Is Licorice Pizza a true story? The film’s real-life influences

Licorice Pizza

Licorice Pizza underperformed during its theatrical run, but it was a big hit with critics. The film earned three Oscar Award nominations and three awards from the National Board of Review. The American Film Institute declared Licorice Pizza one of the best films of 2021. 

The film portrays an unlikely romance between Gary Valentine, a teenage actor and entrepreneur, and Alana Kane, a photographer’s assistant in her 20s. The pair’s adventures, topsy turvy friendship, and heartwarming relationship feature in Licorice Pizza

The film is set in the 1970s, and keen viewers conversant with that age may have noticed some real-life elements from that period. 

Writer Paul Thomas Anderson based the film on his hometown memory and Gary Goetzman’s life

Paul Thomas Anderson told Variety that the film’s premise came from a memory of a teenage student in Portola Middle School flirting with a photographer who was taking class pictures. Anderson said:

“It [the incident] was an instantly good premise. What happens if you have a kid invite an older woman to dinner, and what if that girl against her better judgment says yes? That seemed ripe for humor.”

Thomas had the film’s skeleton, and for the flesh, he relied on Gary Goetzman’s real-life accounts. Gary Goetzman, Paul’s long-time friend, inspired the character Gary Valentine. 

Anderson told Vanity Fair that Gary’s stranger-than-fiction tales inspired the adventures in Licorice Pizza:

“… the source material was all these stranger-than-fiction stories Gary has told me over the years, like, ‘There was a time I went to New York to promote Yours, Mine, and Ours with Lucille Ball and I had a chaperone! Her name was Kiki Paige! That’s a great story.”

As portrayed in the film, Gary was a child actor and waterbed salesman. Gary’s partner, Alana Kane, is a fictional character created by Anderson. 

The creator crammed the film with many real-life references from the ‘70 and ‘80s. For instance, he sourced the name Licorice Pizza from a record-store chain that had outlets in Southern California in the ‘70s and ‘80s. However, the store doesn’t appear in the film. 

Viewers may remember that Gary and Alana spent time at the Tail O’ The Cock restaurant. Alana also brought movie star Jack Holden to the restaurant to make Gary jealous. 

Tail O’ The Clock was a famous real-life restaurant frequented by celebrities like Robert Kennedy, Elizabeth Taylor, and Richard Burton. The restaurant shut down in the mid-80s. 

Licorice Pizza features several famous faces from the ‘70s and ‘80s

In the movie, Bradley Cooper plays Jon Peters, a real producer from the ‘70s. At the time of the film’s setting, Peters was dating Barbra Streisand, which Bradley’s character mentions to Gary. Jon approved Bradley Cooper’s casting as himself after Paul Anderson agreed to incorporate Peters’ pickup line in the film. 

The film’s movie star Jack Holden is based on real-life star William Holden. Paul confirmed that Jack was a stand-in for William as he didn’t feel comfortable using the actor’s real name. 

Anderson based the character Joel Wachs on a politician with the same name who ran for council member in Los Angeles. Wachs appears in Licorice Pizza after Alana quits selling waterbeds and joins Joel’s campaign. 

Joel calls Alana to a restaurant to hide from the people that he was meeting with his boyfriend. The real-life Wachs remained closeted until 1999, when he ran for mayor and became a fierce advocate for gay rights. 

Lucy Dolittle is based on Lucille Ball, star of I Love Lucy. Andersen thought it appropriate to tweak her name a little bit. Lucy’s appearance in the film is inspired by Lucille’s appearance alongside Gary Goetzman in Yours, Mine, and Ours

B. Mitchel Reed, the disc jockey who performs a live radio ad for Gary’s waterbed business, is based on a real-life disc jockey with the same name from the 1970s.