Starring on the silver screen: The Western Suburbs

Posted: November 16, 2012

So far, only a few people have showed up to stand and stare at John Ricketts' house in Ridley Township, but that might change soon.

His family home on South Swarthmore Avenue has a starring role in Silver Linings Playbook, a movie that's generating Oscar talk ahead of its Friday opening.

"It was really cool," said Ricketts, a retired truck driver whose house serves as the blue-collar home of Tiffany, the female lead, played by Jennifer Lawrence.

It turns out that Silver Linings contains an outstanding performance by an uncredited actor: The western suburbs of Philadelphia. The working-class houses of Upper Darby never looked as inviting, nor the streets of Ridley as leafy. The iconic Llanerch Diner shines.

Silver Linings is a sharply written comic drama based on the novel by Matthew Quick, who grew up in Collingswood, and directed by The Fighter's David O. Russell. It stars Rydal native Bradley Cooper; Lawrence, of Hunger Games fame; and two-time Academy Award winner Robert De Niro. And it features appearances by locals including waiters at the Llanerch.

"People are coming in: 'I want to take a picture of this diner, I heard about the movie,' " said manager Richard Hernandez. "We expect an influx of business. It's really cool to say, 'Bradley Cooper sat in this booth.' "

When the audience meets former schoolteacher Pat Solitano, played by Cooper, he's locked up in a mental institution. Troubled? No. Troubled would be an improvement. He's crazy. And violent.

He's lost his job, his house, and his wife, Nikki. He's determined to win her back, upbeat about "a shot at a silver lining."

After being released and moving in with his parents, Pat meets Tiffany, a recent widow with her own mental issues. She offers to help Pat contact his wife, but only if he'll help her by being her partner in a dance contest, a scene shot at the Ben Franklin House in Center City.

The book is set in South Jersey, but the movie is Philly all over, with Lincoln Financial Field a backdrop for a strong Eagles subplot, Archbishop Prendergast High School in Drexel Hill the school where Cooper's character worked, and the mental-hospital scenes shot at Norristown State Hospital.

"Russell and Bradley Cooper wanted to make it there," said coproducer Mark Kamine.

The main reason was artistic, to set the movie in the same general region as the book, he said. Cooper likes to shoot in Pennsylvania to provide local jobs, and from a studio-finance perspective the region offered good tax incentives.

Not long ago, Philadelphia was typecast, always playing the tough, gritty town that's down on its luck but striving for better days.   During the last two decades, the region's range has broadened to include creepy sci-fi fare like Twelve Monkeys and the sensitive Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington movie about AIDS, Philadelphia.

"The best films are the ones where the city becomes an essential part of what's going on, and you're seeing details and information you may not even know you're seeing," said filmmaker Deron Albright, an associate professor at St. Joseph's University who directed The Destiny of Lesser Animals. "The best films allow you to do it but don't force you to."

What does he say?

All through the movie, Pat talks about his estranged wife - her poise, her beauty, her intelligence.

Nikki's presence looms over the film, though she doesn't appear in full until almost the end, in a climactic scene at the dance competition: Pat whispers something into her ear - inaudible to the audience.

So what does he say?

"I feel kind of bad giving it away," laughed actress Brea Bee, who plays Nikki. "He was 100 percent still in character, a very touching, beautiful little moment."

The scene is bound to linger in movie lore, just as people still wonder what Bill Murray said to Scarlett Johansson at the end of Lost in Translation.

Bee recently moved to Los Angeles, but she's as Philly as the movie. She grew up in the Northeast, went to Little Flower High School, studied at the Walnut Street Theatre, did commercials for Xfinity, acted in tons of community productions, and had a recurring role on As the World Turns.

When she heard Silver Linings would shoot here, she hoped to win any part - and was happily shocked to be offered the role of Nikki.

"To have my biggest film to date take place in Philadelphia," Bee said, "it just made it even more meaningful."

Upper Darby house

That dumpy attic where Pat lives in his parents' house? That's Christine Gavigan's old attic. Except the moviemakers broke some plaster and painted the walls with fake mold to roughen the space.

When she was growing up, the house on South Madison Avenue in Upper Darby held seven children and one bathroom. Gavigan's mother, Mary Higgins, still lives there.

"There's something special in my mom's house," Gavigan said. "Even the director said, 'I can feel the love in this house.' . . . Whatever vision he had, he found there."

Location scout Dan Gorman spotted the place, drawn by its strong stone face and solid front porch.

"I knew it was the house," said Gorman, who grew up in Drexel Hill. Not only did it look like the place where Pat's parents would live, but the living room area had been enlarged, meaning a film crew could fit inside.

The filmmakers cleared out all the furniture, bringing in their own chairs and tables and even knickknacks to put on shelves.

When they left, they installed new carpeting and wallpaper, having torn out the old. Higgins used the money she earned from renting her house to buy a new roof.

Nobody gets rich from lending their home for a movie, the pay generally ranging from a couple of hundred to a few hundred dollars a day, and the studio agreeing to replace and repaint anything that gets changed for filming.

But Gavigan's children, Connor, 9, and girls Shannon, 7, and Allison, 6, think they're rich, paid $280 each for their work as extras.

"They think they're stars," Gavigan said.

Ricketts, of Ridley Township, said his house was chosen for its trees and stone driveway. He and his family moved upstairs during shooting.

Yes, he got to meet Lawrence and Cooper. And he had a long talk with Anupam Kher, the Bollywood actor who plays Pat's psychiatrist.

The best part: When the streets were closed for shooting, Ricketts was ushered through the crowd at the barricade - with a dozen teenage girls hanging onto his shirt, each insisting they were his daughter, and all hoping to see Cooper up close.

Now the barricades are gone and people are arriving.

"They say, 'Isn't this the house?' " Ricketts said. "They asked me what part I played. I say, 'De Niro.' "

Inquirer movie critic Steven Rea takes us on a "Silver Linings Playbook" tour of sites in the new movie, which stars Philadelphia and Delaware County as much as Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. See the video at

Contact Jeff Gammage at 215-854-2415,, or on Twitter @JeffGammage

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