In the opening scene of Mona Lisa Smile, idealistic California transplant Katherine Watson, played by Julia Roberts, is traveling to Wellesley College, where she's secured a low-level art-history teaching job. We're told in a voice-over that she "makes up in brains what she lacks in pedigree," and to prove it she's toiling away right there on the train, holding her slides up to the light coming through the window. Roberts and the camera linger longest on a familiar image: Picasso's Les demoiselles d'Avignon, the painter's big break with traditional modes of representation. Which, last time we saw it on the big screen, was sinking to the bottom of the ocean in Titanic, along with Monet's Water Lilies and Leonardo DiCaprio. In reality, of course, it's safely ensconced at the Museum of Modern Art. What makes this 1907 work such a potent signifier of spunkiness that screenwriters are willing to rewrite history to use it?
The better question might be why screenwriters are so willing to rewrite history, period. Mona Lisa Smile's use of Picasso may not be blatantly revisionist, but its use of Julia Roberts is. Set in 1953, squarely between the Seven Sisters experiences of Barbara Bush (who got her MRS from Smith in 1944) and Hillary Clinton (BA from Wellesley in '69), Mona Lisa Smile is an easy feminist fantasy that makes Wendy Wasserstein look subtle. It sends Roberts to Wellesley less as a character than as an ambassador from the enlightened future. She's there to explain it all, to challenge the narrow expectations of the young women of the 50s, to let them know there's more out there than life in service to their future husbands. The film charts her effect on the girls and the hopelessly hidebound institution as both gradually open up.
Her medium for this message is modern art; hence Les demoiselles, which stamps her (as it did Kate Winslet) as a forward-thinking woman. It's the filmmakers saying, "If we were there, we would have liked Picasso too. And so would you." This is the worst kind of self-satisfied hindsight--the same sort of device that assures us we too would have joined the resistance or worked on the Underground Railroad. Throughout the movie Roberts asks her students rhetorical questions: What makes art good or bad? Who decides? But the movie answers them as canonically as the syllabus Roberts abandons.
The core students in Roberts's care--Kirsten Dunst as the WASP princess, Julia Stiles as the sensible overachiever, Ginnifer Goodwin as the eager naif, and Maggie Gyllenhaal as the wild Jewess--are book smart. And boisterous. In fact their manners seem contemporary as they knock the new instructor on her bum with their complete knowledge of the syllabus. But for the purposes of the film, book smart isn't good enough: the girls parrot back the information with no awareness and no greater motive than to put this bohemian in her place. Wellesley is a factory, nay, a "finishing school," and the girls' considerable knowledge is dry as dust. According to Roberts they need to feel (an area in which college-age women no doubt still lag today). Roberts has come to Wellesley to "make a difference" (a cliche usually reserved for new teachers braving the inner city), so in her next class she runs off track to talk modern art, shocking the girls into a what-is-art discussion with Chaim Soutine's 1925 Carcass of Beef (though she conveniently neglects to mention that it was inspired by Rembrandt's 1655 Flayed Ox). Later in the film she takes her class to the Village and forces them to look at a Jackson Pollock fresh out of the crate (never mind that Pollock was by 1953 as famous as he'd get during his lifetime).
There's no denying that the Seven Sisters provided many an Ivy League man with a suitable match, but they also played a key part in changing women's roles. Mount Holyoke was the first institution of higher learning for women in the U.S. Smith hosted the first women's basketball game. Bryn Mawr was the first American women's college to offer doctoral studies. And because art history was traditionally a women's field, many women's colleges fielded strong and forward-thinking academic departments. Wellesley, in fact, developed the first modern art course anywhere in the country--in 1926, after art department head Alice Van Vechten Brown hired Alfred H. Barr Jr. as an assistant professor of art history. Barr went on to become the founding director of New York's Museum of Modern Art. In 1947 MoMA architecture curator John McAndrew succeeded Brown as department head and director of the Wellesley art museum. By 1953 an art history class wouldn't have even had to leave campus to take in some modern works.
Mona Lisa Smile fudges not just its immediate context but also the broader period in which it's set. The film hints at cultural fallout from World War II, but mostly in the form of vanished engagements and fiances. It doesn't acknowledge Simone de Beauvoir (The Second Sex was published in English in 1953) or Elizabeth II (who'd become the Queen of England in '52) or Clare Boothe Luce (who became the first woman to represent the U.S. in a major diplomatic office in '53). Somehow all Mona Lisa's Wellesley girls know of rebellion is Roberts's wardrobe and the lesbian infirmarian (Juliet Stevenson, wasted in the role) who's fired early in the film for passing out diaphragms.
Part of the problem is simply that Mona Lisa Smile is a Hollywood film, and Hollywood isn't good at depicting the life of the mind. It's the aspect of the human experience films are most ready to state rather than show, resorting to clumsy literal shorthand like numbers on a blackboard.
And Julia Roberts is no help--you either like her or you don't, but either way it has little to do with talent. She's not so much an actor as a vessel for earnest reactions. The Italian professor with whom she eventually becomes involved (Dominic West) nicknames her Mona Lisa for her inscrutable expression upon arrival, but for the rest of the film Roberts is laughing and smiling hugely as always. It's why you like her if you do, although in uncharitable moments I'm reminded of Raymond Chandler's line from The Long Goodbye: "She opened a mouth like a firebucket and laughed....I couldn't hear the laugh but the hole in her face when she unzippered her teeth was all I needed." Roberts does very few period films; maybe she just doesn't like them, but maybe Hollywood knows that whatever ability we may have to suspend our disbelief is diminished when we have to imagine such a creature of this world living in another.
Mona Lisa Smile doesn't really try to get around that. The film's treatment of Roberts is a primo example of what I like to call double dating--the way contemporary looks inevitably infect period films. Little about her appearance is adjusted to help you believe it's 1953. She goes around looking like a winter Gap ad while the other characters constrain themselves in twin sets and pearls. In the opening of the film, when the voice-over notes that "she didn't come to fit in," the camera focuses on her shoes. This ensures that we know who to identify with, that we know who to look to for foresight.
The film gets better in the middle and toward the end, once Roberts and art history are not quite the center of it anymore. Her students--most of the characters, in fact--are all struggling with balancing life (i.e., men) and academe in various ways, chafing under varying levels of oppression. But one of the worst tendencies of period films is to dole out archetypes rather than develop characters, and despite the decent momentum it momentarily achieves, Mona Lisa Smile falls into this trap. Roberts is the "unpedigreed" gunslinger who rides into town and stirs up trouble, and Kirsten Dunst's mother (Donna Mitchell), the president of the alumnae association, is the embodiment of every uptight social convention of the era--she might as well wear horns. A few of the Wellesley teachers and administrators are depicted in evenhanded fashion, but many are silly pursed-lipped bitches who wouldn't be out of place in Flashdance or Animal House. Marcia Gay Harden, playing an etiquette instructor, clings ferociously to the importance of manners and standing by your man in the face of her own weaknesses--she's prissy so nobody else has to be. The four main students are spaced a bit too evenly on the wild girl-good girl spectrum, according to how often they smoke, what kind of underclothes they wear, if they drink, whether they chase men, and how they initially react to Roberts. But the actors fully inhabit these characters, so we care what happens to them.
To its credit, Mona Lisa Smile tweaks some of the cliches you'd expect it to embrace. There's no scene of grand public redemption or vindication, with every character gathered in an auditorium or courtroom, cheering our antihero's victory over the wrongheaded people in charge. And neither of Roberts's romantic subplots plays out in any recognizable Hollywood pattern, although on some level this is not a surprise, since neither actor is as famous as Roberts and so seem like Star Trek red shirts--you just sort of know they're not going to be around for long.
Most important, Roberts's character's advanced thinking about the role of women, which in another film might sweep through entirely unchallenged, is actually confronted. For this the screenwriters use Julia Stiles, whom Roberts is pushing hard to choose law school over marriage after graduation. Stiles turns the tables on Roberts, pointing out that all along she's been telling them to make their own choices--whatever they may be. But this scene and one where the hunky Italian prof asks her what she's getting out of all her proselytizing suffer from everything that Roberts brings to her character. She's incapable of portraying a character who's gone too far, who might permanently alienate someone. So in the end we get to hate Kirsten Dunst's mother, who wants her daughter to endure her new marriage to a cold, philandering husband instead of moving to the Village to--well, what? Play an underappreciated Lee Krasner to an abusive Jackson Pollock? (It's worth noting that nowhere in this movie do we see any artwork by women.)
The fact is, it's easier to talk about whether Pollock's drips are really art 50 years after the question's been resolved than it is to deal with Damien Hirst's pickled sheep or the death of NEA funding now. It's easier to avoid our own oppressive beauty myths by laughing at the pressed aprons and pin curls of the 50s (the final credit sequence rolls over a series of absurdly over-the-top period advertisements). It's easier to take on an extremely black-and-white version of the most salient question from this film--can women bake their cake and eat it too?--than try to answer it in the present, after 50 years of complicated evidence on the unanswerable nature of this dilemma. It's always easier to rewrite history than to deal with our own messes.