Tuesday, May 20, 2014
May 20, 2014: AmericanStudying Harvard Movies: Good Will Hunting
[My alma mater has seen more than its fair share of cultural representations, including a number of film portrayals of the university. Those films have a lot to tell us, not only about images of Harvard but also about educational, social, and cultural issues through that lens. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy five such Harvard Movies and their meanings. Share your own thoughts on images of Harvard, college and higher ed, or related issues for an Ivy League-worthy weekend post, please!]
On the character who reflects communal stereotypes—and the one who transcends them.
Matt Damon and Ben Affleck grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a community that—like any college town, of course, but I would argue with a particular intensity in this case—has a conflicted relationship with the prominent universities (Harvard and MIT) which it hosts. And when the two childhood friends wrote their first (and to date only) screenplay, for the film that became Good Will Hunting (1997; the two won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for their work), they created a character who embodies the worst possible images of Harvard and Ivy League elitism: the long-haired, snobby, arrogant, academic fraud of a grad student with whom Will gets into a debate (standing up for his townie friend Chuckie, whose lack of intelligence the grad student has insulted) in a “Harvard bar.”
The grad student’s ugliness could be read as just another version of the kind of elitism about which I wrote in yesterday’s post, but I believe that Damon and Affleck have taken the stereotypes even further in this case: the student admits to his own intellectual fraudalence and plagiarism, relishing the fact that he will achieve success and high status in any case thanks to his “degree” (in direct contrast to Will’s genuine but, as the student frames it, socially unsuccessful intelligence). Leaving aside the ironic reality that a graduate degree in History is no longer a guarantee of even a job, much less elite social or financial status, the real problem with this character is that, in a film full of impressively three-dimensional human beings (especially the two central adult characters played by Robin Williams and Stellan Skarsgard), he’s a cartoon, and a particularly unbelievable one at that.
The character whom Will meets (and is at least partly trying to impress) during this same scene, Minnie Driver’s Harvard undergraduate Skylar, seems in some ways like another such stereotype, on the fantasy side this time: a British trust fund baby who’s both pre-med and beautiful. But after Will’s friends hang out with Skylar for a night, Chuckie notes that she has changed his perspective on Harvard students, and I would argue that the character has a similar effect on us as viewers—particularly in the scene when she fills Will in on her backstory, including the early death of her father that left her with that trust fund but with a hole in her heart as well. There are multiple characters and events that contribute to Will’s evolution in the course of the film, but Skylar has to be located at the top of that list, and I would argue that it’s precisely the way in which she challenges Will’s preconceived notions of class, elitism, institutions like Harvard, and his own future that produce such effects.
Next Harvard movie tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other images of Harvard or higher ed you’d highlight?