Moviegoers are thrilled that superstar Julia Roberts is returning to the big screen on March 20 with her new film, Duplicity, co-starring Clive Owen. Local residents familiar with the James Burden and Otto Kahn Mansions on Fifth Avenue, which house the independent girls’ school, the Convent of the Sacred Heart, have another reason to be excited since parts of the movie were filmed inside these historic buildings. Previews show Roberts and Owen in what is the school’s banquet hall, transformed into a hotel room in Rome for Duplicity (photo above).
Duplicity is one among many movies that have been filmed in the mansions. In Night at the Museum, released in 2006 and starring Ben Stiller, the exterior of the school and an upper school classroom appear in the movie. In 1998’s A Perfect Murder, starring Michael Douglas, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Virgo Mortensen, one of the school’s very recognizable elevators plays a featured role. In Working Girl, released in 1988, characters played by Melanie Griffith and Harrison Ford crash a wedding in what is the Burden Mansion’s Belle Epoque Ballroom. And one of the school’s libraries was used for a scene in 1982’s The Verdict, starring Paul Newman.
In addition to movies, the mansions have served as the backdrop for television programs, commercials, fashion catalogs, as well as a setting for weddings, bar mitzvahs, bridal showers, anniversary and birthday celebrations, corporate events, and cocktail parties. Anyone who has ever been inside the buildings understands immediately the attraction. “You can’t get much more beautiful than this,” said Ariane Pfaff, Rentals Manager for the mansions. While there may be other buildings in the city with similar architectural details, filming in those spaces is usually prohibited. Because the mansions house Sacred Heart, no filming is allowed when school is in session. Spring vacation and the summer months are the busiest for that portion of the mansions’ rental business. Weekends are usually available for parties year round.
Filming in the mansions for Duplicity began on March 20, 2008, exactly a year ago from its release date, and involved five 12-hour days of preparation, three 14-hour days of actual filming, and two full days of breaking down the sets. Tony Gilroy, the director, knew about the school and loved its interiors. The production crew was trying to find a setting that looked like a hotel room in Rome and the banquet hall, with its marble walls of deep green accented with gold leaf and marble parquetry floors, fit the bill. “I remember having lunch as a student in the banquet hall,” said Pfaff, who attended Sacred Heart, “and to see it transformed into a bedroom was amazing.” A stairway in the Kahn mansion that leads up to the second floor chapel is also seen in the movie, as well as the chapel’s door, representing the hotel room’s entrance.
Both Roberts and Owen brought their children to the shoot and Pfaff made sure to set aside classrooms so the stars and their families could have a place to relax in private. As a remembrance, Pfaff gave each family a copy of the book, Mimi: The Mouse at Sacred Heart, a children’s book written by the Lower School students telling the history of the buildings.
Not every shoot is approved. “There are lots of things we say no to,” Pfaff said. The mansions are first and foremost the Convent of the Sacred Heart and the school’s reputation is paramount. Before Duplicity was given the green light, Pfaff reviewed the parts of the script that would be filmed in the school. The film received a PG-13 rating, another factor that weighed in its favor.
Although New Yorkers as a group tend to be a bit jaded about movies filmed in their neighborhoods, the Sacred Heart community is understandably proud of the history, tradition, and elegance represented by the school’s buildings. “Here, it’s a family,” said Pfaff. “And you can’t do better than that.”
The Otto Kahn & James Burden Mansions
1 East 91st Street
Ariane Pfaff, Rentals Manager
212-722-4745, ext. 112