Is That Really Madison Up On The Big Screen?

By Dean Robbins | February 22, 2019

  • Rodney Dangerfield from the film "Back To School." University of Wisconsin's Bascom Hall is in the background (MGM Studios)

Rodney Dangerfield from the film "Back To School." University of Wisconsin's Bascom Hall is in the background (MGM Studios)

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The 91st Academy Awards ceremony is happening this Sunday, which got Dean Robbins thinking about movies set in and around Madison. It’s always a thrill to see Wisconsin’s capital city as a backdrop for a major motion picture, or is that really Madison we are seeing?


I guess I should be glad that Hollywood is interested in Madison. For a midsized city tucked away in the heartland, my hometown has figured in a surprising number of major movies. But most of them utterly fail to capture Madison onscreen.

One of the worst insults to civic pride is setting a movie in Madison but filming the scenes elsewhere. In Away We Go, John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph consider settling here to raise a family. In The Prince & Me, Julia Stiles attends the University of Wisconsin-Madison and falls in love with a Danish prince. In each case, the locations look nothing like the real Madison, which couldn’t feel weirder to a local viewer. Where’d my city go?

Just as bad are movies filmed in Madison that claim to be happening somewhere else. For example, the period gangster film Public Enemies features the Wisconsin State Capitol, but only as a stand-in for the U.S. Capitol and FBI headquarters. The timeless marble interior almost convinces you you’re in Washington, D.C., in the 1930s—that is, until FBI agent Christian Bale faces reporters outside the building. In the background are modern-day Madison storefronts. Oops.


Ironically, Hollywood movies both shot and set in Madison are the worst of the bunch. In theory, locals would enjoy seeing Bascom Hill as itself in For Keeps, starring Molly Ringwald as a pregnant UW-Madison student. The same goes for the Memorial Union Terrace in The Last Kiss, in which Zach Braff gets mixed up in a campus romance. And then there’s King Street in I Love Trouble, which finds reporters Julia Roberts and Nick Nolte covering a story in Wisconsin. No argument with the authentic locations in these productions, but the plots and the acting are so bad that you feel embarrassed on the city’s behalf.

It’s hard to believe, but Madison’s one shining moment in Hollywood movies is Back to School, a 1986 Rodney Dangerfield comedy. The film won no awards for its crude story of a millionaire who joins his son as a freshman at UW-Madison, renamed Grand Lakes University. But Dangerfield works hard for laughs, and he gets just enough of them.


From the local perspective, though, the film’s real charm is its loving view of Madison. Here, the city pretends to be nothing other than itself, and it’s never looked better on screen. Residents will recognize the unique light of fall semester, with leaves crunching underfoot. This time, picturesque buildings like the Red Gym and Science Hall aren’t just cameos, but stars of the show.

Just when you start thinking you’d love to live in such a dreamy place, you realize, to your amazement, that you do.

Dean Robbins

Dean Robbins

Dean Robbins is a children’s author based in Madison. He has won state and national awards for arts, features and news stories, and has contributed to magazines and newspapers around the country.
2019-02-21T16:58:02-06:00Tags: , , , |

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