While Firth is unquestionably the heart of the movie, and Julianne Moore is his most visible co-star, a supporting-role nod must go to the mid-century modern house in which Firth's character, a college professor grieving for his deceased love in early-1960s Los Angeles, spends much of "A Single Man."
The movie is the directorial debut by legendary fashion designer Tom Ford, who clearly has an eye for visual detail. From the immaculately tailored Kennedy-era suits George (Firth) wears to the vintage Mercedes he drives, "A Single Man" is a visual delight, which provides a fanciful ballast against the movie's morose subject matter.
George's home is supposed to be in Santa Monica near the ocean, but the real house, designed by architect John Lautner, is nestled in the Whiting Woods area of Glendale northeast of the city.
As it happens, the house is for sale, listed at $1,495,000. The listing reads:
Hidden in a wooded valley at the foot of the Verdugo Mountains, the redwood, concrete & glass residence opens to the oak forest that influenced the form and orientation of the design. A meticulous restoration of systems, as well as surfaces, hardware & appliances has been completed. This published, world class architectural treasure incorporates open plan living, dining and den areas, two bedrooms, one & a half baths, laundry and attached two carport. In nature and apart, yet just 15 minutes to downtown Los Angeles.
Lautner (1911-94) was one of America's foremost 20th-century architects, particularly when it comes to the legacy of Southern California modernism. He spent six years as an apprentice to Frank Lloyd Wright, joining the first group of Taliesin Fellows. In 1937 he supervised construction for two of Wright's projects, afterward establishing his own practice in Los Angeles. Lautner's first solo project was a house for his own family, which architectural critic Henry-Russell Hitchcock called "the best house by an architect under 30 in the United States." Later Hitchcock remarked that "Lautner's work could stand comparison with that of his master."
Some of his other residences besides the one featured in "A Single Man" have looked particularly futuristic, almost like flying saucers. One house he designed in Palm Springs, the Elrod Residence, was used in the 1971 James Bond film "Diamonds Are Forever". A more famous Lautner design, the Chemosphere, has been featured in numerous movies, from "Charlie's Angels" to "Body Double", as well as the video game "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas."
In "A Single Man," the house serves as a metaphor for the openness that George both needs and shuns. Like most modernist homes, it is teeming with glass and transparency – both for better and worse. The light permeating such houses was decades ahead of its time, given how today's houses put a premium on natural illumination and transitional indoor-outdoor spaces. But it also means you're living right out in the open. In one scene from early in the movie, George cringes as next door neighbors wave to him from outside--as he is sitting on the toilet.
Modernism occupies only a relatively small fraction of the overall market for single-family homes. But the form has a stronger presence in Southern California. "Modernism is the perfect style for Southern California living because it is compatible with our way of life," reads the SoCal Modern Web site. "Modern homes are open, characterized by a freedom from confinement and a strong connection to the outdoors. Even though modern architecture was born in the cold, gray climate of Bauhaus Germany and de Stijl Holland, it has flourished in the warm weather of Southern California, where its inherent openness and abstract language make more sense. The barriers between indoors and outdoors are minimal, and people live in much closer contact with nature." An entire scene in the documentary film "Los Angeles Plays Itself" is devoted to the use of modern architecture in the movies.
Modern houses have long had an over-sized presence in TV and movies, not just because they may be favored by directors and producers but because they read well on the screen. "Things that are beautiful aren't necessarily filmable," Hollywood location scout Beth Milnick once told me for a Metropolis magazine story about architecture in film in television. "There's an elegant simplicity in most great locations."
When the winner for Best Actor is announced, Firth will have his hands full competing for the statuette with heavyweight thespians like Jeff Bridges and Morgan Freeman. But if the Oscar was based on which stylistic movie world one would most like to live inside, Firth would certainly be the one to walk away with the prize.
Mid-Century for Sale [HW]