What did the poor 1950s ever do to 21st-century America? In the ’70s,
works such as Happy Days, Grease, and American Graffiti
reflected the popular view of the decade as a time populated by rebellious
but wholesome teenagers discovering rock and roll. But more recent
filmic offerings like Pleasantville and Far From Heaven,
not to mention the endless supply of kitschy magnets and buttons featuring
idiotic slogans mouthed by the ’50s man-smoking-a-pipe and woman-in-high-heels-baking-cookies,
suggest that the contemporary view toward the post-war era is far
more hostile. My own view is that the current tendency to bash the
1950s on the grounds of conformity, racial oppression, and gender
inequality allows contemporary Americans the comfort of feeling good
about not dealing with those social problems today. (One can
make a parallel argument for the criticism of the 1980s for their
greed and vapidity. Thank God those pesky issues are no longer
a problem.) The fact that a movie like Mona Lisa Smile, which
takes the bold and unequivocal stance that women should be able to
have jobs, could still be released in 2003 tends to support my hypothesis.
In the film, Julia Roberts plays Katherine Watson, an art
history teacher on her first job at all-female Wellesley College in
1953. Immediately upon arriving on campus, “Miss Watson”
gets it from all sides: She can’t find a place to live that
will let her boyfriend stay over, her students know so much that she
finds them intimidating, the philandering Italian teacher (Dunbar)
has his eye on her, and the rest of the faculty finds her unorthodox
teaching methods completely unacceptable.
The subplots do proliferate in Mona Lisa Smile—there
are unequivocally too many of them, and the movie could have been
improved significantly just by deleting a few characters, such as
Marcia Gay Hardens old-maid etiquette teacher.
The cohesion the sprawling script does nonetheless manage to maintain
comes from the fact that all of these conflicts revolve around two
interlocking themes: women working versus women marrying and respecting
individuality versus respecting tradition. Lest there be any confusion,
the film makes itself perfectly clear: Women marrying is good—but
only if its what they want, and independence is also good,
which means tradition is bad.
Most of the stories revolve around Katherine’s students. Betty
(Dunst) is only in college to get married, and she resents
her teacher’s independent ways. Her best friend Joan Branwyn
(Stiles), on the other hand, aspires to go to law school, but
cannot even admit this to herself without her teacher’s guidance.
Giselle (Gyllenhaal) comes from a broken home and likes to
sleep with older men, including the Italian teacher. Lastly, Constance
(Goodwin) is the “unattractive” one—every
bit as ugly as Minnie Driver in Circle Of Friends—who
doesnt believe anyone will ever love her.
For the many plots in this film, there are actually few decisions
to be made. Things just happen and then characters digest the events.
No one stands on her desk in Mona Lisa Smile, or plays a prank
on the Dean. This in itself is not such a bad device—real life
seldom offers moments for heroic decision-making, and the technique
underscores the fact that all of these women are dealing with the
same set of social demands. But in focusing the film on a couple of
all-pervasive issues the filmmakers must flesh out what is
at stake, and here it fails miserably. There are real benefits to
longstanding traditions, real reasons why men might feel threatened
by their wives wanting to work, and real motivations behind the desire
to seek fulfillment through domestic life. But instead of a nuanced
study of flesh-and-blood characters living in a world different from
ours, the audience is treated to a series of white-hat/black-hat caricatures.
The students know a great deal, but they don’t think for themselves
until Katherine comes along. The faculty is stodgy and ignorant; they
hate the idea that someone teaches their students about Jackson
Pollock and asks them to question what art is. The spineless university
administration fires the popular school nurse for dispensing birth
control. When Betty’s marriage goes bad, her own mother unsympathetically
tells her that the important thing is that no one find out about it.
Those people are all just so bad.
In spite of the insipidity of the film’s overall message, it
does manage to hit all the right notes as a mediocre melodrama. I
choked up at the expressions of care between the students and the
teacher, felt happy when Katherine fell in love, rooted for Joan to
get into Yale Law, and so forth. But one should not for those reasons
minimize the aforementioned insipidity. Whether you’ll like
this one depends entirely on what you’re hoping to get out of