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The Griffith Observatory: bringing us closer to the stars

28 March 2022

In celebration of the Oscars, we look at the iconic Griffith Observatory, which has featured in films ranging from Rebel Without a Cause (1955) to cinema’s ultimate love letter to old Hollywood, La La Land (2017).  

The Griffith Observatory: bringing us closer to the stars
The Griffith Observatory is the backdrop for many a Hollywood movie. Image credit: Shutterstock

Not many buildings can claim to be a public observatory, planetarium and exhibition space all rolled into one, but then, The Griffith Observatory is no ordinary building.

Designed by architects John C Austin and Frederic Morse Ashley, this unique hybrid wonder allows unparalleled views of Hollywood, while also capturing the imaginations of stargazers with its awe-inspiring planetarium.  

Offering the public some of the most outstanding views in the city, it’s perhaps no surprise it caught the eye of Hollywood producers, who've used it as a backdrop to some of the most famous scenes in cinema.  

Rebel Without a Cause (1955)  

The Griffith Observatory might not be the Hollywood icon we think of it as today had it not featured in the James Dean classic, Rebel Without a Cause.

As well as being the first time a planetarium theatre was ever featured in a film, the observatory is the centre stage for the film’s thrilling climax.  

Today, the Griffith Observatory is home to a commemorative bust of James Dean, who plays Jim Stark, the titular character.

After seeing Hollywood artist Kenneth Kendall’s sculpture of his hero, Marlon Brando, legend has it that Dean approached Kendall to ask him to create a bust of himself .

Kendall began work on the statue on the night of Dean’s tragic death. You can now find it on the west side of the observatory lawn, where it's seen by millions of visitors each year. 

The Terminator (1984) 

Proving itself to be a filming location ideal for all genres of cinema, the Griffith Observatory is one of the focal locations for the post-apocalyptic, sci-fi smash, The Terminator. 

We first find Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800 Terminator scouring the observatory for clothes as he gets ready to hunt for his victim, Sarah Connor. 

The Griffith Observatory is one of the world's largest ‘public observatories’ – opening up the world of science and space to everyone.

With its incredible live shows and out-of-this-world exhibitions, we can see why director James Cameron thought it the perfect setting for T800’s grand introduction.  

La La Land (2017)  

Damien Chazelle’s dazzling tale of ambition and romance is almost as much of a tribute to the Griffith Observatory as it is to classic cinema, with it featuring one of the movie’s most memorable scenes.

Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian and Emma Stone’s Mia come together as they explore the observatory, culminating in their waltz among the stars in the Samuel Oschin Planetarium.

The scene brings many of La La Land’s significant themes to life, including the world of dreams and fantasy, with the Griffith Observatory providing the perfect centrepiece for the scene.  

Although architects and engineers first built the observatory in 1933, in 2002, S.J. Amoroso construction worked on its renovation, with the Los Angeles Bureau of Engineering managing the project.

So, in part, La La Land’s magic is made possible because of the real-life magic of civil engineers!  

The Griffith Observatory is in Griffith Park, a 4,210-acre outdoor space that combines manicured lawns and picnic spots with rugged areas of natural beauty and hiking trails.

Mia and Sebastian’s six-minute-long song and dance number, A Lovely Night, and the couple’s bittersweet exchange towards the end of the movie also feature Griffith Park as its backdrop.

A generous donation

Colonel Griffith J Griffith’s generosity made the observatory possible.

He donated 3,015 acres of land that surrounded the observatory to the city of Los Angeles and left money in his will for the Griffith Observatory, exhibit hall and planetarium to be built.  

Griffith’s vision was to make astronomy accessible to the public.

Given that film is a medium that reaches millions of people globally, it seems fitting that the observatory continues to provide a ‘gateway to the cosmos’ through its appearances on the big screen.   

Beyond the silver screen

Beyond its association with the big screen, there are lots of other reasons to visit the Griffith Observatory.

It boasts some of the most fabulous views in LA and provides the best vantage spot to view the famous Hollywood sign.

Over eight million people have already looked through the Zeiss 12-inch refracting telescope – that’s more than any other telescope on earth.

Everyone is free to use the public telescope on clear nights.  

Inside the observatory, you can even find a tribute to civil engineers.

As you can see below, Hugo Ballin's mural represents civil engineers with a surveyor and – metaphorically – through Hoover Dam

What's your favourite civil engineering project that you've spotted in movies or TV? Let us know your favourites.

  • Jessica Beasley, communications executive at ICE