Scene It Before: Villa de Leon from The Gambler

One of L.A.’s most misidentified buildings makes an appearance in the 2014 flick, which comes to DVD this week
Villa de Leon in January 2013 - The Gambler
Villa de Leon in January 2013

Photograph by Lindsay Blake

It has been called L.A.’s most misidentified building. The massive cream-colored mansion that towers above the PCH just east of Coastline Drive in the Pacific Palisades is not The Getty Villa as most passersby assume, but a 10,277-square-foot private residence known as Villa de Leon. (The Getty Villa is situated behind and due north of Villa de Leon, hidden from the road.) Tourists who mistake the two are in good company. Heck, even The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal have gotten it wrong.

So it is fitting that director Rupert Wyatt who, according to a 2014 Los Angeles Times article, wanted to “subvert people’s concept of what L.A. is” in The Gambler, chose to feature Villa de Leon as a locale. In the movie, which was released on DVD this past Tuesday, the estate portrays an elite underground gambling den. Both the interior and exterior of the property appear onscreen.

Mark Wahlberg in a screen capture from "The Gambler"
Mark Wahlberg in a screen capture from “The Gambler”

The 35-room Beaux Arts-style stunner located at 17948 Porto Marina Way was designed by Kenneth MacDonald Jr. for a wool magnate named Leon Kauffman in 1927. The overwhelming structure took five years to complete and cost Kauffman $1 million.

A screen capture from "The Gambler"
A screen capture from “The Gambler”

Villa de Leon also appears in Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi” music video and Rod Stewart’s 2012 Christmas special, Rod Stewart: Merry Christmas, Baby. It is most often utilized for photo shoots, though, and such stars as Angelina Jolie, Reese Witherspoon, Britney Spears, Victoria Beckham, Heidi Klum, Robert Pattinson, Robert Downey Jr., Katy Perry and Freida Pinto have all posed on the premises.

The Gambler made use of several of Southern California’s lesser known locales, too. The unique house on stilts where titular character Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) lives can be found at 821 N. Beverly Glen Boulevard in Bel-Air. A final poignant scene takes place at St. Vincent Court, one of my favorite spots that sits tucked away between Hill Street and Broadway in downtown L.A. And Jim gets his comeuppance at the bottom of a waterless pool located inside the YWCA on Marengo Avenue in Pasadena. The structure, which was designed by Julia Morgan in 1920, has sat vacant and dilapidated for the past 18 years, but there are plans in the works to turn it into a boutique hotel.

Some more well-known locations also appear in the film. The Los Altos Apartments were utilized as the home of Jim’s student, Amy Phillips (Brie Larson). Jim’s mother, Roberta (Jessica Lange), lives at the Playboy Mansion, though it was shot from angles that make it virtually unrecognizable onscreen. Jim and Amy also spend time at Joshua Tree National Park and the Morongo Casino Resort & Spa, located just outside of Palm Springs.

The lyrics to Kenny Rogers’ 1978 song “The Gambler” state that you’ve got to “know when to walk away and know when to run.” I am glad Rupert Wyatt chose not to go the route of so many recent productions by running away from Los Angeles and shooting elsewhere. When it comes to its locations, The Gambler is a winner.


Lindsay Blake is an actress, writer, celebrity admirer and Los Angeles enthusiast who contributes to CityThink each Thursday. Her true love is filming locations, and she founded the Web site IAMNOTASTALKER in 2007 to document her vast findings on the subject. For more “stalking” fun, you can follow Lindsay on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

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