Remembering the Original Hollywood Sign at Its 1970s Worst, in “Argo” and Reality

November 4, 2012 § 1 Comment

The Original Hollywood Sign in the 1970s/Collection of Bruce Torrence

There’s a great moment in “Argo” that shows the Hollywood Sign as it looked just before it was demolished and rebuilt: various letters have collapsed, and those that are still standing look as if they might crumble away at any moment. When I saw the film last week, audience members laughed at the shot, though I don’t know whether in shock or recognition.

It wasn’t until days later that it occurred to me that the director, Ben Affleck, took significant liberties with the timeline. At the time of the Iran Hostage Crisis, which began on November 4, 1979, the Hollywood Sign–the same one being repainted today–was not only rebuilt but had stood for over a year. The old 1923 Sign began to be dismantled on August 8th, 1978. The new Sign was completed on October 30th, 1978.

What makes the discrepancy odd is that Affleck has taken enormous pains to match, in shot after shot, his film with archival footage of the Iranian Revolution and the Hostage Crisis. In the end credits, stills from the movie appear alongside archival pictures of the hostages, the American Embassy and Tehran street scenes. The resemblances are astonishing.

Naturally, a shot of the brand-new 1979 Hollywood Sign wouldn’t have had the visual impact of its pre-1978 decrepitude. But it seems strange that Affleck’s talent for cinematic verisimilitude didn’t extend to the Sign in this otherwise perfect time capsule.

Postscript: After this piece was posted, a new Awards season trailer for “Argo” turned up on TV. It opens with a helicopter shot of the Hollywood Sign as it actually was in ’79–newly built and freshly painted. Coincidence?

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