Colleges as Film Stars: From Love Story to ADMISSION

ADMISSION at Princeton

In Paul Weitz’s ADMISSION, Tina Fey plays an admission officer at Princeton University. The prestigious university wasn't just a backdrop to the story, but an essential character. When writing the novel Admission, on which the movie is based, Jean Hanff Korelitz – who is herself a Dartmouth alum – recalls Princeton’s significance. “I’m married to a Princeton University professor, and had myself worked for a couple of years as an outside reader in the university’s Office of Admissions,” she remembers. “I was fascinated by the intense emotion surrounding the applications, and very curious about what it must feel like to have to make these decisions.” Few films are allowed on campus, so it was with distinction that the university permitted ADMISSION on campus and allowed the production to shoot in such iconic spots as Blair Arch, Whig Hall, Scudder Plaza Fountain, Holder Court, and Firestone Plaza. Indeed even the real Dean of Admissions, Janet Lavin Rapelye, was recruited to appear in a scene with Tina Fey. Producer Andrew Milano remarks, “Princeton University is an institution that is a touchstone to generations of the best and the brightest. Everyone was so glad that we were able to include it in the movie – that was an honor.” While many films choose to set their stories on college campuses, not all films are admitted into the college of their choice. We look at how various distinguished universities have made it in Hollywood.

Harvard University: Love on Campus

Established in 1636, Harvard is America’s oldest institution of higher learning, as well as the one most referenced in popular culture. In film, the Crimson constantly appears, although often in name only. Its first cameo was in a 1897 nonfiction one-reeler called Harvard Crew. Arthur Hiller’s 1970 tear-jerker Love Story, adapted from Erich Segal’s (Harvard ’58) best-seller, put the famed Ivy League university in the most romantic light. Harvard legacy Oliver Barrett IV (Ryan O’Neal) learns that love means never to having to say you’re sorry when you fall for a working-class Radcliffe gal (Ali MacGraw). The film has become so associated with the Harvard experience that every August 30, the Crimson Key Society screens the sappy tale for incoming freshman, often with more laughter than crying in the audience. The film is also famous for being one of the last movies to be shot on the Harvard campus proper. Not until 2007’s The Great Debaters did Harvard invite cameras back into its hallowed halls. Many famous Harvard films (The Paper Chase, Good Will Hunting, Legally Blonde) relied simply on exterior shots to set their ivy stories.

Yale University: Secret Admission

Founded in 1701, Yale often is placed next to Harvard as one of America’s most prestigious universities. And while it’s a star of higher learning, it has really only ever been an extra in films. Partially this has been the consequence of the university's strict policy dealing with filming on campus. But nevertheless it has shown up in an eclectic mix of films, from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (in which it doubles for Marshall University) to Mystic Pizza to the Bollywood feature Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna. The 2000 college conspiracy thriller Skulls, which hinted at the school’s famous secret society Skull and Bones, was neither shot at Yale, nor identified as such. Instead characters simply wore the letter “Y” on their sweaters. The infamous Skull and Bones appeared once again in Robert De Niro’s 2006 history of the CIA The Good Shepherd, also not filmed at Yale.

Princeton: Great Minds, Grand Architecture

Established in 1746, Princeton has often been considered the most elite of the Ivy League schools. And its appearance in films has been equally rare and esteemed. Although its most recent star turn is in ADMISSION, it first came to the screen in Frank Tuttle’s 1928 Varsity, an exposé that didn’t show the college in the best light. One review described the film as providing the “inside dope on speakeasy joints and carnival life, with a smearing of Princeton University." Since then the campus and town of Princeton have made cameos in only a select few films. Perhaps the two most obvious connections between story and place are Fred Schepisi’s 1994 romantic comedy I.Q., in which Albert Einstein (Walter Matthau) shepherds a budding romance between Meg Ryan (a Princeton doctoral candidate) and Tim Robbins (a car mechanic). The campus appeared again in Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind (although the film also doubled Princeton at a number of neighboring colleges), in which Russell Crowe plays Nobel Laureate John Nash, who slowly develops paranoid schizophrenia while at Princeton. No fault of the school. While the college certainly maintains a serious persona, it’s not beneath fun, low-brow yucks, as its cameo in the 2004 Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle proved, a comedy that certainly redefined higher learning.

Columbia University: A City Education

Established in 1754, Columbia University is New York City’s one ivy school, a distinction that has made it the star of a number of films, even if some of them refused to acknowledge it by name. For example, the Columbia Bookstore doubles as a Barnes & Noble in ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND. But mostly the iconic Columbia steps and plaza have shown up in quintessential New York stories, including Hannah and Her Sisters, The Nanny Diaries (in which Scarlett Johansson hangs out on Low Plaza after applying to grad school) and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s bike messenger film Premium Rush. In Barbara Streisand’s The Mirror Has Two Faces, the director stars as a Columbia English professor, and in the 1976 thriller Marathon Man Dustin Hoffman plays a graduate student who gets some real-life education when he finds himself the target of modern-day Nazis.

Wellesley College: A Place for Women

Founded in 1870 as one of the original Seven Sisters Colleges, Wellesley College was set up to prepare women for “great conflicts, for vast reforms in social life.” With such alumnae as Diane Sawyer, Nora Ephron, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Madeleine Korbel Albright, it would appear that the college has certainly met their mandate. But the representation of the college has sometimes come in conflict with students’ image of the alma mater. In 2003, the college got the full star treatment in Mike Newell’s Mona Lisa Smile, with Julia Roberts playing an art history professor in the early ‘50s, whose students include Kirsten Dunst, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Julia Stiles, Ginnifer Goodwin and more. While the film captured the beauty of the college, many alumnae challenged its slant on student life, insisting that the student body was more adventuresome and liberal than the film portrayed. A group called "The Truth About Wellesley: What Mona Lisa Smile Didn't Tell You” in fact formed in response to the movie, bringing together alumnae to narrate their own experience at Wellesley.

Smith College: Crazy Goings On

Chartered in 1871, Smith College is one of the most esteemed of the Seven Sisters schools, female colleges linked to Ivy League colleges. While Smith students have been referenced in a number of films, the college served as the location in two notable movies, both dealing with complicated sexual liaisons. In Mike Nichols’ celebrated 1966 adaptation of Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, George (Richard Burton) and Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) are a married couple living at a famous liberal arts college in the Northeast. He’s a history professor and she is the daughter of the college’s president. To capture the cultured and comfortable claustrophobia of the school, Nichols turned to Smith to shoot the exteriors. Five years later, Nichols returned to Smith to film Carnal Knowledge, a novelistic drama of two friends. In the film, Candice Bergen, who draws the attention of both Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel early in the film, attends Smith, where both men visit her. The college appeared again the Harold Becker’s 1993 thriller Malice, but only as the unnamed college campus.

Notre Dame: A Sporting College

Established in 1842 as a Catholic college for men, the University of Notre Dame has emerged as an iconic university and sports powerhouse. For Hollywood, Notre Dame’s sports legacy has been the school’s most attractive asset – and the one the university is most willing to promote. In fact, Notre Dame has only twice granted permission for films to be shot on campus, and both movies dramatized the lives of real football heroes. In Lloyd Bacon’s 1940 Knute Rockne, All American, Pat O’Brien plays the legendary football coach, with Ronald Reagan as George Gipp, for whom the immortal line, “Let’s win for the Gipper,” was directed. In 1993 David Anspaugh was permitted on campus to film Rudy, with Sean Astin playing Daniel Eugene "Rudy" Ruettiger, the working class kid who, short in stature, is big in heart in his dream to be a member of the Fighting Irish.

University of California, Berkeley: The West Coast Location

While not an Ivy League school, the University of California, Berkeley has shown up in quite a few films in a variety of roles. Robin Williams as the title character in Patch Adams shows up on campus, as does Freddie Prinze Jr., Jason Biggs, Claire Forlani and others in Robert Iscove’s lightweight comedy Boys and Girls. The Hulk showed up at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. But perhaps its most famous cinematic guest was not a student, but a visitor, Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), who comes north to find Elaine Robinson (Katherine Ross) in the 1967 hit The Graduate. Although many scenes were shot at Berkeley, pundits endlessly point out that other shots supposed to be the University of California, Berkeley were actually shot at the University of Southern California.

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