Dear Alumnae and Friends:
Wellesley magazine is preparing a special section on the film,
Mona Lisa Smile, and the following message will appear, in a slightly
abbreviated form, on the president's page. I wanted, however, to
get it out as soon as possible, so we are distributing an electronic
version now, via WellesleyWire. Please feel free to forward it to
anyone who you think would want to see it.
All the best for the new year.
Diana Chapman Walsh
Message from the President to Wellesley College alumnae concerning
the film, Mona Lisa Smile
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
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
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 school 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,
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.