Fordham GSAS: Grad. Life: Part Two of "And the Oscar for Best Grad School Movie goes to..."

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Part Two of "And the Oscar for Best Grad School Movie goes to..."

       OSCARS! In honor of this day, I’ve devoted a two-part blog to the representation of graduate school in Hollywood films.
       So, as you noted from Part One, there aren’t so many movies set in graduate school or even with grad students as characters. To recap, most films that people come up with when asked this question feature LAW or MED school students, but not arts and sciences PhD students.
      I think I assumed there were at least a few good ones, because I rationalized that I must have had some kind of image in my mind about what graduate school “looked like” before I… signed up for it. I assumed that that image came from either novels or movies. But after some investigating, I realized this “image” must have come more from novels than movies, or maybe just from something that I made up in my head based on romantic ideas of scholarship and academia that came from the pleasure I take in reading and being alone in a library.  Wherever I got my “ideas” from, it probably wasn’t from movies, because, the truth is, there just ain’t that many movies out there.
       That said, with a little digging, I was able to come up with a list of my own with some additional titles on it for us to check out. I haven’t seen all of these, so I won’t attempt to rank them or call it my “Top Ten” or anything like that. But, here’s a little filmography of movies featuring some element of graduate school. Criteria for this list: the movie has to have a character that either is, or was, a graduate student during, or just previous to, the action of the movie. Alternatively, if the character refers to graduate school in a significant way (teaching perhaps?), or was significantly shaped by graduate school, meaning that he or she is living a scholarly life that reflects a graduate school education, I also included the movie. Finally, the said graduate program cannot be law or med school.
        Proof (2005): I don’t want to give away the plot, because it is a great little movie if you haven’t seen it, but the film involves graduate level math work that, within the world of the movie, would revolutionize the mathematics world. Originally a play.
        Possession (2002): main characters are literary scholars in pursuit of the identity of a famous Victorian poet’s lover to whom he wrote beautiful letters.
       The Addiction (1995): main character is a philosophy grad student turned into vampire! Sounds amazing!
       The Shape of Things (2003): Features a romance between an English lit major and a graduate art student. Also originally a play.
       The Last Supper (1995): A group of graduate students host a series of murderous dinner parties during their summer break. Seems like an interesting representation of grad students!!
       Tenure (2009): Not exactly grad life, but in this film, with the young professors trying to get tenured, it has the atmosphere of grad school.
      Marathon Man (1976): Never saw this but apparently, according to IMDB, Hoffman’s character is a history grad student.
      Wonder Boys (2000): Can’t remember if these students are undergrad creative writing students or MFA students, but either way it has the intense feeling of what I would imagine a competitive MFA program to be like.
     PHD the Movie (2011): Piled Higher and Deeper, our favorite grad-school comic, made a movie this year! Making the rounds at Universities all over the country – expect witty and satirical portraits of grad life, just like the comics.
      Naturally Obsessed (2009): Documentary, not fiction, it follows the life of grad students in the microbiology department of Columbia University. Seems like it might be a good one to watch!
      Okay, so maybe all of these aren’t “grad school movies” the way Animal House, Rudy, St. Elmo’s Fire, and With Honors are “college movies” – but you get the idea. If you've seen any of these, write in and let us know how accurate the depiction of grad life is!!!
     To conclude: On a message board thread about this very topic, a poster asked, “Given the types of people who go to grad school and the life drama that ensues there, I'd think grad school days would be rich fodder for fiction/fictionalized memoir. What am I missing?” This question parallels the one I proposed in my last blog entry. The response to this post, by someone (with the handle “Brain Glutton”), also parallels some of what I was thinking as I realized that most “grad school” movies featured law or med students:
“Audience appeal. If the subject the characters are studying is an important part of the drama -- and it is, to real-life grad students -- then the scenario is too intellectual for most people -- too intellectual for most intellectuals, in fact, if involves a grad program outside their own field of expertise. To make it accessible, you have to make it about a law school or med school, something that produces professionals whom the average person has to deal with, and who do things the average person understands at least in general principles.”
          There are a couple of points here I’d like to discuss. First, I love how Brain Glutton doesn’t pull any punches. She, or he, answers right off the bat – What’s missing? “Audience appeal.” BAM. Right across the face. Then we get the assessment explaining why a movie set in graduate school would lack audience appeal: “Too intellectual,” not “accessible,” not dealing with “things the average person understands.” This reasoning assumes at least two things: that movies are usually made to appeal to the widest audience possible (which is probably true); and that academic intellectual pursuits are not widely appealing (which is probably true in the US at least.) Hence, therefore: movies about academic intellectual pursuits are not usually made. There’s a great little syllogism.
       What do you readers think about this assessment? I would love to hear your thoughts! 
       Enjoy Oscars Night!!! Make sure to fill out your scorecard!! Until next time, Liza


  1. What a great question, Liza. You’re right that the anti-intellectual mindset in this country would prevent many movies to be made about grad school that didn’t involve an “Animal House” twist to it or have some kind of plot along the lines of gal students needing to sleep with the handsome but slightly sinister head librarian in order to get their books renewed for another term. I do take issue with the comment you quoted, “Given the types of people who go to grad school and the life drama that ensues there, I'd think grad school days would be rich fodder for fiction/fictionalized memoir. What am I missing?”
    What kind of “life drama” goes on in grad school besides angst about whether one should stay in school, or housing, marriage, childbirth, and problems with health insurance? Yes, those subjects could be the fodder for a movie, but none needs the context of grad school to be interesting. The life of a scholar, whether a mathematician or literatician (I need a word for literary person), is often solitary and not much happens. It has to be this way for us to get anything done. We resist interruptions from life (see your earlier post about traffic and family). The more successful we are in our field—or at least, the more work we get done—the duller are our lives.
    “Wit,” which was originally a play by Margaret Edson and made into a TV movie with Emma Thompson (2001), would be appropriate to mention here because it addresses both sides of this post. The main character is a Donne scholar who leads a solitary existence that is low on life drama, though her mental life is rich and she is the most respected scholar in her field. Then she gets ovarian cancer and for the first time her mind and body encounter that life drama, both in the present as she deals with her illness and in flashbacks to various phases of her life: childhood, college, grad school. She’s always studious, avoiding life. The play is quite intellectual; not being a Donne scholar and not knowing enough about British literature, I’m sure I missed some good stuff. But even if one doesn’t get any of the literary references or puns, the play’s emotional force will elude no one. What would also be hard to miss is that the character’s response to cancer, which initially is very much an intellectual one and stays that way throughout the play (though it is profoundly modified as she becomes emotionally self-aware), is a response to cancer that probably could only come from a trained intellectual. Go see the play, if you can. Cynthia Nixon is starring in it right now Broadway, and she is wonderful.

    1. I read that play in a contemporary drama class in undergrad, but I've never seen it performed! And I love Cynthia Nixon!
      I love your insight that "we resist interruptions from life" and that "the more successful we are -- or, at least, the more work we get done -- the duller are our lives." That seems right on the money -- and also kind of sad. When you then juxtapose those points with your description of "Wit," it conjured my personal struggle to find a balance between the satisfaction and stimulation of the work and the joys of life waiting to be found outside work. This is the "drama" that I see in my life -- two forces competing within me. I've never put it quite in these words before, but maybe we can see "Wit" as almost a meta-human drama; a human drama about what human drama is.
      Thanks for a wonderful, thoughtful comment! Keep them coming.

  2. I'm impressed with your list! Definitely much better than the "7 best" you found earlier. I think it's also interesting to note that our ideas from graduate school probably don't stem from movies but from books (or our own romantic ideas), and that at least three of the movies you mentioned stem from mediums other than movies (Proof was a play, Possession is an awesome novel, and then we have the PHD comic strips! Where can I see this movie, by the way!?).

    I think that Brain Glutton's assessment (awesome name, by the way), is probably right. When I first read your previous post, the only movie I thought of right off the bat was this year's winner for Best Animated Short: The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore (which also started as a book). This movie isn't really about grad. school at all, but about the power of books and the way they can allow you to renew yourself or experience life in a way you never thought possible. (You can check it out here: For someone who is in or has been through graduate school on some level (like us), and is used to poring over books and studying for comps., etc., we may immediately associate this kind of movie with that experience. But, because it's not directly about the graduate school experience, the movie also manages to draw other kinds of people with other backgrounds in.

    I think that, given your criteria for what counts as a "graduate school movie," you have found WAY more movies than I even could have hoped for! But I wonder if we should be expanding the category parameters a little to include movies like these that touch on the experience in a more abstract manner (with wider appeal). What do you think?


  3. I totally agree actually! I need to see this short, by the way -- during the Oscar-cast, even the clips of it fascinated me.
    I think you are right, though, in the way that movies with themes (like in Fantastic Flying Books) and characters (like in W;t) that explore the power of our creative and intellectual lives could absolutely be included in a consideration of "graduate school" representations!
    Thanks so much for the comment -- keep them coming!!!

  4. Hi! Do all the movies you cite here have a character who is preparing a PhD, or sometimes just a master's degree? I'm working on a list for movies with PhD candidates, you can find it here (the article is in French, but you have a list with the titles of non-French movies in the bottom of the page):

    49 movies so far... more if you tell me who is playing the PhD candidate(s) in the movies you are citing here ;). Thanks in advance for your help!