Message from the President to Wellesley College alumnae concerning the film, Mona Lisa Smile

January 9, 2004

We've been hearing from many alumnae who have been feeling pressure to defend the College -- and the quality of their own education -- against the distorted and demeaning portrayal of our alma mater in the film, Mona Lisa Smile, released over the holidays in movie theaters across the country. Several alumnae have asked for help from the administration in their efforts to set the record straight.

The loyal support of alumnae as vocal ambassadors for the College is an indispensable ingredient of Wellesley's continued success. With that in mind, I want to update you on steps we at the College have been taking to cushion the impact of the film, and offer a few general observations about the situation from where I sit.

First, it's important to keep in perspective the fact that the film is a Hollywood fantasy set in an imaginary 1953-1954 academic year. The authors (two men) conducted research in our archive and set the screenplay at a fictional Wellesley College. Our name is in the public domain and we could not have prevented its use had we tried, which we didn't. Wellesley has become the iconic women's college -- for good and ill -- and was selected for that reason as the setting for this work of fiction.

Second, we had no control over the film, no influence whatsoever on any editorial or artistic decisions. The movie, to a far greater extent than the screenplay we originally read, characterizes the College as rigid and hidebound and the students as rich and spoiled. This creates a foil against which the Julia Roberts character, an art history teacher from California, can attack the conservative mores she finds at this elite and stodgy college in icy New England. Wellesley provides the backdrop against which she "challenges the administration and inspires her students to look beyond the image of what is, and consider the possibilities of what could be"... so we are told.

Opinion has been ranging widely -- at the College and beyond -- about how effectively the movie conveys its message, how accurately it captures the geist of the Fifties, and how resonant its message is today. Many professional critics have faulted the film for a lack of subtlety; many of us have identified liberties taken with the Wellesley College we know. Yet the film does attempt to raise genuine questions about women's life choices: whether one must choose between career and family and how to find one's own path when it may conflict with society's expectations or those of parents, professors, friends.

We allowed Revolution Studios to film on our campus for a total of about 10 days; they shot other parts of the film on other campuses and in other locales. Most of the interior scenes are at Columbia and Yale. The town is Tarrytown, New York. We decided to permit some filming at the College because:

1. The producers had already decided to set the movie at Wellesley College and the choice we faced was whether to allow them to shoot footage on our campus, instead of other campuses that they would then have called Wellesley. Since the beauty of our campus is a matter of special pride, the answer seemed obvious, and the shots of the campus are, indeed, spectacular.

2. The early version of the script, which several of us read and discussed before granting permission for the filming, emphasized the intelligence of Wellesley students and their close mentoring relationships with dedicated faculty: two of the College's paramount strengths.

3. The production company reimbursed all the costs we incurred during the filming and provided a modest per diem location fee as well. Contrary to widespread opinion, however, we did not make a significant profit, nor were we motivated by financial considerations when we allowed filming on the campus.

Time magazine's review of Mona Lisa Smile began with the rhetorical question, "Can a college sue a movie for libel?" Some of us have been having similar fantasies. The answer, of course, is probably not successfully: the film made no claim to historical accuracy. But the corollary question is whether its distortions are causing us harm. That's difficult to assess, but so far what we do know is that the number of applications for admission is higher at this writing than usual, and young people seem to be drawn to Wellesley by the film, not repelled.

Finally, as is our practice in times of adversity, we have endeavored to transform this challenge into a positive educational experience. Students, faculty and staff have been analyzing the movie from every conceivable angle and will doubtless continue to do so in the months and years ahead. In addition, the film has garnered extensive and quite positive publicity, much of it focused on the real contributions Wellesley graduates have made in many fields of endeavor. Prestigious national media outlets have carried wonderful stories by and about alumnae from the Fifties, and lovely profiles of today's Wellesley students. As a conscious strategy, our public affairs staff worked to link alumnae, faculty, and students with media gatekeepers to place many of these stories, knowing that individual voices would be far more persuasive than would the College itself.

All of this is to the good and bolsters my confidence that the movie is unlikely to do us any lasting damage, whatever we may think of it. I do very much regret, however, the distress it has caused many alumnae, and especially alumnae who were students in the Fifties. And I'm grateful for the many op ed articles, interviews, and letters to the editor through which Wellesley alumnae all across the country have been speaking out to correct the historical record, and standing up for the College. Thank you.



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Last Updated: January 9, 2004