Inspired by Hillary Rodham Clinton, Smile Bares Wellesley’s Quaint Past

Mike Newell’s Mona Lisa Smile , from a screenplay by Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal, reportedly had as its genesis a magazine article about Hillary Rodham Clinton’s years at Wellesley College in the 1960’s. The screenwriters decided to go back a decade and set the film during the much-maligned 1950’s, the Eisenhower era-a time when women were still being exhorted to become happy housewives and forget that they’d capably (and profitably) performed men’s jobs during World War II. It may strike some people as strange that two male screenwriters and a male director have collaborated to fashion one of the strongest feminist statements to appear on the screen this year. Of course, it’s the past that’s being bashed, and not always fairly and accurately, such as in the end-credit displays of some of the silliest happy-homemaker commercials of the period, along with some footage of Mrs. America contests.

It should be noted that Wellesley graduates have been, for the most part, an elite group of young women with more options than most of their counterparts in humbler circumstances. Then again, more families managed to subsist on one salary in the 1950’s than today; now, many women enter the workplace not so much out of political desire as out of sheer economic necessity. This is the dirty little secret of the supposedly booming American economy: Most middle-class workers are not paid enough to support their families in the manner to which the media have made them accustomed.

Having issued this introductory disclaimer, I must say that I enjoyed Mona Lisa Smile enormously, in large part because of the sheer virtuosity of the largely female cast, stranded by some infernal time machine in a period when men were expected to lead on the dance floor and everywhere else. Wellesley’s current administration cooperated fully with the producers, and why not? There is no contemporary institutional disgrace in admitting the fact that a half-century ago, according to Mr. Konner, “they were doing French literature in the morning, and how to serve tea to your husband’s boss in the afternoon.” This satiric tidbit only attests to the progress made in women’s education since then.

The movie asks us to assume that into this cauldron of conformity comes Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts), an emissary of enlightenment from the advanced civilization of California, where she studied art history at U.C. Berkeley. Mr. Konner explains, “As recently as 50 years ago, New England was still an extension of the Old World, while California really was the New World. So we thought that would be the perfect place for Katherine to have grown up, both in terms of its less rigid class distinctions and more permissive social attitudes.”

Back in the real-life 50’s, this outer-borough provincial did not realize that the California of the Nixons and the Knowlands was so much more culturally advanced than the New England of the Kennedys and the Lodges. Also, I labored under the delusion that Jackson Pollock’s action paintings, which so deeply distressed Wellesley’s trustees in the movie, were more at home in nearby Manhattan than in far-off Los Angeles. But granting all the movie’s geographical and cultural assumptions, and even buying into all the rhetoric about young women having options besides early marriage-and even the option of career supplements to early marriage-I couldn’t help feeling that the movie was a bit smug in implying that people were so silly back then in comparison to how savvy they are now. Today, the big problem is not so much whether young women have a choice, but whether they can reasonably expect to have it all. And some things haven’t changed much at all-for example, women in America still employ surgical procedures to reduce the size of their feet for man-hunting purposes. Shades of old China!

Katherine herself is one of the characters caught up in the buzz saw of society’s conventional expectations. She’s been engaged and even had affairs, but she has always hesitated before taking the final step, even with an engagement ring on her finger. Hence, she approaches her mostly upscale students in a state of middle-class vulnerability. Katherine’s first class is an embarrassing fiasco as her students rattle off the names of paintings cleverly memorized from the school’s traditional lesson plan. (Katherine herself has never been to Europe to see firsthand many of the art masterpieces she teaches from slides and picture books.)

Her main nemesis is Betty Warren (Kirsten Dunst), the well-connected editor of the school newspaper, who commissions a mean-spirited front-page assault on Amanda Armstrong (Juliet Stevenson), a progressive nurse with sotto voce lesbian leanings, for issuing contraceptives to presumably promiscuous students. Betty gets Amanda fired and warns her new professor that her hands-on trustee mother can do as much to her if she dares to give Betty a bad grade. The other major student characters are Joan Brandwyn (Julia Stiles), Katherine’s brightest student; Giselle Levy (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the defiantly faculty-bedding girl on campus; and Connie Baker (Ginnifer Goodwin), the insecure tag-along member of the group. The young women all bond with the outrageously bitchy Betty to form the school’s inner circle, which seems initially improbable.

But by degrees Betty, cowering under her mother’s domination, is pressured into a school-ending marriage to a faithless husband, whom she eventually divorces-much to her mother’s consternation-and then runs off to Greenwich Village, where she shares an apartment with Giselle. For her part, Joan applies to Yale Law School at Katherine’s suggestion; she’s accepted, but declines to attend when she also marries early, following her husband to the University of Pennsylvania, where he’s been admitted to study law. Katherine is disappointed in Joan’s decision, but Joan reminds the idealistic professor that she must respect the choices of others if she wants to be free to make her own. Katherine proceeds to follow her own rules by abandoning two male lovers and Wellesley College itself, after the trustees impose onerous conditions on a renewal of her contract. She embarks instead on a trip to Europe, where, presumably, she will try to find herself.

A particularly cautionary figure in this feminist morality tale is the repressed and frustrated Nancy Abbey (Marcia Gay Harden), who instructs the girls in speech, elocution, poise and homemaking. Ms Abbey carries the burden of the period’s perceived absurdities as she almost literally withers on the vine.

Moan Lisa Smile is in all respects a middle-brow treasure, and I must confess I was all too relieved that none of the young characters encountered pregnancy or suicide as punitive strokes of melodrama. Their school year at Wellesley was fraught enough.

Girls In Pearls

Peter Webber’s Girl With a Pearl Earring seems to have been made to appeal to viewers who believe that a prestigious painting is infinitely more important than a mere movie that celebrates the exalted existence of this painting. Consequently, a first-rate cast tends to be submerged in a painterly cosmos that focuses on the trail-blazing domesticity of Vermeer’s artistic vision. Colin Firth as Johannes Vermeer and Scarlett Johansson as his maid, model and muse, Griet (the subject of the erotically elusive painting), become subdued figures in the Flemish landscape. The muffled disorder of Vermeer’s household is dominated by his commercially astute mother-in-law, Maria Thins (Judy Parfitt), and bedeviled by his mentally unstable and frequently pregnant wife, Catharina (Essie Davis). Add to the mix the painter’s wealthy and lecherous patron, van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson).

For her part, Griet has her hands full fending off Catharina’s jealous rages, van Ruijven’s exploratory gropings and Vermeer’s piercing eyes, which seem to offer a creative assessment of her inner being. Griet even finds the time to respond tentatively to the courtly overtures of the honorable butcher boy, Pieter (Cillian Murphy). Unfortunately, Ms. Johansson never breaks out of her shell in this role, as she did so memorably in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation . The film is the poorer for it, Vermeer or no Vermeer.

For 3-D, Dial M

On the occasion of its 50th anniversary, Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder (1954) is being revived in its original 3-D format at the Film Forum on Jan. 2 to 8 (209 West Houston Street; 212-727-8110). When I finally saw the 3-D version back in the 60’s (more than a decade after I’d seen the standard 2-D format), I noted in my Village Voice column that in 2-D, Dial M is minor Hitchcock; in 3-D, it is major Hitchcock. The extra dimension exploited the film’s limitations of a restricted visual field and a crowded set design by endowing the objects floating in 3-D’s otherwise empty space with an ominous autonomy.

In this neat and snug spectacle, Grace Kelly plays Hitchcock’s quintessential blond lady in distress; Ray Milland, the suave and charismatic villain; Robert Cummings, a bumbling adulterer turned chivalric defender; Anthony Dawson, an amusingly manipulated opportunist reduced to an ill-fated hit-man; and John Williams, a marvelously droll Scotland Yard inspector who steals the show just when everything seems lost. It’s all great fun through the magic of Hitch’s ultra-functional mise-en-scène .

Judy’s Back!

Judy Garland (1922-1969) is the subject of a sparkling nine-film revival at the American Museum of the Moving Image (35th Avenue and 36th Street, Astoria, 718-784-4520), and it’s well worth a visit to see her at the peak, more or less, of her impressive and now-haunting talent. My own favorite Garland vehicle is Vincente Minnelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) (Dec. 27 and 28, and Jan. 1). I much prefer St. Louis to the vastly and almost universally overrated The Wizard of Oz (1939), directed by Victor Fleming (Dec. 20, 21, 26 and 31). Indeed, I prefer every other Garland entry in this series to Oz , including one more from Minnelli, The Clock (1945) (Dec. 28), and Busby Berkeley’s Babes in Arms , (1939) (Dec. 20 and 29) and Strike Up the Band (1940) (Dec. 21 and 30). George Cukor’s A Star Is Born (1954) (Jan. 3 and 4) and Charles Walters’ Easter Parade (1948) (Jan. 3) also made the cut.

Garland’s male consorts in the series include Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, James Mason, Robert Walker and Mickey Rooney-not exactly chopped liver themselves-not to mention such period tunesmiths as Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg, Irving Berlin, Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. Not a hip-hop virtuoso among them!

Clarion Call

Ellen Drew (1915-2003) recently passed away without much fanfare. Drew came along at a time when her brand of wholesome good looks were a dime a dozen in the 1930’s Hollywood flesh-grinder. Not surprisingly, she was quickly consigned to stereotyped sunny parts. Perhaps the one shining moment in Drew’s 21-year, 40-movie career was a close-up that would have made Norma Desmond green with envy. It occurs in Preston Sturges’ screwball office-and-neighborhood, rags-to-riches comedy, Christmas in July (1940). Dick Powell plays Drew’s ambitious sap of a boyfriend, who mistakenly thinks that he’s won a coffee-slogan radio contest with the brilliant aphorism “If you can’t sleep, it isn’t the coffee, it’s the bunk.” The audience already knows that he is the victim of a practical joke perpetrated by a trio of office pranksters. But his boss is deceived as well, and our hero is promoted to the front office. When the hoax is discovered and the boss is just about to withdraw the promotion, the poor lug’s girlfriend (Drew), who’s been hanging sweetly on his arm all through the movie, suddenly steps forward and gobbles up the entire screen making an impassioned plea for her boyfriend and all the young men who are never given a chance even to fail in their quest for the big prize. Drew’s emotional outburst is a stunner in the context of this witty but wacky farce, and it still resonates on the screen 63 years later-a proletarian clarion call to America to live up to its billing as the land of opportunity. Thank you, Ellen Drew.