Mona Lisa Smile
starring Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Juliet Stevenson, Dominic West, and Marcia Gay Harden
written by Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal
directed by Mike Newell
In the autumn of 1953 Catherine Watson (Julia Roberts) came from Californiato the conservative east coast women’s Wellesley Collegeto teach Art History and discovered things other than what she expected. She came because she wanted to make a difference in the lives of women who were said to be the brightest women in America. She wanted to play a role in shaping the next generation of American leadership and instead found a prep school for debutantes.
The story is a noble one about a special, dedicated educator that reminds me of other such stories: Dead Poets Society(Robin Williams and Ethan Hawke), To Sir With Love (Sidney Poitier,1967), The Blackboard Jungle (Glenn Ford and Sidney Poitier, 1955), Stand and Deliver (Edward James Olmos, 1988), and even The Miracle Worker (Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke, 1962, about Helen Keller and her teacher, Anne Sullivan). But it is also bears a message, or a testimonial about art and the struggle by artists and their advocates to have the worth of innovation acknowledged - films like The Agony and the Ecstasy (Charleton Heston, 1965), Lust for Life(Kirk Douglas, 1956), Basquiat(Jeffrey Wright and David Bowie, 1996), and Surviving Picasso(Anthony Hopkins, 1997).
I trust that the picture of conservative, well-to-do women at Wellesley College in the 1950s is not historically inaccurate, and the picture painted in this film sickened me. This was a world where the women made no secret of the fact that their aim in attending college was to find a husband (in nearby HarvardUniversity), to assume the roles of housewife and mother that is their “birthright.” It was an age and a place where Speech, Elocution and Poise were still college level courses to be taken, a world where women were married by the age of 22. Personally, I cannot imagine women getting married so young. Don’t get me wrong. It was a fine film, well made and acted. The setting repelled me is all.
In 1953 the anti-communist House un-American Activities Committee dominated by Senator Joseph McCarthy was still in full swing and using the word “subversive” - in hushed whispers or aloud - to destroy careers and lives. The word is used in this script in precisely that manner and it repeatedly raised my hackles.
I figure it is a well-crafted movie, good if you want to get a view of a quaint, awful time in recent history. The problem is, few people learned from it and we still have people with us today who believe and advocate those ridiculous ideas and behaviors.