How cinema presents our greatest cross-continental rivalry.
As the cliché goes, New Yorkers think their city is the center of the universe. The only passion rivaling their love for New York is their hate for Los Angeles. To the New Yorker of pop-culture lore, a trip to L.A. is less a relaxing vacation and more a sacrifice of ideals. No movie captures this better than Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, which in many ways serves as the genesis for the filmic tug-of-war between the two cities. It, and the other nine movies on this list, examine the special relationship between the coastal metropolises that are opposite not only in geography, but in culture.
1) Valley of the Dolls (1967)
The sensational Valley of the Dolls is probably the worst-case scenario for New Yorkers lured to Hollywood. Like a (more) demented Sex and the City, Dolls follows a group of successful Manhattan women. When they take their acting careers to L.A., things don’t go as planned, and the women find themselves sucking down prescription drugs ("dolls"), paying for abortions with porn money, and struggling with breast cancer. To these Northeastern women, Los Angeles embodies an unethical lifestyle where the pursuit of fame always trumps ethics. Barbara Parkins’ Anne (kind of the Charlotte of this crew) is the only one who doesn’t go insane or commit suicide; instead, she returns to her leafy hometown in New England, where nothing bad ever happens.
2) Annie Hall (1977)
"Geez," Alvy Singer gripes as he exits a car. "My feet haven’t touched the pavement since I reached Los Angeles." Only a New Yorker like him could complain about not hiking long, trash-lined distances to get where you’re going. Singer spends several scenes late in Annie Hall drifting through Beverly Hills, which to him may as well be outer space. Having grown up in a crowded shack beneath a roller coaster, he has no idea how to handle himself in the Californian mansions that engulf him. But if Singer’s a fish out of water, Woody Allen is a shark; from the "immoral" laugh tracks to the New Age-flavored self-absorption ("I forgot my mantra") to the pretentious architecture, none of L.A.’s foibles are safe from Allen’s shrewd screenplay. Even when his titular girlfriend opts for cleaner, healthier California, Singer sees no reason to leave New York. "I’m into garbage," he says. "It’s my thing."
3) The Karate Kid (1984)
Daniel LaRusso looks like he belongs in the Ramones, not the Valley. Yet the Valley is where he must live, and for that he is bitter. Who can blame the kid? For one thing, everybody at his new high school is, for whatever reason, awesome at karate, while LaRusso’s own combat training comes from "the Y" back in New Jersey, which is not exactly a martial-arts hotbed. Furthermore, LaRusso is a social misfit, an anomalous, smart-mouthed Italian-American stuck in a nightmarishly blond Southern California. One status-obsessed gang of teens, with their shiny motorbikes and even shinier red-leather jackets, make it their duty to punish the newcomer with daily beatings. Karate Kid‘s Los Angeles — a backwards society in which people who don’t practice karate are nerds and those who do are not — is no town for an East Coast punk like LaRusso.
4) Pretty Woman (1990)
New York businessman Edward Lewis is lost emotionally; the emptiness of his riches is beginning to haunt his soul. At the beginning of Pretty Woman, he is also literally lost in L.A., in need of direction and directions. So when he meets a woman willing to offer both types of guidance, he thinks he’s found what he never knew he was looking for. Except, in typically duplicitous Los Angeles fashion, she’s not real; she’s a prostitute. But Lewis, played by Richard Gere, brings with him a romantic mindset typically reserved for movies set in autumnal New York (see: Richard Gere in Autumn in New York), and thus is able to turn this hooker into a princess.
5) Barton Fink (1991)
Barton Fink is a Broadway playwright who’s been flown to Hollywood to write a wrestling picture. While this may sound harmless and even mundane, the trip turns out to be epically surreal: writer’s block, a secretary’s corpse, unannounced visits from a really intense neighbor, and hellish living quarters are just a sampling of what he encounters in this dyspeptic vision of WWII-era Los Angeles. Fink is an artist, and one from serious, moralistic New York at that, so he’s convinced that his job is to create something meaningful, to "plumb the depths." But Hollywood has no tolerance for the sort of "fruity movie" Fink wants to (and eventually does) write. Disgusted, his bosses condemn Fink to remain in Hollywood to forever write scripts that will never be produced, a sort of Jewish Sisyphus that only the Coen brothers (themselves adoptive New Yorkers) could dream up.
6) Last Action Hero (1993)
If Los Angeles isn’t already a headache, Shane Black’s meta-scripts will make it so. Last Action Hero gives us Danny, a young action-movie fan in New York who’s watching the latest Arnold Schwarzenegger movie when he’s transported to California through the movie screen. As in, he’s actually stuck in a movie version of Los Angeles. The young Danny, who’s having trouble dealing with his father’s death, finds a friend in Schwarzenegger’s action hero Jack Slater, who has to come to terms with his own non-existence. Fittingly, the New Yorkers in Hero suffer from real-life pains, while the Los Angelenos are burdened mainly by their status as popular fantasies.
7) Swingers (1996)
Mike heard that L.A. was "giving out sitcoms at the airport," but now that he’s stuck there, his writing career isn’t taking off. His lack of professional success gives him plenty of time to sit around the apartment and long pitifully for his ex-girlfriend back in New York. His bros, including an alarmingly slender Vince Vaughn, try to lift him out of the funk, but when your bros say obnoxious things like, "You’re so money, baby," there’s not much hope. Attempting to engage the local dating customs, Mike (Jon Favreau) dislikes the Hollywood scene almost as much as the Hollywood scene dislikes him: when a group of models turn away after hearing he drives a Cavalier, he desperately adds, "It’s… red." He may as well have said he had a Metrocard, because he doesn’t stand a chance with L.A.’s material girls; only when he meets the midwestern Lorraine is he able to forego vanity and "talk to a beautiful woman at a bar without worrying if anyone’s watching." (In cinematic geography, the Midwest is a cornfed land blissfully free of neuroses Eastern and Western alike.)
8) Escape from L.A. (1996)
To Snake Plissken, a cyclops hailing from dystopian, gang-ravaged Manhattan, L.A. is a prison. But where that prison is metaphorical for some of the crybabies on this list, Snake is literally incarcerated in the Greater Los Angeles Area, which has become America’s largest penal colony. Furthermore, Plissken has been poisoned by the theocratic President-for-Life and can only receive the antidote if he defeats evils he never encountered in Escape from New York: a swindler selling maps to the stars; a criminal tranny named Carjack; and the Surgeon General of Beverly Hills, a plastic surgeon from the Dr. Moreau school of medical practice. In a sense, Escape from L.A. plays like a camp sci-fi version of the L.A. scenes in Annie Hall, with director John Carpenter transforming Woody Allen’s comedic targets into literal monsters and ghouls.
9) Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)
Shane Black, once Hollywood’s highest-paid screenwriter (right up to around the time that Last Action Hero bombed), loves sticking New Yorkers in L.A. Kiss Kiss is the tale of a petty, self-aware New York criminal who stumbles into a vastly corrupt yet lucrative scam: the movie business. Robert Downey, Jr.’s thief hangs out with an eccentric Californian played by Val Kilmer and gets caught up in a scandal involving a famous heiress. It turns out that in Hollywood, the criminals are indistinguishable from the good guys.
10) Greenberg (2010)
The forty-year-old Roger Greenberg is generally regarded as a failure, but he’ll never admit it. After suffering a breakdown in New York, he returns to his hometown to, in his triumphant words, "do nothing." Unfortunately for him, his hometown is Los Angeles. Like other characters on this list, Greenberg is an artist unwilling to compromise for others’ expectations. He’s also a prick, and as a prick, far more in the caustic, grouchy New York mold than the narcissistic, self-regarding L.A. mold. The tightly wound Greenberg doesn’t mesh with L.A., and it quickly becomes clear why he left in the first place.