“Who is Johnny Marco?” an Italian reporter asks. It’s a question that’s been eating him up inside, we can tell. Johnny Marco is Hollywood’s bad boy movie star and he’s having an existential crisis. We see him post-interview in the back of a limo heading down Sunset Boulevard. He needs to decompress and wants anonymity. There’s only ever one place to go during times like these if you’re lost in the belly of the beast that is Hollywood. In order to transcend this cataclysmic breakdown, one only needs to check into the Château Marmont.
The Château Marmont is the, “Castle on Sunset”, an indefatigable fortress wedged between the riptide of Sunset Boulevard and the somewhat pastoral precipice of Laurel Canyon. Johnny is staying at the hotel, but his nomadic and hedonistic life is upended by the sudden appearance of his pre-teen daughter, Cleo (played by Elle Fanning). Although Coppola’s film doesn’t directly divulge it, Johnny was a wildly successful teen star whose career flamed out as he aged. Much like Lost in Translation, Somewhere follows Cleo and Johnny’s relationship. Cleo’s life is just beginning while Johnny confronts the uncertainty of middle age.
I was skeptical about the film when it first came out. I was an adamant fan of Coppola’s earlier work (The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation, and Marie Antoinette) but after devouring Shawn Levy’s 2019 biography, The Castle on Sunset, I ended up exploring Somewhere out of curiosity. Filmed in 2010, Sofia Coppola was one of the few directors allowed full access to the enigmatic Château Marmont.
The Château Marmont’s history is one riddled with scandal, sex, controversy, and Hollywood lore. Located on 8225 Marmont Lane just off Sunset Boulevard, it was designed by architects Arnold A. Weitzman and William Douglas Lee in 1929 as an homage to Château d’Amboise in the Loire Valley of France. Truly a fortress, Weitzman and Lee built earthquake-proof walls. Under the care of owner Erwin Brettauer from 1942 to 1963, the Château Marmont acquired its famous bungalows at the edge of the property.
In the 1950s it was well-known as a playground for William Holden’s promiscuity, replacing the Garden of Allah as a notorious Hollywood hot spot. Many stars flocked to the hotel as a place to recharge. It was in Bungalow 3 where director Nicholas Ray fled after his then-wife, Gloria Grahame, was caught in flagrante with his son. Heartbroken and scandalized, he would live in Bungalow 3 for the next few years, conceiving his tour de force, Rebel Without a Cause, and having an affair with underaged Natalie Wood.
The Château was where Norman Mailer, Dominick Dunne, Eve Babitz, John Cheever, Gore Vidal, Joan Didion, and various other authors would reside while in California, the hotel offering both inspiration and accommodation. It shows up in short stories and songs. It was the place where Joe Gillis stayed before moving in with Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. Château Marmont was where Montgomery Clift would stay after a brutal car accident. It was where Desi Arnaz would conduct his affairs under Lucille Ball’s nose. During the 1970s, musicians would stay at the Château Marmont before moving onto the romantic and pastoral Laurel Canyon to conduct their ballads.
But in the 1980s, the Château’s reputation was tarnished by John Belushi’s overdose in Bungalow 3. Bob Woodward notoriously called it, “a seedy hotel.” It wasn’t until Andre Balazs acquisitioned the hotel in the 1990s that the Château would regain some of its glamour. Under Balazs’ ownership, a restaurant and café would open its doors. It was where Leonardo DiCaprio would celebrate his 21st birthday, and Beyoncé threw a lavish Oscars after-party.
Sofia Coppola, being a member of Hollywood royalty, spent varying amounts of time at the Château throughout her childhood and adolescence. A favorite residence of her father’s between shooting films, Coppola called the Château home. Thus, when Coppola reached out to Balazs regarding her fourth feature film, Somewhere, Balazs was more than happy to let her rent out a floor of the hotel to shoot. He even went so far as to let her pick out antique furniture from storage to give the room she was filming in have the eccentric appeal the Château is known for.
One could argue that next to Johnny Marco and Cleo, the hotel is a starring character. Johnny uses the hotel as a purgatory, an in-between place, but with Cleo there—fixing him Eggs Benedict, playing Wii video games, having swimming pool tea parties—the hotel becomes a souvenir of an important time of their relationship. We can see this as Johnny changes rooms. His room at the beginning of the film is a husk, a shell. He watches comatose as strippers dance for him. As the story progresses, he moves into a bungalow with warm, art deco décor that looks out over the pool. The lighting changes throughout the film as well—narrow and sharp at the beginning, it melts into a golden light towards the end as Johnny’s character develops.
Johnny eventually checks out of the Château. He gets asked by a bellhop if he wants his things put in storage, a common practice for celebrities at the hotel. He shakes his head no. He doesn’t know where he’s going next, but one gets the impression he feels jettisoned into the vaguely beautiful unknown of the future. The Château is known for being somewhere, a safe haven or a womb within the chaos of Sunset Boulevard and the great beast of Hollywood.
Today the Château Marmont once again faces backlash. Balazs is being accused of racial and employment discrimination as well as sexual harassment. The COVID-19 pandemic drastically affected the hotel’s bottom line. I have a feeling though, should the Château Marmont change management, it will recover from its latest fall from grace. Until I can stay there myself, I love getting lost in Sofia Coppola’s rare shots of the most enigmatic hotel in Hollywood history.
Abby Sheaffer is a columnist for Cinema in Paradise.
Somewhere is available to rent for $2.99 on Amazon Prime. The Castle on Sunset by Shawn Levy is available for purchase at $15.79 (Hardcover) where books are sold. We greatly urge you to purchase from independent booksellers if you can.