Welcome back to Period Dramas, a weekly column that alternates between rounding up historic homes on the market and answering questions we’ve always had about older structures.
Recently, we called out a few TV shows that every historic house admirer should watch. But, to be honest, that was only half the story: We didn’t even address movies!
While some feature the ups and downs of owning and renovating an old house—shoutout to Under the Tuscan Sun—we’ll be focusing on a different set of movies today.
Here are seven films where historic architecture is so entwined in the storyline and the characters’ lifestyles that the old house might as well be its own character. Bonus: Many of the homes featured in these films are still standing, and can be visited, today.
Written by Julian Fellowes, Gosford Park is a bit of a prelude to Downton Abbey, which Fellowes also created.
Set in the early 1930s, the movie—with a star-studded cast featuring the likes of Maggie Smith, Helen Mirren, and Clive Owen—follows a lavish weekend of hunting and excess at the fictional Gosford Park country estate, played by the real-life, Neo-Palladian country house Wrotham Park.
But things don’t go as planned when Sir William, a wealthy industrialist and host for the weekend, is found murdered in the library.
The movie is a murder mystery, sure, but in a style true to Julian Fellowes, Gosford Park is more a picture of what life was like for the upper echelons—and lower ranks—of society, and how the different areas of the country house supported that stratified culture.
Reversal of Fortune
Reversal of Fortune tells the story of Sunny and Claus von Bulow. In December of 1980, wealthy socialite Sunny von Bulow (played by Glenn Close) was found unconscious in her Newport mansion, Clarendon Court.
After being rushed to the hospital, Sunny slipped into a coma, caused by an overdose of insulin, that lasted 28 years until her death in 2008. Her husband, Claus von Bulow (Jeremy Irons), was charged with attempted murder, initiating a dramatic and shocking trial that rocked Newport society.
While this movie is not your typical tale of Newport high society—with a plot that kicks off about 70 years after the end of the Gilded Age—the narrative rests on the succession of events that transpired at Sunny’s beloved Newport home.
The neoclassical mansion, Clarendon Court, was built in 1904 by the great Gilded Age architect Horace Trumbauer for railroad executive Edward C. Knight. The home remains a private residence today, last selling in 2012 for $13 million.
There’s perhaps no documentary—or house—more infamous than Grey Gardens. The documentary, produced in 1975 by Albert and David Maysles, follows Edith “Big Edie” Beale and her daughter, Edith “Little Edie” Beale who are living an eccentric life in the run-down family mansion they refuse to give up, even though they can no longer afford its maintenance.
Many of the rooms in the Shingle style East Hamptons house take center stage in the cult-favorite documentary. Most notable is the home’s entrance hall—the scene for Little Edie’s flag dance—and the main bedroom upstairs, where Big and Little Edie live out the majority of their day.
The house was sold not long after this movie to former executive editor of the Washington Post, Ben Bradlee, who restored the estate with his wife, journalist Sally Quinn. And super-fans (we should say super rich, super-fans) are in luck: Grey Gardens is for sale—available now for a cool $18 million.
The 1950 noir classic Sunset Boulevard follows the story of Norma Desmond (played by Gloria Swanson), the greatest silent film star of the early 20th century, who has become ostracized by the film industry after sound was added to movies.
The star clings to nostalgia for her former career and ensnares the struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis (played by William Holden) into revising a script she has written for a comeback film by trapping him in her Spanish Revival mansion on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles.
The opulent surroundings create a sort of gilded cage in which Joe and Norma develop their relationship—and meet their demise.
The movie was partially filmed at a real mansion on Wiltshire Boulevard owned by the Getty family. Sadly, the mansion no longer exists, after being demolished in the late 1950s.
We won’t lie: The most exciting part of playing the Clue as a kid was thinking about all the rooms and secret passageways in the murderous mansion. The movie Clue takes the board game mansion and brings it to life.
The movie follows five unsuspecting guests who gather for a dinner party that quickly turns into a comedic whodunit when their host, Mr. Body, dies. It is then disclosed that Mr. Body had sensitive information about each guest, establishing motives for all.
While the movie wasn’t filmed at an actual mansion, the architecture in the film is true to the late-19th century: There’s lots of heavy woodwork, Gothic Revival archways, inlaid-wood floors, and dark marble.
These architectural details are all plucked from different styles of architecture—some Greek Revival, others Romanesque Revival—but the end result is a representation of extravagance that is perfect for such an outrageously fun movie as this.
The Royal Tenenbaums
Wes Anderson’s classic The Royal Tenenbaums—which follows three wunderkinds from the same family who return to their New York home to tend to their ailing father—was shot almost entirely on location at a townhouse in upper Manhattan.
The house, on the corner of West 144th street and Convent Avenue, is in the heart of the Hamilton Heights Historic District, which was first developed as Alexander Hamilton’s farm in the 18th century.
The area remained quite rural until the last quarter of the 19th century, when transit above 125th street made it attractive to families and developers. The heyday of construction extended into the early 20th century, when the majority of the buildings in the neighborhood, including this house, were built.
Pride & Prejudice
The 2005 version of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice serves up a smorgasbord of country house architecture. That’s hardly a surprise, since specific houses are mentioned repeatedly throughout the book and movie.
While the opulent Elizabethan Burghley House stands in for Lady Catherine’s Rosing’s Park and the Neo-Palladian Basildon Park plays Netherfield, our hearts were stolen by the Stuart house Groombridge Place—the family home of the Bennets—and the stately Chatsworth House, which is Mr. Darcy’s Pemberly.