The L Street Tavern, in Boston’s infamous Southie neighbourhood, is exactly the kind of place where you can find guys shelling peanuts and drinking pints over Boston-accented banter.
It was here, at a small high-top table across from the bar, that Will Hunting introduced his Harvard girlfriend Skylar to his blue-collar best friends in the Academy Award-winning film Good Will Hunting.
Written by two friends from Cambridge (then-unknowns Ben Affleck and Matt Damon), the movie tells the coming-of-age story of a troubled teen from Southie (Will, played by Damon), who possesses a rare mathematical genius. Working as a night janitor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Will’s discovered while solving nearly impossible equations on classroom chalkboards. But after yet another brush with the law, Will is released into the custody of the professor that found him, and soon sits down with therapist Sean Maguire (played by Robin Williams). Cue movie magic.
The 1997 film resonated with audiences worldwide and is still beloved, thanks in part to its filming location. Boston is a city of neighbourhoods, each with a distinct personality and proud residents. And the city is still home to characters like those in the film – from bohemian students and Harvard professors to young fans clad head-to-toe in Boston sports apparel.
“Good Will Hunting had one of the top three scripts I’ve ever read,” said Tim Grafft, the head of locations for the Massachusetts Film Office. “You could really tell Boston locals wrote it.”
Filming in Massachusetts in the 1990s, before officials began offering film-credit incentives, was both challenging and expensive. But when Grafft took director Gus Van Sant through South Boston to scout locations, Van Sant was immediately drawn to several local spots, including the L Street Tavern – and no sound stage in Toronto could do them justice.
This is the beauty – and the genius – of Good Will Hunting’s scenery: Boston got to speak for itself. The most mundane, everyday locations evoked a powerful sense of place.
One of the film’s most memorable scenes takes place on an unassuming bench in the Boston Public Garden, the country’s first public botanical garden. In his initial meeting with Maguire, Will makes several comments about the therapist’s deceased wife, wrongly assuming that she’d left him. While overlooking the pond, Sean deftly puts Will in his place:
“So if I asked you about art, you'd probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo, you know a lot about him. Life's work, political aspirations, him and the pope, sexual orientations, the whole works, right? But I'll bet you can't tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You've never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling; seen that.”
And that was just the beginning. The scene resonated with moviegoers so strongly that this bench, which is identical to every other bench in the park, became known as “The Good Will Hunting Bench”. In fact, after Williams committed suicide in August 2014, fans transformed it into a makeshift memorial, adding flowers, candles and other tributes. Today, you can still see movie quotes and messages scrawled on the wooden seat.
Williams is beloved in Boston, a city generally unfazed by celebrities. Before he died, the actor came back often to visit friends, including those at the L Street Tavern (658 East 8th Street, South Boston; (617) 268-4335). And during filming, he frequently stepped behind the tavern’s bar to goof around. The owners’ scrapbook shows carefully organized and lovingly detailed photos and newspaper clippings related to the film. It also includes mementos from one particularly memorable night.
Bostonians love underdogs, so when Good Will Hunting was nominated for nine Academy Awards in 1998, the city held its breath. The L Street Tavern hosted a black-tie block party and shut down some of Southie’s streets. When Robin Williams won his first Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor and thanked “the people of South Boston”, the neighbourhood rejoiced. It did so again when Damon and Affleck won their first Academy Award for Best Screenplay and thanked “everyone in Boston”.
“We still get a lot of foot traffic from the movie,” said Kevin Conroy, a retired postman and part-time bartender at the L Street Tavern. “We had a guy from San Francisco come in, yelling lines from the movie. It happens all the time. People come down here because they want to see a real neighbourhood.”
Plenty of Good Will Hunting’s backdrops are still around. You can visit the South Boston division of Boston Municipal Court where Will was sentenced, or the Au Bon Pain in Harvard Square where Will and Skylar chatted about life; you can observe the juxtaposition of Bunker Hill Community College (where Maguire worked) in Charlestown and Harvard in Cambridge (the school Skylar attended); you can ride the red line toward MIT exactly as Will Hunting did.
Other locations, of course, have changed. The Bow and Arrow Pub in Harvard Square, which served as the bar where Will and Skylar first meet, is now the Grafton Street restaurant. Sean Maguire’s house in Southie, near the intersection of Bowen Street and E Street, has been completely redone, with cornflower blue siding. Even the L Street Tavern has been updated.
But Boston’s character hasn’t changed, and it’s as appealing to film fans as ever.
“This film represented Boston in such a way that it’s accurate, but also makes people from Kentucky to Bulgaria want to visit a place like the L Street Tavern,” Grafft said. “People as far away as Japan want to have a beer in an authentic Boston place like that.”