In case you missed it, actor and comedian Rob Schneider of Saturday Night Live and Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo played an uptight landscape architect in his recently canceled CBS sitcom, ¡Rob!, in which he marries younger Maggie (Claudia Bassols) and bumbles his way through trying to befriend her Mexican-American family. ¡Rob!’s Latino stereotypes are so thinly drawn you can practically see through them, and the show’s depiction of Rob Schneider as a landscape architect isn’t much better.
As a landscape designer, I didn’t expect there to be much design intrigue to the show (I watched all eight episodes, trust me, it’s not worth it). Although Rob does have an Eames chair, the same piece of trace paper sits on his drafting table all season and he never uses a computer. Maybe the writers at least visited a professor’s office or read the Wikipedia page about landscape architects before they went into production.
¡Rob! isn’t the first television show or movie that features a landscape architect as a main character, but the list definitely isn’t long. In fact, as far back as I can tell, there have been only two: Mark Ruffalo in Just Like Heaven (2005), and Jude Law in Breaking and Entering (2006). But that list is about to get longer by one, and bigger by “the one.” That’s right designers, be still your hearts, because Frederick Law Olmsted is finally coming to the silver screen.
Erik Larson’s page-turner The Devil in the White City, the compelling true story of the building of the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893 and the vicious murders carried out in the shadows of its construction, is going to be made into a major motion picture. Leonardo DiCaprio (The Departed, Inception), whose production company Appian Way purchased the screen rights from Paramount Pictures, has already announced that DiCaprio will produce the film and play the mysterious murderer-protagonist H.H. Holmes. A film version has been in the works since the book became a New York Times bestseller in 2003, but the recent acquisition by DiCaprio may finally bring the story to life.
The Devil in the White City recounts the building of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago from the perspective of two men, Daniel Burnham, the venerable Chicagoan architect, and Dr. H.H. Holmes, the cold and calculating murderer of up to 200 people, most of them inside his labyrinthine “Castle” hotel (which he designed himself) less than two miles from the fair’s entrance. Among the book’s vibrant cast of turn-of-the-century characters, including many architects and artisans, Olmsted plays a supporting role, characterized as being reluctant about the invitation to join the fair’s regime of visionaries. However, Olmsted is quickly convinced of the fair’s legacy, and joins with the hopes that his involvement will bring the profession of landscape architecture the acclaim it deserves.
As a life-long cinephile, a nineteenth-century history buff, and a landscape designer, I am extremely excited about this film. I look forward to the film’s release, but I also enjoy imagining the casting choices for this famous story. I suspect the film version of The Devil in the White City will focus its lens on the actions of the murderous H.H. Holmes, but it will be a gratifying to see who fills the shoes of the fair’s legendary designers. Much like how Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012) was a who’s who of veteran screen actors (Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, and Hal Holbrook to name a few), The Devil in the White City could be an historical epic acted out by a talented ensemble against the backdrop of the World’s Fair.
One could imagine Daniel Burnham, the portly architect-in-chief of the World’s Fair played by a walrus-mustached Jeff Daniels or Bruce McGill. Burnham’s team includes the embittered architect Louis Sullivan, who could be played by Robert Downey Jr. or Colin Farrell, doing their best charming-yet-mischievous rendition. There is also the painter Francis Millet, decorations director, who could be played with flourish by Simon Baker or Hugh Jackman. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who played Lincoln’s son Robert in the recent film, would make a perfect George Ferris, the young engineer who concocted the monstrous Ferris Wheel for the fair, in an attempt to outdo Gustave Eiffel’s tower from the World’s Fair in Paris just four years prior.
Then of course, there is Olmsted. At first glance, my prediction is that Olmsted’s character will be portrayed minimally in the film adaptation. I am not cynical, only skeptical that the screenwriters will dramatize the degree of Olmsted’s influence. I predict the script will make the architects the heroes of the fair’s design. It will be more digestible, as is the case with most explanations as to who’s due the most credit. Also, recreating the fair’s landscape will be a particularly expensive endeavor in today’s computer-generated world. I predict Olmsted will make a grand cameo early in the film, introduced by whispering interns as “the man who built Central Park.” Like a taciturn Vito Corleone or Obi-Wan Kenobi he will enter Burnham’s office, posture bent with headache pains and audible teeth-grinding, and inspire Burnham with a short, yet wise, explanation as why the landscape of the fair must be just so. Then he will disappear until the epilogue in his Brookline office attended by his sons, or wither away in McLean Asylum with a serif-font title overlay summarizing his legacy.
Whether or not Olmsted gets the billing I would want to see, he should be played by a senior actor who has the gravitas to portray the man the behind the legend. Olmsted was 71 at the time of the Chicago World’s Fair and at the height of his influence. Righteous and commanding, yet chronically frustrated and physically ill, the real Olmsted was as afflicted as he was inspired. The actor’s portrayal must be a pitch-perfect combination of malady and zeal. The actor must not give weight to the Olmsted we profess, but to the Olmsted that was a legend in his own time. But most importantly he must be portrayed as flesh and blood.
My choice for the role goes to Martin Sheen, the 72-year old stage and screen actor, best know for his roles in Apocalypse Now, The Departed and TV’s The West Wing. Sheen is a powerful screen presence, portraying characters with equal authority and tenderness, and exhibiting adult vulnerability without ever being too grandfatherly. Sheen has played presidents and generals, including Robert E. Lee in Robert Maxwell’s Gettysburg (2003). Sheen has also worked with DiCaprio before in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed (2006) and Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can (2002). Not to mention he looks the part: just imagine a wiry beard on Sheen while glancing at this popular image of Olmsted, his head craning and looking pensive. You’ll instantly see what I mean.
Given some contend that Olmsted is “holding us back,” I think there is value in embracing a story that portrays him as a man and not an idea. One of the great things about cinema is that it can bring humanity to a character that seems larger-than-life. Nineteenth-century America has shaped so much of our contemporary landscape that we will be revisiting that era and its lessons for centuries to come, whether we like it or not. A dramatization of Olmsted the mortal man and the time that surrounded him, can only be brought forth by story, and that story can only be brought to life by cinema.
It will be a delight to see a little life breathed into the legend. If we are so lucky as to see Olmsted get ample screen time, the next time someone asks you “what is a landscape architect?,” you can simply say, “go see The Devil in the White City.”
This guest post is by Darryl Jones, ASLA, recent Master’s of Landscape Architecture graduate, University of California, Berkeley.
Image credit: (1) Devil in the White City / NPR Books, (2) Frederick Law Olmsted / John Singer Sargent, Encore Editions, (3) Frederick Law Olmsted / Architect of the Capitol.