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May I show you to your scene: Why hotels make such good film sets

Stephen Dorff (left) and Elle Fanning in a scene from "Somewhere," which is set in L.A.'s Chateau Marmont

"People come and go. Nothing ever happens." The ironic opening line from the bustling 1932 Oscar-winner Grand Hotel could be the tagline for Sofia Coppola's new film Somewhere, in which a movie star played by Stephen Dorff follows a monotony of excess and ennui while living at Chateau Marmont.

But the infamous West Hollywood hotel (Montgomery Clift recuperated from his near-fatal car accident there; John Belushi died there; Britney Spears is banned from there) is more than a hipster backdrop. Like the towering Toyko hotel hosting Bill Murray in Coppola's Lost in Translation, the Marmont functions as a foil to the protagonist's emotional numbness - at least until a young lady arrives on the scene.

All this got us thinking that, like Coppola's characters, filmgoers spend a lot of time, cinematically that is, in hotels. From the luxury suites where James Bond pitches woo and thwarts assassins to the vacant inns where travellers encounter unspeakable horrors, from flophouses offering refuge to the ribaldry of bedroom farces, hotels are the ultimate go-to spots for a myriad of storytelling needs.

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Herewith, 10 things we've learned about hotels from the movies, and a nod to the biggest hotel stars there ever were.

1. Under one roof, one finds many storeys, er, stories. Aside from Greta Garbo's famous line "I vant to be alone," Grand Hotel provided the template for the omnibus film, its title still used to describe star-studded movies where many tales intersect in one busy locale. More recent hotel anthology pics include Four Rooms, with "chamber" pieces directed by Quentin Tarantino and others; and Ethan Hawke's Chelsea Walls, following a day in the life of several struggling artists and filmed at the bohemian New York landmark.

2. A hotel manager is your best friend (outside the shower, that is). Based on a true story, Hotel Rwanda stars Don Cheadle as a hotelier who saves the lives of hundreds of citizens during the Rwandan genocide. On a way lighter note, Pretty Woman features Hector Elizondo as the Regent Beverly Wilshire's manager cum Henry Higgins who coaches Julia Roberts on dinner etiquette and helps her buy cocktail attire. And then there's the really not-helpful Norman Bates in Psycho (although, technically speaking, Norman runs his family motel).

3. Writers should never stay long at hotels. Among his many cautionary tales, Stephen King has taught us that hotels spark psychological unravelling. In The Shining, Jack Nicholson's writer takes a job as a caretaker at an isolated hotel (the exterior is Oregon's Timberline Lodge) and goes nuts. In 1408, based on a King story, John Cusack plays a travel writer who experiences a world of horror after checking into a haunted room. And in the Coen brothers' Barton Fink, John Turturro's scriptwriter is distracted by John Goodman's menacingly jolly ogre, his neighbour at the Hotel Earle.

4. Bellhops are funny. The Bellboy, which is plotless, stars a bumbling Jerry Lewis (who also directs) and was filmed at Miami's Fontainebleau Hotel (where memorable scenes from Goldfinger and Scarface were also shot). Over the years, the bellhop has proved an excellent comic cameo role. Our absurdist fave is the dishevelled character played by Cinqué Lee (Spike's bro) in Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train, partly shot at the dilapidated Arcade Hotel in Memphis, Tenn.

5. Hotels = shenanigans. The exaggerated account of debauchery at Culver City Hotel, which housed the Munchkins during the making of The Wizard of Oz, is depicted in the 1981 dud Under the Rainbow. Now we have rock stars for that, their hotel exploits revealed in many biopics and docs. San Diego's Hotel del Coronado is the locale for much ado in showbiz-themed Some Like It Hot and The Stunt Man. Then there's the hilarious hotel trysts of Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin in It's Complicated. On the serious side, Stephen Frears's Dirty Pretty Things stars Chiwetel Ejiofor as a night clerk who discovers the hotel is a front for illegal kidney operations on immigrants.

6. They're a great place to sing and/or dance. During Hollywood's golden age, soundstages became hotel ballrooms showcasing the elegant manoeuvres of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. In more modern films, such real locales as Virginia's Mountain Lake Hotel ( Dirty Dancing) and L.A.'s Millennium Biltmore ( The Fabulous Baker Boys) have housed memorable song and dance.

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7. The Plaza and the Ambassador are standouts. In the U.S., two hotels have served as fondly conspicuous locations. New York's Plaza is where Crocodile Dundee and Macaulay Culkin ( Home Alone 2) holed up, and where Cary Grant was abducted in North by Northwest. L.A.'s Ambassador (demolished in 2006) was the Taft Hotel in The Graduate and starred in countless films, including Emilio Estevez's Bobby, about the lead-up to the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy in the hotel's kitchen.

8. What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. There's a special place in movie lore for Las Vegas hotels. The Bellagio and its famous fountains star in Ocean's Eleven, the fictional Tangiers in Casino (actually filmed in the Riviera), and Caesars Palace in The Hangover.

9. European hotels have great views. Book Room 414 in Florence's Hotel degli Orafi and you can re-experience the romantic finale of A Room With a View. Stroll on the terrace of the San Domenico in Taormina, Sicily, and you'll see the stunning final shot of Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Avventura (booed at its Cannes premiere, it went on to win the Jury Award).

10. Hotel is just another word for home. Of all the real and fictional people who have made hotels their homes, George Clooney's "downsizing" exec in Up in the Air truly makes an art out of living at hotels. That film's Renaissance St. Louis Hotel Airport gets top billing for being quiet and really close to the airport.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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