I had the café might not have stuck in my memory. If the movie had been on TV in the weeks leading up to our trip I’d have watched it, but it wasn’t, and I didn’t track it down before we left.

The night before we drove down to Venice Beach my wife and I stayed in Santa Barbara (“The Queen of Missions”). There was a VCR in our room and the motel had a small video library, which included “LA Confidential”. Around 11pm we settled down to watch it. My wife fell asleep within five minutes but I carried on to the end.

As you may know, the plot includes women (hookers, to use the word that features throughout the movie) who have had plastic surgery to make them look like famous actresses. This enables their clients to imagine that they’re having sex with, for instance, Veronica Lake or Lana Turner. I doubt if many people under 40 have heard of either actress but they were big stars in the 1940s, and the former brings to mind one of my dad’s old jokes. “Every fisherman’s dream: a night on Veronica Lake.”

The Formosa Café features more than once in the movie. In one scene two LAPD officers (played by Guy Pearce and Kevin Spacey) approach Lana Turner and her boyfriend at their table. It’s the scene I have quoted from most often, and did so again last weekend. Pearce doesn’t realize that the woman is the real Lana Turner and says, “A hooker who’s cut to look like Lana Turner is still a hooker … she just looks like Lana Turner.” Kevin Spacey smiles and says, twice, “She is Lana Turner.” Turner throws a drink in Pearce’s face. You can see the whole scene here. It makes me smile every time I see it.

After our night in Santa Barbara we arrived at the Warners Lot as arranged and met up with my old college friend. I insisted that we pop into the Formosa before driving back to the house to meet his wife. We had a drink at the same table that Lana Turner and her boyfriend sat at in the movie. It’s the only time that I have sat in the same location as a movie scene within 24 hours of watching it. I quoted the two lines from the previous paragraph, for my own amusement, but didn’t throw a drink in anyone’s face.


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