It’s not just the sunlight on the water – Newport is a truly beautiful place. With tiny cobblestone side streets, sprawling mansions, centuries-old beech trees, and the oldest tavern in America, there’s plenty to see here. But what to look for first? Here’s an idea: Follow this map of our fair city created just for movie lovers. Our list of 11 feature films and one documentary that have been set here over the span of seven decades is not a complete list, but it spotlights many favorites. From a carefree evening of jazz to some star-crossed tween lovers to moving historical fiction about Newport’s history as a slave port, there’s lots to explore. For interested visitors, it’s easy to hit most of these spots over the course of a weekend, and we highly suggest you do. Locals may want to wait for a rainy day to watch (or re-watch) these films to identify recognizable spots, but there’s no reason not to start setting up your Netflix cue.
1. High Society (1956)
High Society is an amazing musical comedy starring Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly, with cameos by Louis Armstrong and his band. Of all the stories and real life histories we have about the people who inhabited the giant mansions mooring the east side of Newport, this is the one I prefer the most. Kelly is beautiful, flighty, and light hearted, and any sadness felt in the movie is fleeting and easily fixed. It’s fluff, for sure, but it’s a feel good movie that, in my opinion, is heads above “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” It turns out that critics agree – “High Society” won two Academy Awards and had two Oscar noms as well.
2. Jazz on a Summer’s Day (1960)
The only documentary on this list covers the 1958 Jazz Festival out at Fort Adams. It’s one part concert video covering the spiffed out musicians on and off-stage, including Thelonious Monk, Louis Armstrong, Chuck Berry, Anita O’Day, and Big Maybelle. But the cameras also spend an awful lot of time on the audience and the boats in the harbor, with everyone dressed in full summer festival gear, which, trust me, meant a whole different thing in 1958. Maybe it’s the Technicolor magic, but something about the film really draws you in. Suddenly, something as mundane as watching a woman in cat-eye sunglasses eat a cannoli while sitting on a folding chair is absolutely fascinating.
3. Lolita (1962)
I watched this movie recently for reasons totally unconnected to Newport; those being that I love this (controversial) novel of the strangest love story ever told and I wanted to see how the movie compared to the book. (Like any story of “love” between a pedophile and the young girl he orphans and kidnaps, it was weird.) So I was surprised to see Brick Market Place featured during the cross country drive taken by the “couple” as they avoid the authorities. The film, by the way, is a drama with very comical moments, directed by Stanley Kubrick, with a screenplay written by the author, Vladimir Nabokov.
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4. The Great Gatsby (1974)
Set in fictional West Egg, Long Island, the 1974 film version of The Great Gatsby was shot between England and Newport, specifically at Rosecliff mansion. The famous novel’s two main characters, Jay Gatsby (Robert Redford) and Daisy Buchanan (Mia Farrow), may have met a heartbreaking end, but lovers of the book can play Nick Carraway as they gasp at the opulence of the 1920s up close and personal at Rosecliff.
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5. Wind (1992)
What good would this list be without a sailing film? Of all the water sports we do here – kayaking, ocean swimming, and surfing to name a few – sailing is the one we’re most well known for. This is partly due to our history and culture (see #6 below), and partly due to our steady winds and penchant for hosting huge sailing events, most notably The America’s Cup, which was held here 12 times between 1930 and 1983. “Wind,” which starred Matthew Modine and Jennifer Grey, weaves a tale of winning, loss, love, and adventure hinged upon a rivalry for the coveted Cup. Most of the sailing scenes were filmed in Narragansett Bay, and the movie was lauded for its realistic and detailed portrayal of the sport. The film was a flop stateside when it was released in 1992, but went on to be a blockbuster hit in Australia.
6. Amistad (1997)
Steven Spielberg directed this movie, a poignant tale about a slave ship whose human “cargo” mutinies at sea and reaches America in a state somewhere between free and not. Based on a true tale from the mid-nineteenth century, the event was the center of an ethical and legal battle that lasted for years – one which the African captives eventually won. Today, Washington Square in Newport – a Colonial trading center where much of the film was shot – is a small, pretty park with benches. It’s the perfect spot to sit and reflect on Newport’s long and dirty business with the slave trade. Coincidentally, there are two movie theaters here as well.
7. Me, Myself & Irene (2000)
The Farrelly Brothers have famously directed a handful of movies set in Rhode Island, and these seem to suit us as well as fog and shipwreck stories do. Me, Myself & Irene stars Jim Carrey as a Rhode Island state trooper with a psychotic streak as he deals with the world through two personalities – and, uh, yeah, they’re both kind of nuts. It’s nice to see some scenic views of Newport via Ocean Drive and Breton Point in between the crazy, though. And, in real life, if you’re visiting the island, it’s definitely a drive you should take. Well under the speed limit. And buckled up. I mean, you don’t really want to take any chances getting pulled over.
8. Evening (2007)
To be fair, Evening is generally considered to be a pretty terrible movie. But I have a soft spot for 1950s fashion and Claire Danes both, and the film didn’t disappoint me there. The plot revolves around a long-ago wedding, with a member of the bridal party reflecting on it many years later. It’s a love story about the mid-century beauty of our City by the Sea, as well as the complex lives of the people involved. Cliff-jumping, skinny dipping, and getting rip roaring drunk all feature in the plot – and who doesn’t love a little bit of that on a Newport evening?
9. 27 Dresses (2008)
Katherine Heigl of Gray’s Anatomy fame stars as the perennial bridesmaid in 27 Dress, which was shot all over Rhode Island, from Charlestown to Providence. It’s a chick flick for sure, but it’s sweet and whimsical and includes a little bit of love, a little bit of revenge, and some pretty terrible dresses (which I think it’s fair to say are unavoidable parts of any wedding). The Chinese Tea House at Marble House, where one scene is set, is a bit of an anomaly amidst Newport’s Gilded Age architecture. Based on a 12th-century Song dynasty design, the outbuilding was added to the grounds by Alva Vanderbilt, who reportedly used to hold suffragette and women’s rights meeting there. Come to think of it, maybe it’s a fitting place for a feel good femme movie after all.
10. Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
Wes Anderson’s take on New England sort of nails us perfectly; after all, muted colors and well organized, cluttered spaces are kind of our jam. This tale of preteen, star-crossed lovers Sam and Suzy is filmed all over Narragansett Bay, including locations in Newport – most notably Ballard Park and Trinity Church. The angst-y teenage feeling captured by the film is pretty relatable – even if you never stole library books and haven’t been hit by lightning. Hipsters now make pilgrimages to the beach where one camping scene was shot; it’s across the bay on Conanicut Island. If you’re looking for a dose of nostalgia though, you can go check out the (undeniably picturesque) Trinity Church on Spring Street. The boy scout camp that inspired Anderson is over the bridges; one look at the Camp Yawgoog’s You Tube promotional video, and you’ll make the connection.
11. Irrational Man (2015)
One of Newport’s more recent film invasions, this dark comedy involves a love triangle, a murder, and a professor worried about his manhood. The campus of Salve Regina and the Fastnet Pub, among other places, were used as sets in the film. Woody Allen has been knocked pretty unceremoniously off of his cult hero pedestal lately, but the movie is still loved by ardent Joaquin Phoenix fans and mystery lovers alike.
12. The Discovery (2017)
Coming out next year, this genre-bending bending film is part sci-fi, part romantic comedy set one year the afterlife is scientifically discovered. Robert Redford (who wrote this lovely letter to the local paper) returned to Newport in the role of scientist, while Rooney Mara and Jason Segel took care of the romance part. Though they were here for just a brief month of filming this past April, town was abuzz with their whereabouts. In another twist, the film will premiere on Netflix in 2017 before hitting theaters.