Mona Lisa Smile
2004-01-01, 1:24 p.m.
Oh man, I loved this movie. (Though I must admit, I don't think it was intended for anyone with a penis to see it. Fair warning, should any guys beyond Dave read this journal. Dave, go do something else, you can skip this one.) Yes, spoilers are going to abound, so you've been given fair warning....
Our Fearless Leader for this tale, Katherine Watson, is a California girl in 1953, an art history professor who's dreamed of going to Wellesley and teaching tomorrow's female leaders. She leaves behind her boyfriend and nice weather and Oakland State to do this. (Incidentally, Oakland State? What the hell school is that? There isn't any Oakland State that I ever heard of. Besides, every review I've seen of this movie said she was at Berkeley. I know they're right next to each other, but still.) Unfortunately, the entire situation is not remotely what she expected. Everyone there is East Coast priggish and tradition-adoring, the school nurse gets canned for handing out diaphragms, and the school isn't there to raise tomorrow's leaders, it's there to give tomorrow's leaders educated wives who can read poetry while they vacuum the living room. Seriously.
The students in general are also pretty snotty, and as is still typical on college campuses to this day, they are convinced that they're there to regurgitate the opinions of those who went before them as a means of education. Not so typical of this day, every girl in class already memorized the entire textbook before class started just to show up the teacher. I can't imagine any college student today even touching the book before the start of class, much less that. Katherine is somewhat fazed, but decides to teach them stuff they won't find in textbooks instead- to get them to think about contemporary art and if it's good or not on their own, showing them Jackson Pollocks, discussing how innovative and unpopular Van Gogh was and how he's become such a commodity his work is now in paint-by-numbers. I wish my art history classes had been that interesting instead of slide-regurgitating boredom.
The movie features a quartet of girls in Katherine's class:
* Betty Warren, who's got a snooty, domineering rich alumni mother who she lets boss her around. She gets married during the school year (and is still allowed in class, which surprises me no end- I figured once you got married in the 50's you were automatically supposed to stay home and do chores 24-7) and is the most pissy little traditionalist of the bunch. She also seems to work for the campus newspaper and likes to write snotty articles about the school nurse, Katherine's teaching style, and how wonderful it is to be a homemaker and student at the same time. Meanwhile, her husband seems to have no interest in her whatsoever to the point where one assumes it was an arranged marriage. You can perhaps figure where this is going. She grabs on like hell as much as she can to the traditional life- hopes with all her heart that her best friend Joan will marry her husband's best friend and they can be wives and mothers together, etc.- and figures out that well, it's not working.
The thing about Betty is that while she's one of the most unsympathetic characters in the film, and certainly the most vengeful and upset that she's not happy (she ruins the happiness of a friend of hers by lying that her new boyfriend already has a girlfriend), there's sympathy for her nevertheless. Ironically, she ends up being the one who may end up being the most untraditional.
* Joan Brandwyn, Betty's best friend, who just assumes that she too will end up married out of college and doesn't really let herself dream all that much of doing anything else, even though she'd secretly like to be the one Wellesley girl who gets into Yale Law. (I find it funny that before she gets engaged, she just assumes it's going to happen and tells Katherine this. It seems to have not been a "for sure" thing before.) Katherine encourages her to apply to Yale, and she gets in, but decides that she can't be a mother and a law student at the same time, even if her husband supports her in going to school. Which I find very sad, but I guess someone had to do it. (I suspect that a decade or two later, Joan goes back to school and starts a practice with Betty. Hey, I can dream.) Her relationship with Tommy (Topher Grace, who seems to be turning into Brendan Fraser!) is very schmoopy and cute though. Awww.
* Giselle Levy, the glamorous, sweet, well, slut. Or at least, she's got a diaphragm, knows how to use it, and avails herself of the Italian professor for a fling, as well as a married man. I so wanted her to be my best girlfriend. She's hilarious and snarky and I would so hang out with her. It's lovely how she's not apologetic, not sorry, sexual, and not trying to catch a husband. She seems to love art history the most, and finds it the most interesting, and it's so cool.
* Connie Baker, who I think is supposed to be the nerd of the group. I find it incredibly hard to believe that no guys would bother with her, as she's adorable and cute and spunky and plays the cello. Is cello-playing supposed to be nerdy? I hope not. Anyway, I figure she's supposed to be the nerd because she never gets any billing and the fellow she ends up with is Young Bill Gates. But she just rocked.
Honestly, they all deserve Oscars. I hope there's some nominations abounding.
I have to admit I had been wondering about the title. It's not really explained until the end, though there's a Mona Lisa song in the wedding scene, there's the whole art history thing... It's finally revealed what the title's about towards the end, when Betty's studying the painting in a library and her mother tracks her down to say that there will be no divorce and she's just got to try harder, and Betty instead talks about Mona Lisa's smile... and what is it hiding? Things aren't as happy as they seem.
Another thing I massively enjoyed about this movie was that it didn't play to certain typical 1950's stereotypes:
* Katherine's art history class is held in a large lecture hall, but has few students. Compare that to, say, The Mirror Has Two Faces, where Barbra Streisand's English class is literally so full that people are hanging off the balconies, sitting in the stairwells, etc. Even the most popular classes I've ever seen weren't that full after the first day, and aren't there laws about students sitting in the stairwells for an entire class? While I liked TMHTF in a way, I thought that was ridiculous. No teacher is THAT superpopular, even in a superteacher movie.
* Nobody gets pregnant! Nobody! Not even Giselle the slut, who you'd figure would be an automatic Tragic Punishing Pregnancy Story- and she probably would be in another movie. To be honest, I think they were going to have her get pregnant because there's one scene where she insists on talking to the Italian professor post-affair and has tears in her eyes, but it's never explained why. I will be interested to hear about this on the director's commentary. But hey, if they cut it, I'm delighted.
* Not everyone ends up with a man. Betty loses hers, Katherine dumps all of hers, and Giselle doesn't seem to care one way or the other about permanently catching one. How refreshing! I'm particularly glad that Katherine never took the plunge. She's a gorgeous girl and is going to have men after her for a long, long time, but for the character's sake, I devoutly hope she stayed single. I don't think she could have done what she wanted to do in life at that time with any kind of permanent male companion anyway.
* Likewise, this movie doesn't rearrange the world so that Wellesley suddenly embraces the subversive and takes Katherine on for next year, letting her do whatever the hell she wants. It's clear that she's going to end up leaving them to do her own thing, and she'll be better off.
* Connie the nerd is NOT wearing glasses. Thank you.
* There's one scene where Giselle has been out with her married lover and sees Spencer getting into a car with another woman and putting the mack on her. Later, Betty goes into a major rage at her for sleeping with married men and calls her all sorts of names. In most movies, this would be where Giselle would scream, "Oh yeah? Well, what about YOUR husband! I saw him!" In this movie, what does she do? She hugs Betty, who starts crying. Awwww. It's so sweet and sad at once. Totally forgiving. (And I'm very delighted that those two decide to live together post-graduation. Especially after Betty announces it to her mother that she's moving in with a Jew and then Giselle saunters up with a subtle "Hi." Damn, I love Giselle.)
Regarding the criticism of this movie, so far what I've read is a whole lot of comments like "Duh, women can have a career and a husband and children at once! We KNEW that already!" and that's why they hate it. They think the message is redundant. Well, I don't think so. Hell, just look at the characters in the movie- technically, nobody ends up with a career and a husband at the same time. Offered a choice of both, Betty and Joan give up one or the other, and Connie's not yet at that point to have to decide as yet.
In case some of you haven't noticed, the debate over whether or not one can be a good mommy and a good lawyer (or art professor, or whatever) is STILL going on today. Vociferously. Hell, it's more of an issue now than it's been in a few decades. Neoconservatism is in, and we've all heard about that "opt-out revolution" article by now. "Women have to be primary caretaker of the babies" is still pretty ingrained, as is "women have to sacrifice their own goals if they want children." There's plenty of articles and books out there (I recommend Flux) that talk about women dumbing down their career goals because they want babies.
I think this movie was made at this time because of this. I think it's relevant to our time because (a) look how far we've come, and (b) look how far we haven't come. This is still a constantly debated issue. It's not automatically assumed 100% that a woman stays home with the babies forevermore once the ring is on her finger, but it's still culturally ingrained in a lot of people. (Like my aunt and uncle. Grr.) Hell, in some respects you could make "Mona Lisa Smile 2004" and some things wouldn't change. And I do worry about those who opt out and then have to opt in again later, too.