This Sunday, in Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis, America will witness the latest chapter in that fierce, eternal sports rivalry that is . . . Boston vs. Philadelphia?
OK, maybe not so much. The Red Sox vs. the Yankees will always get the bleacher bums howling. The Celtics vs. Lakers? That’s been going on half a century.
True, you could point to an intellectual and civic rivalry between the Hub and the City of Brotherly Love before, during, and after the American Revolution, and the Celtics and the ’76ers did have a two-decade shoving match that culminated in Boston’s comeback during the 1981 conference finals. But while the New England Patriots vying against the Philadelphia Eagles will hopefully make for an exciting football game, it doesn’t tap into larger and more legendary history of contention. Maybe it’s just that New York City gets in the way, geographically and psychologically.
I’ll tell you where there is an interesting and unheralded competition, though: the movies. To be specific, the films that have portrayed Boston over the years are different in type and tone and often quality from those that have settled down in Philadelphia.
To get granular, Boston may arguably have the better filmography, but Philly has far greater range.
I’m not talking about movies that use our locations or theirs while fobbing off the settings as someplace else. The 2016 “Ghostbusters” remake shot in Boston’s Chinatown but was set in New York City, and the celebrated scene in “Dressed to Kill” (1980) in which Angie Dickinson flirts her way through Manhattan’s Metropolitan Museum of Art was actually shot in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. No matter where they were filmed, they’re both New York movies.
“Good Will Hunting” (1997) — now that’s a Boston movie. So are “The Departed” (2006), “Gone Baby Gone” (2007), and “Mystic River” (2003). Reaching further back, there’s “The Verdict” (1982) and “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” (1973), the latter remaining for many people the gold standard of Cinema on the Charles. More recently, there have been the best picture Oscar winner “Spotlight” (2015), “Manchester by the Sea” (2016), and a pair of films about the Boston Marathon bombing and its aftermath, “Patriots Day” (2016) and last year’s “Stronger.”
What unites many of them? Contentious issues of class, a fascination with South Boston gangsters, the crimes and coverups of our medical and spiritual institutions, terrible accents, and tons of angry guilt, whether of the Irish-Catholic persuasion or the more generalized bitterness that comes from 11 months of winter. Boston movies can be (and often are) great, but they’re of a type that Hollywood has only recently started thinking beyond.
Philadelphia, by contrast, has a broadness of movie presence that, ironically, may come from meaning less in the greater national psyche. If you buttonholed a stranger on the street and asked him or her to name one Philly film, the answer most likely would be “Rocky,” the tatty 1976 labor of love that writer-star Sylvester Stallone took all the way to the bank and a best picture Oscar. Specifically, the buttonholee would probably have an immediate mental image of Stallone running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and begin to hum “Gonna Fly Now.”
So “Rocky” is a Philadelphia movie — you can even take a walking tour of the locations — but does it truly partake of the city’s particular spirit? Could it have been filmed in, say, Cleveland or Chicago with no change other than the backdrops? I’d argue it could have been — but I’m not from Philly.
What is clear is that Philadelphia’s relative nearness to New York-based film businesses (production houses, equipment rentals, editing rooms, labs) has made it a cheap logistical alternative for a wide range of projects over the years, whereas Boston has had three strikes against it: It’s farther away, the weather is fickle, and our unions have been notoriously hostile to out-of-town moviemakers. Indeed, tales of Teamster violence kept Hollywood away from the Hub for decades, and only a change in local leadership, the state’s new tax-credit system, and a profitable run of Boston crime films brought the industry back.
By contrast, the major Philadelphia films are all over the map. There are splattery hit farces (“Trading Places,” from 1983, with Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy), topical dramas (breakthrough AIDS story “Philadelphia,” 1993), romantic comedies (“Silver Linings Playbook,” 2012), and women’s weepies (“In Her Shoes,” 2005). Brian DePalma made what a lot of people consider his best film there: 1981’s “Blow Out,” with John Travolta. Half of the gonzo 1995 sci-fi head trip “12 Monkeys” unfolds in the ruins of post-apocalyptic Philadelphia. The thriller “The Sixth Sense” (1999) sees dead people all over the city; director M. Night Shyamalan is a hometown boy who has returned for film after film.
Elaine May pioneered the gritty buddy/crime genre by shooting “Mikey and Nicky” (1976) with Peter Falk and John Cassavetes on the streets of Philadelphia. Alan Parker turned the surreal William Wharton novel “Birdy” into a very good 1984 film starring Matthew Modine and a young Nicolas Cage; it filmed throughout the metropolis.
The score evens out when it comes to documentaries, at least. Boston is home base for such luminaries as Frederick Wiseman, Errol Morris, and the filmmakers associated with Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, not to mention the many nonfiction series and projects developed by WGBH over the years. That said, how many good documentaries are there about Boston? Wiseman got his start with 1967’s “Titicut Follies,” about dismal conditions at Bridgewater State Hospital — and then immediately went off to Philadelphia to make “High School” (1969).
There are very good docs about Philadelphia architects (Nathaniel Kahn’s “My Architect,” 2003) and art museums (“The Art of the Steal,” 2010, about the relocation of the Barnes Foundation). You can watch “Let the Fire Burn” (2013), about the 1985 MOVE bombing in Philadelphia, for $3.99 on Amazon. At least the best nonfiction treatment of Boston’s 1970s busing crisis — “The Keys to the Kingdom” episode of the PBS series “Eyes on the Prize” — is currently streaming for free on YouTube.
I’m still not sure who “wins” this contest, though, because a city’s soul is harder to photograph. In the end, Philadelphia has the wider variety of movies attached to it, but Boston has the deeper wellsprings of civic personality. Philadelphia is a location; Boston is a sensibility. Maybe it’s just another way of saying that they get more yardage but we score the touchdowns.Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.