11 Best Portrayals of Wisconsinites in Movie History


It’s not often you’ll see a movie about Wisconsin. And when you do come across such a film – you probably won’t be happy with how our state and our people are portrayed.

(Check out our article on the worst depictions of Wisconsin in movies for more on that).

During college, I had an internship at a Hollywood production company called Jersey Films. One day I overhead a phone conversation a producer’s personal assistant was having with a screenwriter about changing a script.

“Stacy’s not sure if Wisconsin is the right setting for the story. She just thinks it’s kind of boring.”

What? Boring! I was seriously miffed. And get this… It was a screenplay about people working in a cheese factory! Where else would a movie like that take place?

The good news is that even though movies about Wisconsin are few and far between, there are some great movies featuring Wisconsinites you can actually admire. Check out 11 of our favorites…

1. Titanic

Titanic_posterJames Cameron’s Oscar-winning epic, Titanic, turned Leonardo DiCaprio into the biggest hearthrob in America. And where else would such a romantic character come from but Wisconsin?

DiCaprio played Jack Dawson, a drifter from Chippewa Falls who was also an aspiring artist. Jack was a third-class passenger who meets Kate Winslet’s character, Rose DeWitt, a first-class rich girl from Philadelphia. She is being forced to marry someone else. Of course Jack and Rose fall in love and then — Well, I don’t have to explain the plot to you – everyone has seen it.

It’s a classic tale of lovers from different social classes. It’s Romeo and Juliet on a gigantic sinking ship. It will have you crying “Why Jack, why?” as his body sinks to the bottom of the ocean floor.

Before Jack dies of hypothermia, he shows off his art skills and sketches a nude portrait of Rose. If Jack were one of our 7 types of men from Wisconsin, he’d probably be the Witty Wisconsin Hipster. Although he mentions ice fishing with his late father on Lake Wissota – so he could be part Outdoorsman too.

Sidenote – History buffs would like me to point out that Lake Wissota is a man-made lake that didn’t exist until five years after the Titanic sank.

2. Annie Hall

AnniehallposterIf Jack Dawson is the ideal Wisconsin man, then Woody Allen’s Annie Hall would have to be the ideal Wisconsin woman. Interestingly, both characters come from Chippewa Falls.

Annie Hall is arguably one of Allen’s greatest films – if not the best one. The romantic comedy starts Diane Keaton in the title roll. While Allen has said he was disappointed in the end result of the film, Keaton has called it her favorite roll.

In the film, Woody Allen’s character, Alvy, even travels to Wisconsin to meet Annie’s parents and brother while also visiting UW Madison where she went to school.

Allen and Keaton were once romantically involved, and some think the film is somewhat biographical. But Woody denies that – despite the evidence. He denies a lot of things.

Annie Hall was a smart, funny, ambitious, talented and attractive girl. She has many of the qualities we listed in our article about reasons to date a Wisconsin woman.

3. Swingers

Swingers_Promo_StillAnother classic Wisconsin girl appears in the cult, indie comedy Swingers. The movie was written, directed and stars Jon Favreau along with his longtime buddy, Vince Vaughn. In fact, Swingers is the movie that first gave us the “Vince Vaughn persona” that made him famous.

The Wisconsin connection doesn’t come until the end of the film. After struggling to get over a breakup and meet women the entire movie, Jon Favreau’s character, Mike, meets Lorraine – played by Heather Graham – at a swing dancing party.

In this case, Mike finally hits it off with someone and eventually lands a date with Lorraine. She’s just moved to Los Angeles from Wisconsin and like Mike – she’s also just getting out of a relationship. Plus, she’s not into playing the silly dating games that everyone else is playing.

Yet another example of how Wisconsin girls are so money and they don’t even know it!

Heather Graham is a Wisconsinite in real-life too. She spent her childhood in Milwaukee. Find out about other Wisconsin celebrities in our post listing 40 Famous People from Wisconsin.

4. The American President

The_American_President_(movie_poster)We’ve yet to see a cheesehead reside in the White House – at least in real life. But as far as movie presidents go, one of the best was indeed a Wisconsinite.

In The American President, Michael Douglas plays President Andrew Shepherd who is winding up his first term and looking towards re-election.

Shepherd is a former Wisconsin Governor, taught history at the University of Wisconsin and is a big Green Bay Packers fan.

This is a movie about love and politics – but not exactly in a Monica Lewinsky/Bill Clinton sort of way. Annette Benning plays an environmental lobbyist who falls in love with the widowed president – and vice versa.

Aaron Sorkin wrote the screenplay for The American President, and it’s likely that the movie helped influence his TV drama – The West Wing.  Sorkin has also said he was often high on crack when writing the movie. So there’s that too.

6. Public Enemies

PEPOSTERsmPublic Enemies is the true crime story of one of the most prolific bank robbers in U.S. history. The 2009 film from Michael Mann tells the tale of John Dillinger – played by Johnny Depp.

Quite a few pivotal moments in Dillinger’s life-story took place in Wisconsin. During production of Public Enemies, numerous scenes were also filmed in the state – including locations in Oshkosh, Milwaukee and Madison.

One of the biggest scenes involved the shootout at the Little Bohemian Lodge in Manitowish Waters.

The real-life Wisconsinite who performs a big role in this film is Billie Frechette, Dillinger’s love interest.

Played by award-winning French actress Marion Cotillard, Frechette was born in Neopit, Wisconsin and grew up on the Menominee Indian Reservation. Billie Frechette passed away in Shawano in 1969 and is buried there in Woodlawn Cemetery.

7. Reservoir Dogs

Reservoir_dogs_ver1Quentin Tarantino’s first big film as a director features one of my personal favorite movie characters of all time – and that character happens to be from Wisconsin.

In Reservoir Dogs, a group of criminals brought together for a diamond heist are given colored code names to protect their identities – like Mr. Orange, Mr. Blue, and Mr. Pink. Mr. White was played by Harvey Keitel, and it’s one of the two most important roles in the movie.

After the robbery goes awry, the gang determines that there’s a snitch in their midst. One of the men is an undercover cop. The audience finds out Mr. Orange is the informant early in the film. Orange and his partner deduce that White is probably from Milwaukee – because he’s a Brewers fan.

Even though others are suspicious of Mr. Orange’s true identity, Mr. White refuses to believe it because he’s developed a relationship with Mr. Orange and trusts him. Plus, Mr. Orange has been shot in the stomach, and White thinks that’s proof enough that he can be trusted as one of the bad guys.

The movie’s climax involves a confusing Mexican shootout that inspired the question – “Who Shot Nice Guy Eddie?” Things don’t end well for Mr. White or Mr. Orange. Find out what I mean in the clip below. Caution – NSFW – lots of blood and cursing.

Watch the Ending of Reservoir Dogs

8. Up in the Air

Up_in_the_Air_PosterIn the 2009 comedy-drama Up in the Air, George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham – a man who basically flies around the country firing people on behalf of big corporations that are downsizing.

One of the ideas behind the film is that Bingham is traveling so often he never settles down to make a home or start a family – and he prefers it that way.

Towards the end we learn that Ryan Bingham is originally from a town near Waupaca, Wisconsin. He goes back there for his sister’s wedding with his love interest in the film.

During that time he visits his old school and reminisces. He also has to convince his future brother-in-law to go through with the marriage – and in the process starts to see what’s missing in his own life.

Clooney’s character could be just about any Wisconsinite who leaves a small town only to realize the value of growing up in such a place.

9. Feed the Fish

Feed the FishIf you aren’t from the state – you may not be able to come home to Wisconsin – but you can still discover what home feels like.

The 2009 film Feed the Fish follows the life of Joe Peterson, a children’s author with writer’s block and other issues. When things really start falling apart, Joe agrees to go on a holiday trip to Sturgeon Bay with his best friend (and ex-girlfriend’s brother). But then Joe ends up on his own when his buddy gets hospitalized with a badger bite – seriously.

While in Sturgeon Bay, Joe witnesses a Polar Plunge and meets a bunch of colorful characters – including the sheriff – played by Green Bay native Tony Shalhoub. Much of this movie was filmed on location in Door County.

The film’s director Michael Matzdorff is also a Green Bay native. This was his first feature film as a director, but Matzdorff has worked on many other recognizable movies and TV shows – including Shalhoub’s TV crime comedy Monk.

Watch the Trailer for Feed the Fish

10. Lars and the Real Girl

Lars_real_girlThis quirky comedy is about a Wisconsin man who falls in love with an anatomically correct sex doll. Sounds creepy – but this film is actually known for being quite sensitive and sweet.

In fact, a critic for the New York Post described Lars and the Real Girl as “an offbeat comedy that plays as if Preston Sturges came back to life and collaborated with the Coen Brothers on an updated version of the Jimmy Stewart film Harvey.”

Lars, played by Ryan Gosling, is a socially-challenged guy who lives in his brother’s garage. One day, he tells his brother and sister-in-law that he’s met a Danish woman on the internet who is bound to a wheelchair. Of course – she’s actually a sex doll that Lars has named Bianca.

Throughout the film, people learn to accept Lars and Bianca and even have a send-off party for the doll when Lars is able to move on. At first you might think this movie portrays Wisconsinites as wacky weirdos – but that’s not the case at all. Instead, it shows how people in a small community can come together to support someone who needs a little help, and in the process, grow a little themselves too.

Watch the Official Trailer for Lars and the Real Girl

11. The Straight Story

The_StraigthStoryThis movie is based on the true story of a man named Alvin Straight who rode across Iowa and Wisconsin on a riding lawnmower so that he could visit his dying brother – who lived in Mount Zion. It’s a sentimental tale about the strong bond between family members.

Straight took his John Deere tractor because his poor eyesight prohibited him from having a driver’s license. When his first attempt at the trip fails, he blows up his lawn mower and buys a new one – then tries again.

David Lynch directed this movie. He’s the mind behind some slightly warped and often-disturbing stories like the TV show Twin Peaks, and films such as Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive, Eraserhead and The Elephant Man.

He’s known for being experimental – and it’s interesting that Lynch himself called this movie his “most experimental” as well as one of his best. Yet this movie was actually Rated G and distributed by Disney – very un-Lynch like. But here’s what makes it so experimental…

During production they followed the same 240 mile journey that the real Alvin Straight took – essentially recreating the entire trip. Actor Richard Farnsworth even earned an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Straight.

Watch the Trailer for The Straight Story

What Are Your Favorite Wisconsin Movie References?

We know there are many other Wisconsin movie references and Wisconsin movie characters out there that we’ve left off this list. We’re also working on a list of popular comedies that have a Wisconsin connection. They include everything from Bridesmaids to Wayne’s World.

If you can think of a movie in which Wisconsin or a Wisconsinite plays a role – tell us about it in the comments below!

In the meantime, we also found this cool YouTube video that features a ton of movie clips with Wisconsin references. Check it out!

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  1. For Feed the Fish – He doesn’t stay in Sturgeon Bay in the movie -he picks up a shuttle in Sturge and stays “at the end of the earth” which is towards the tip of the peninsula – and the polar bear plunge they witness is “Jacksonport’s” (though it was actually filmed in Gills Rock).

  2. Our favorite Wisconsin movie is the Great Outdoors with John Candy and Dan Aykroyd. A bunch of Wisconsin references in that movie.

    A favorite Wisconsin quote is from “Stripes” where they compare Czechoslovakia to Wisconsin. – But I got beat up in Wisconsin!

  3. Kevin Milbach says

    Casey, look into a cheesy 1975 movie called the Giant Spider Invasion. It has Allan Hale and a cast of B movie greats! It was filmed in Gleason, close to Rhinelander.

    • Oh we know it well, Kevin. Grace actually wrote about it in her post about the WORST depictions of WI in movies.
      However, if you like campy low-budget horror flicks (as well as MST3K) Giant Spider Invasion is awesome!

  4. Gus Polinski, Polka King of the Midwest! He’s “very big in Sheboygan.”

  5. I grew up outside of Merrill where Giant Spider Invasion was filmed and produced. Having Alan Hale (The Skipper from Gilligan’s Island) in town was a big deal back then.

    Rebane Studios also went on to do another film called The Capture of Bigfoot filmed in that area. Low budget, bad acting, horrid special effects, unbelievable accents and weird scripts, but they both made Mystery Science Theater. Wisconsin camp at its finest!

    The Giant Spider Invasion 1975 – in 12 min: http://youtu.be/_nIZYuHhzwo

    Fast Food Films – Ep 3 Part 3 – The Capture of Bigfoot: http://youtu.be/JVE47yyGBRA

    The Capture Of Bigfoot: http://youtu.be/0U-yjxAw2ig

  6. I Love Trouble was partially shot in Wisconsin. The scene where they nearly get run over was filmed at the Baraboo Courthouse Square, though the car was going the wrong way, as 3 sides of the square are 1 way streets. Also the scene where Julia Roberts is at the lake and is “naked” in front of the boy scouts was filmed at Devils Lake just outside Baraboo. Also, the facility they tour and she later works at to get some info is supposed to be in Spring Green. Reportedly one of the boy scouts got $5000 to say 4 words.

    Also for Public Enemies, one of the scenes was shot at Mirror Lake just outside of Wisconsin Dells, in addition to the Bohemian scenes.

  7. Starman. I enjoyed the move, but the misuse and abuse of WI references drove me nuts. Not the least of which was the characters’ (all of them) total inability to correctly pronounce Chequamagon. On several occasions, they also indicated they were in one place when a local would know they were not there.

    Still, it was fun. My wife and I still look at each other once in a while and say, “little bit,” as we do the little bit finger twitch.

  8. In “Contact”, Jodi Foster’s character was from De Pere, WI. Mentioned in early minutes of the movie.

    • You’re right. In fact, I think they say she went to college in De Pere – which would mean she attended St. Norbert. I didn’t realize they had an Extra Terrestrial Studies program there! 😉

  9. Albert Brooks’ mockumentary MOVIE, REAL PEOPLE. laughs about Wisconsin when telling which family is chosen to follow around 24/7.
    “Our research was so thorough the computers actually coughed up two perfect families. If I were a liar, I could tell you that we chose one over the other for complicated psychological reasons. But I’m a comedian, not a liar. I can afford the luxury of honesty. The Feltons lived in Wisconsin; the Yeagers lived in Arizona. YOU spend the winter in Wisconsin…”
    [Albert and the researchers all laugh]

    In the movie STRIPES, with Bill Murray as John Winger:
    “C’mon, it’s Czechoslovakia. We zip in, we pick ’em up, we zip right out again. We’re not going to Moscow. It’s Czechoslovakia. It’s like going into Wisconsin.
    Russell Ziskey: Well I got the shit kicked out of me in Wisconsin once. Forget it!”

  10. Just watching Aliens and a reference is made to Little Chute, WIsconsin where Ripley’s daughter was to have been cremated and interred, so this is the second time that James Cameron has made a reference to Wisconsin in his films, of course Titanic being the other.

  11. There was a movie made in Oshkosh, I think it was When dreams come true. About 1982.

  12. The movie “Bog” was filmed in Harshaw Wisconsin, with some footage of Minocqua. Cult classic from the late 70’s, or early 80s.

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