SPOILER ALERT: The following article contains spoilers from the film Oppenheimer. Read at your own risk!
After the blockbuster opening weekend of Greta Gerwig’s Barbie and Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, the internet is still raving about both films in what may be the biggest pop culture moment of the year. However according to Google Trends, Barbie is much more popular in the Bay Area – a curious statistic considering Oppenheimer’s many local connections.
As a UC Berkeley grad and former tour guide campus ambassador, I went into Oppenheimer simply excited for some campus cameos. I was then pleasantly surprised to see how much of the plot actually took place at my former campus, and my rusty “GO BEARS” reflex was reawakened… So this article is for the history buffs, and rest assured we’ll be back to our regularly scheduled restaurant roundups and SF content in no time.
Ok, so whether or not you managed to see the film in Nolan’s favorite IMAX 70mm, Oppenheimer is a compelling watch. It tells the riveting story of theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) and his development of the atomic bomb during World War II. Over the course of a relentless 3 hours, Nolan takes the audience through Oppenheimer’s studies in Europe, his subsequent professorship at UC Berkeley and CalTech, and his leadership of the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, all intercut with black-and-white scenes of the 1954 hearing that revoked his security clearance.
Also, J. Robert Oppenheimer’s brother Frank has a surprising connection to San Francisco… more on that later.
Filming at UC Berkeley
Berkeleyside reported that film crews were seen transforming the university’s physics building for Oppenheimer’s exterior shots back in May 2022. They brought in gorgeous antique cars and carefully-placed props like potted plants to cover modern-day bike racks and recycling bins.
The film includes glimpses of Berkeley’s iconic Sather Tower, AKA the Campanile; the archway leading to Faculty Glade where students roll down “4.0 Hill” for good luck; and Edwards Field, home of Cal Track & Field in real life, but which stood in for the University of Chicago in the film. For an extra-authentic touch in the classroom sets, Berkeley students will recognize the university’s rickety old wooden chairs with tiny built-in desks… a fun Easter egg for anyone who’s tried to balance a laptop on one.
J. Robert Oppenheimer at Berkeley
J. Robert Oppenheimer was born in New York City to Jewish immigrants from Germany, studying at Harvard, Cambridge, and Göttingen before joining UC Berkeley’s physics department between 1929 and 1943. He was hired at Berkeley by physicist Raymond T. Birge, who is the namesake for the university’s Birge Hall. Incidentally, Birge is also the one who said “one Jew in the department is enough” when Oppenheimer tried to get his colleague Robert Serber (played by Michael Arangano) a job there.
It was in Berkeley’s Physics South Building, previously known as LeConte Hall (and inexplicably home to my sophomore year Shakespeare lecture) that Oppenheimer began discussions for the Manhattan Project. In fact, there’s still a plaque on the wall outside Oppenheimer’s former office commemorating the location. It reads:
In these corner offices, 1929-1942, J. Robert Oppenheimer “created the greatest school of theoretical physics the world has ever known” – H.A. Bethe
While living in Berkeley as a bachelor, Oppenheimer resided at the Berkeley Faculty Club located on campus. The beautiful and historic building is a members’ club for Berkeley alumni and faculty, but it has 23 guest rooms available where anyone can stay the night and enjoy a piece of campus history.
Oppenheimer also stayed at 2665 Shasta Road in the Berkeley Hills, where his landlord Mary Ellen Washburn threw extravagant parties for Bay Area intellectuals and where Oppenheimer met Jean Tatlock. Perhaps not coincidentally, the home was recently listed for $1.5M.
Berkeleyside also identified two nearby Kensington residences as the homes where Oppenheimer lived with his wife Kitty: they are at 10 Kenilworth Court and 1 Eagle Hill Road.
Of course, one of Berkeley’s biggest names was a frequent presence in the film: Ernest Lawrence (Josh Hartnett), who invented the cyclotron that enabled the discovery of 16 new elements on the periodic table including the aptly-named lawrencium, berkelium, and californium.
Lawrence founded the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in 1931, which continues to operate today in the Berkeley Hills overlooking the university (and, by the way, anyone can book a room at the lab’s guest house).
And yes, Josh Harnett is possibly the best Lawrence has ever looked.
Psychiatrist Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh) had a tumultuous relationship with Oppenheimer beginning in 1936 while he was still teaching at Cal. Her father was a medieval literature scholar who taught at both Stanford and Berkeley.
Tatlock was a brilliant student at Williams College in Berkeley and later at Stanford Medical School, ultimately working at SF’s Mount Zion Hospital (today part of UCSF). Oppenheimer and Tatlock even got drinks at the Top of the Mark in San Francisco.
Tatlock tragically died by suicide in her SF apartment at 1405 Montgomery St, an emotional moment in Oppenheimer. For more about her story it’s worth reading this fantastic SFGATE article, as the film really only affords limited glimpses into her life.
More Oppenheimer characters at UC Berkeley
Plenty of characters in Oppenheimer are worth a Google search to discover more local connections. For example the accomplished Kitty Oppenheimer (Emily Blunt) worked in Berkeley’s US Department of Agriculture Lab, and Ruth Tolman (Louise Lombard) got her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology there in 1937.
Haakon Chevalier (Jefferson Hall) taught French Literature at UC Berkeley but eventually lost his position there in 1950 due to his communist leanings. He and Oppenheimer were close friends, and his offer to pass information to the Soviets was used against Oppenheimer in the 1954 security hearing.
The quotation on the plaque in Physics South comes from Hans Bethe (Gustaf Skarsgård), one of the physicists who came to Berkeley for the first discussions of the atomic bomb in July 1942. Other physicists who frequented Berkeley at this time were Luis Walter Alvarez (Alex Wolff), who constructed the 40-foot proton linear accelerator; and Edward Teller (Benny Safdie), later known as the “father of the hydrogen bomb.”
A favorite character among many Oppenheimer viewers was Albert Einstein (Tom Conti), who we see in a pivotal moment at the Institute for Advanced Science in Princeton, NJ. Although not depicted in the movie, Einstein’s son Hans Albert Einstein was a professor of hydraulic engineering at UC Berkeley from 1947 until his death in 1973.
Frank Oppenheimer and the Exploratorium
Of course most of the Bay Area action centers around UC Berkeley, but San Francisco has another interesting connection that is worth delving into: it involves J. Robert Oppenheimer’s brother Frank, who is known for founding the Exploratorium.
Frank Oppenheimer (Dylan Arnold) joined the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos in 1941 and then taught physics at the University of Minnesota. He was forced to resign from teaching in 1949 due to McCarthyism and worked as a cattle rancher in Colorado for the next decade.
Eventually Frank returned to teaching in 1957 as a high school physics teacher and later as a professor at University of Colorado. During these years he developed a “library of experiments” for his students to learn scientific processes guided by their own curiosity. This, along with his study of European museums in the 1960s, inspired him to open San Francisco’s Exploratorium at the then-vacant Palace of Fine Arts in 1969. He nurtured it until his death in 1985, and the museum eventually moved to its current location on Pier 15 in 2013.