Well, Charlotte, we agree on two things about the Mona Lisa Smile’the Fifties looked great, marvelously evoked, and the younger actresses stole the show from Julia Roberts. This wasn’t the right role for Ms. Roberts, who is implausible as an intellectual’even in the frumpy clothes she donned for the part. Kirsten Dunst as the snob and Maggie Gyllenhaal as the loose leg with a penchant for older men were perfect. This has to be, as they say, a breakthrough for Gyllenhaal, whose facial expression when meeting her married lover in a New York theater was just so right. This is a gal who knows what to do with her facial muscles. But I left the film hacked off. Yes, despite the director’s best efforts, the Fifties did trail clouds of glory. But the propagandistic aspect overpowered everything.
The movie shows a Wellesley dedicated to producing marriageable morons (well-educated but unable to think for themselves) and desperately in need of tutelage on modern art from the Julia/Catherine character. An administrator is shown being hostile to Picasso. I sorta admired the fella’s skepticism’I wish college professors today were capable of a similar cynicism instead of buying a tube of every snake oil that comes down the pike. Still, Wellesley’s supposed hostility to modern art is sheer fantasy.
A prominent Wellesley girl of the mid-1950s, Marian Burros, who writes about food for the New York Times, took several of her college friends to see the movie. She wrote about their responses. They pounced on the depiction of their alma mater as a place horrified by advanced art. “Modern art was not shocking at Wellesley,” one of them noted. Added Burros: “How could it have been when it had been taught there since the late 1920’s?” If memory serves, one of the Wellesley art profs of the period was Alfred Barr, who went on to become head of the Museum of Modern Art. It is safe to say that he had heard of Picasso.
Ms. Burros’s & Co. also rejected the notion of their college as a mindless marriage factory:
“Nor do any of us remember faculty members encouraging us to choose a career over marriage,” she wrote, “(though several remember seductive male professors, like the Italian professor in the movie).
“In the 50’s most students married shortly after graduating,” she continued. “Mr. Newell [the director] got that right. At the time some wit had translated the college motto ‘non ministrari sed ministrare’ (‘not to be ministered unto, but to minister to’) as ‘not to be a minister, but to be a minister’s wife.’ It stuck.”
How many girls today make Latin jokes? Not many, one imagines.
‘Twas a better time.