Is ‘Licorice Pizza’ Based on a True Story? The History Behind Paul Thomas Anderson’s New Film

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  • Alana Haim
    American musician
  • Paul Thomas Anderson
    Paul Thomas Anderson
    American film director, screenwriter, and producer
  • Gary Valentine
    Gary Valentine
    American actor
  • Gary Goetzman
    American film producer
  • Cooper Hoffman
    American film actor
  • Gary Morton
    American comedian (1924-1999)

In “Licorice Pizza,” a teenage boy perpetually chasing after new business schemes falls for a 20-something woman who’s not quite sure where she’s heading, but is up for the ride.

Together, Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) and Alana Kane (Valley native Alana Haim) travel around Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley by car, truck and on foot. Their ventures into showbiz and local politics have them cross paths with a cast of vibrant characters, including a belligerent hairdresser and motorcycle-riding movie star.

Gary and Alana’s indelible bond and the series of events that transpire make “Licorice Pizza” an enjoyable watch. But the film promises an extra element of nostalgic joy for those who grew up in the Valley or during the 1970s (or both). Several of the events, people and places represented in the story are modeled on reality.

We hunted for some of the Easter eggs in “Licorice Pizza,” and here’s what we found.

Spoiler warning: This article contains some plot details from “Licorice Pizza.”

Gary Valentine is Based on Gary Goetzman

MGM/Getty Images
MGM/Getty Images

Cooper Hoffman’s character is modeled on Gary Goetzman, a friend of Paul Thomas Anderson and the co-founder of Tom Hanks’ production company, Playtone. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Goetzman’s stories from his days as a child actor and waterbed salesman made their way into the film, Anderson told Variety.

Goetzman even appeared in the film “Yours, Mine and Ours” with Lucille Ball and was chaperoned by a local burlesque dancer at the New York press tour. “Lucille Ball was on her second marriage to Gary Morton, and she used to scream ‘Gary!’ all the time. That was my friend’s name, so he’d think, ‘Holy shit, she’s yelling at me,” said Anderson.

In “Licorice Pizza,” Alana chaperones Gary to the New York press tour of the film “Under One Roof,” where he and the young cast perform a song with Ball’s stand-in Lucille Doolittle (Christine Ebersole). After Gary clobbers her with a pillow in the middle of the performance, Doolittle screams and chases him around backstage.

“Licorice Pizza” is Named After a Record Store

MGM
MGM

While the project had many working titles – including “Soggy Bottom,” the name of Gary’s waterbed business – Anderson ultimately landed on “Licorice Pizza.” Though you won’t find either of those foods in the film, it’s an homage to Licorice Pizza, the Southern California record-store chain that existed in the ’70s and ’80s.

In turn, the store’s name comes from an Abbott and Costello routine in which the duo attempts to sell records or LPs. When they are unsuccessful, they quip, “Well we could sprinkle cornstarch on the bottom and sell them as Licorice Pizzas.”

Although Licorice Pizza had locations in and around the Valley, including Encino and Canoga Park, the store itself doesn’t appear in the film.

Tail O’ The Cock Was a Real Restaurant

MGM
MGM

Gary fancies himself an adult showman (“That’s what I’m meant to do”) stuck in a teen’s body, so it makes sense that Tail O’ The Cock is his hangout spot. The upscale restaurant in Studio City (and its older sibling on La Cienaga’s Boulevard’s Restaurant Row) was frequented by celebrities like Ronald Reagan, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Robert Kennedy, according to the LA Times. Both restaurants closed in the mid-’80s.

The all-American eatery – which production designer Florencia Martin and her team built from scratch – pops up several times in “Licorice Pizza.” It’s where Alana and Gary spend time together after they initially meet; later, Alana accompanies movie star Jack Holden (a stand-in for the actor William Holden, played by Sean Penn) there to make Gary jealous.

Scenes were also filmed at a Japanese restaurant in Studio City and the Van Nuys Golf Course, just a stone’s throw away from the Tail O’ The Cock set and the Van Nuys Airport. At a press screening on Nov. 12, Martin said the crew had to build handheld rigs to light the scene where Jack performs a motorcycle stunt so as to not interfere with air traffic regulations.

Bradley Cooper’s Character Did in Fact Date Barbra Streisand

Bradley Cooper Licorice Pizza
United Artists / MGM

One of the most memorable performances in “Licorice Pizza” is Bradley Cooper as former hairdresser and film producer Jon Peters. As the “monster version” of his larger-than-life persona, Peters orders a waterbed from Gary; interrogates him about Peters’ girlfriend, Barbra Streisand; and later terrorizes gas station employees.

In real life, Goetzman actually delivered waterbeds to Peters’ house, and told Anderson that he was “the greatest guy in the world.” He dated Streisand for 12 years after they were introduced in 1973, and worked as her hairdresser for films including the 1976 “A Star Is Born.” In the ’80s, he scored big hits with the films “Flashback,” “The Witches of Eastwick,” and “Batman.”

And in 2017, he produced the remake of “A Star Is Born” – starring, written and directed by none other than Bradley Cooper.

Joel Wachs Really Did Run for Mayor in 1973

MGM
MGM

After Alana survives driving a moving truck downhill on an empty tank, she decides to get her life together. That leads her to volunteer for the mayoral campaign of city councilman Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie).

“Licorice Pizza” covers the early stages of the campaign. In real life, Wachs lost the election but served on L.A. City Council for 30 years. In 1999, he came out as gay, an aspect of his identity that is touched on in the film.

Speaking with KCRW about the film, Wachs said he wants people to view his story as proof that social change is possible with enough time and effort.

“When they look at a movie like this, and see things depicted 50 years ago, many people weren’t alive then. But as someone who was alive then and is still alive today, I can look back and see enormous changes have been made,” he said.

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