The scriptwriters got it all wrong


An Illusion review by Joan Ellis

                High on the list of situations I thought would never apply to me is that of being a relic from another era.  But here I am.  I went to one of those women’s colleges delivered to us in “Mona Lisa Smile” by Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Marcia Gay Harden, and now I feel like a character in a phony period piece.  Screenwriters Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal got it all wrong.  

                Professors and administrators of the early ‘50s were all too well aware that there was no point in exhorting their students to achieve in a culture that simply didn’t accept achievement by women.  But they refused to go gentle into that particular night, so they urged us (in economics, politics, history, art history) to be skeptical, non-conforming, rebellious, and above all, they believed that in communities across the country the power to make change would always lie in the hands of women.  We might – except for the teachers, actors, writers, and painters among us – all become “only” wives and mothers, but we would be educated ones, determined to pass the goal of a good education along to our offspring. 

                So it comes as something as a surprise to watch students scurrying across the fictionalized Wellesley campus in “Mona Lisa Smile” like cockroaches wearing little beanies.  The faculty and administration, under President Jocelyn Carr (Marian Seldes) are so buttoned up in tradition that the arrival of California art historian Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts) becomes a threat to their entrenchment.  The truth is that this era of HUAC, McCarthy, and Alger Hiss, encouraged students in those colleges to try out their radicalism in all kinds of guises.

                Julia Roberts has such an air of vulnerability and decency that we blame not her, but the casting director and scriptwriter.  Roberts brings the movie alive only when she decides to lead her students into the world of modern art, but seeing a Jackson Pollock painting just wasn’t a measure of the time.  Marian Seldes has the distinction of being one of the only actresses now working who can capture a WASP perfectly, while to her credit, Julia Stiles alone refuses to use a little girl voice for her role.  

                Do you remember anyone telling you what time to go to bed?  Did you wear a beanie?  Did your friends giggle?  Did your administration practice thought control?  The ‘50s were a time of hugely important world events when women students were being taught not to achieve within that framework, but to educate, nourish, argue with, and be interesting to the men who would. 

                The movie fails not because of its cast, which is full of fine actors, but because it has a dull script whose writers missed the cultural mandate of the times completely.  With a straight face, they posit that the ‘50s saw no point to educating women unless they planned to become lawyers.  You blew it, guys.  

Copyright (c) Illusion

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