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Mona Lisa Smile

- Backstage with the Filmmakers

Mona Lisa Smile
Sony Pictures

Mona Lisa Smile Website

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Director: Mike Newell; Writers: Lawrence Konner
and Mark Rosenthal; Director of Photography: Anastas Michos;
Editor: Mick Audsley; Music: Rachel Portman;
Production Design: Jane Muskey;
Producers: Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, Deborah Schindler, Paul Schiff.

Starring: Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dominic West, Juliet Stevenson, Marcia Gay Harden, Marian Seldes, Ginnifer Goodwin, Topher Grace, and John Slattery.

Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
December 22, 2003

This was a film that was reminiscent to all of us, who had had either good luck or bad luck to be undergraduates at all-women’s colleges, some years ago. Although Mona Lisa Smile was about Wellesley in the 50’s, quite some decades in advance of my own women’s college experience, it struck poignant chords for all of us who had Freshman hazing, dormitory “no-men” rules, expectations to land an “Ivy League” husband, and female “locker room talk” about the various ongoing dates and potential dates that may be lurking in the future. We were to please our parents and our future husbands. However, in the 50’s, the rules were even more defined, with lessons in posture, entertaining the husband’s bosses, and always keeping a faint smile, no matter how tough the going gets, hence the smile of Mona Lisa.

Julia Roberts seems totally miscast as Katherine Watson, the neophyte, Californian Art History professor, whose snobby students are over-eager to make her feel uncomfortable, classless, and not up to the standards of the East. Ironically, I had the same Art History class, with the slides of early cave drawings and Impressionist flowers. Yet, I had been encouraged to see these works of art, myself, in anticipated trips to Europe. The Wellesley women in Katherine Watson’s classes were learning information that would entice and impress the right kind of upper-class gentleman to woo them into home and hearth. Katherine, au contraire, had left her faithful lover and would-be fiancée back West.

Other characters include Julia Stiles, as Joan Brandwyn, who chooses to wed, instead of accepting a coveted invitation to Yale Law School; Kirsten Dunst, as Betty Warren, a viciously self-righteous iceberg, who finds that the trappings of love do not actually ensure love; Maggie Gyllenhaal, as Giselle Levy, who establishes a looser set of social rules than is expected; Dominic West, as Bill Dunbar, the seductive Italian Professor, with an art-related secret; Juliet Stevenson, as Amanda Armstrong, who is emphatically dismissed as College Nurse, for providing contraceptives, against College rules; and Marcia Gay Harden, as Nancy Abbey, Katherine’s self-pitying roommate, who teaches manners and style.

Additional characters are: Marian Seldes, a class act, as Jocelyn Carr, the cold, ritualistic, Wellesley College President; Ginnifer Goodwin, as the portly Connie Baker, who bravely grabs love, amidst the most elusive circumstances; Topher Grace as Tommy Donegal: John Slattery, as Paul Moore, the “appropriate match” for the would-be lawyer, Joan; Donna Mitchell, as Betty Warren’s stiff-lipped Mom, a Wellesley board member; Jordan Bridges, as the swaggering Spencer, Betty’s unfaithful husband; and Ebon-Moss Bachrach, as the fuzzy Charlie, Connie’s object of desire.

Mona Lisa Smile may sound like a social saga, but it has a nice structure and thematic development. The premise that “Art for Art’s sake” and Modern Art appreciation had not yet taken hold at the prissy, 50’s Wellesley was quite interesting and visually enhanced, especially in the multi-textured slide of Pollack’s canvas and in the first-hand excursions to see au courant, Modern Art. Professor Watson tried to teach “Art Appreciation”, but was chastised and rejected by the College, in spite of her growing popularity, because she did not adhere to the rigid structure of the very College that had, in former years, espoused feminist doctrines.

Having grown up in a town, actually near Wellesley, I was quite disappointed that the film was not shot in Wellesley, itself, but in New Jersey and New York. That Hollywood decision was similar to the decision to go with a “big name” actress for the lead role, even though Julia Roberts’ reputation and demeanor are barely material for the starchy environment of 50’s Wellesley. In fact, the only scenes in which she looked appropriately cast were those with Bill, the incredibly sexy Italian Professor, who had eyes for every student on the campus.

Yet, in spite of this one miscast character, I enjoyed the film and the requisite icons of an era, when chintz and china were in, and the biggest problems were landing that fraternity pin, moving with poise, knowing how to arrange silverware, preparing to raise a family, and always keeping one’s emotions intact. How far forward we have evolved, or have we? Do we all wear a Mona Lisa Smile, from time to time?

Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures

For more information, contact Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower at