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Mona Lisa Smile is a 2003 Americanmarker film that was produced by Revolution Studios and Columbia Pictures, directed by Mike Newell, written by Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal, and starring Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Julia Stiles. The title is a reference to the Mona Lisa, the famous painting by Leonardo da Vinci, and the song of the same name, originally performed by Nat King Cole, which was covered by Seal for the movie. The film is a loose adaptation of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, a novel by Muriel Spark, and the title also references that text.


Mona Lisa Smile tells the story of Katherine Ann Watson (played by Julia Roberts), a feminist teacher who studied at UCLAmarker graduate school who leaves her boyfriend behind in Los Angelesmarker, to teach at Wellesley Collegemarker, a conservative women's private liberal arts college in Massachusettsmarker, United Statesmarker in 1953.

Watson encourages her students to study to become career professionals. She uses modern art to suggest that they need not conform to female stereotype, even introducing the students to the work of Jackson Pollock. She feels that women can do more than solely adopt the roles of wives and mothers.

Watson's work is contrary to methods deemed acceptable by the school's directors, conservative women who believe firmly that Watson should not use her class to express her points of views or befriend students, and should stick only to teaching art. Watson is warned that she could lose her job.

Undaunted, Watson becomes more forceful in her speeches about feminism. She believes she needs to instill a spirit of change among her students.

Watson eventually breaks things off with her boyfriend, Paul Moore (John Slattery), after a disastrous wedding proposal. She starts a relationship with Italian teacher Bill Dunbar (Dominic West). Although the relationship is frowned upon by the faculty, the two continue seeing each other. However, Watson ends the relationship after finding out that Dunbar lied about his military service.

The film also focuses on the lives of various students of Watson's, chief among them: Elizabeth "Betty" Warren (Jones) (Kirsten Dunst), a rich girl with a conservative, domineering mother (who, as head of the Alumni Association, exerts significant influence) who marries a man who is unfaithful to her, and who also clashes repeatedly with Watson; Constance "Connie" Baker (Ginnifer Goodwin) has insecurities about her body while searching for a boyfriend; Giselle Levy (Maggie Gyllenhaal), one of the few Jewish students at Wellesley at the time, who has an affair with Bill Dunbar, but who is also one of the first students to admire Watson; and Joan Brandwyn (Donegal) (Julia Stiles), who is initially conflicted about whether to pursue law school after graduation or become a housewife to Tommy Donegal (Topher Grace).

Although many are initially put off by Watson's style, as the film progresses, more students begin to admire her, including Betty, despite being her most vehement critic.

Watson chooses to leave after one year, but as she is leaving the campus for the last time, her students follow her car, to show their affection. The scene is narrated by Betty who dedicates her last editorial to Watson, explicitly stating that Watson is "an extraordinary woman" and an individual who "seeks truth beyond tradition, beyond definition, beyond the image."


Reaction from Wellesley alumnae

In a message to Wellesley alumnae concerning the film, Wellesley College president Diana Chapman Walsh expressed regret, given that many alumnae from the 1950s felt that the film's portrayal of Wellesley was inaccurate.

Campus controversy

During the filming of Mona Lisa Smile, the Wellesley Collegemarker campus broke into controversy surrounding the casting of student extras. The use of the phrase "not too tan" in a casting call for current Wellesley students sparked a fear that Casting Directors were using race to discriminate against potential extras. Producers claimed that they were merely stressing the importance of finding women that had the "look of 1953", but later their response to the growing concern was that the film could not reflect the current Wellesley demographic, and had to be "accurate" to the period.

Students presented their concerns to president Diana Chapman Walsh to no avail, and began a campus-wide guerrilla campaign entitled "Too Tan for Mona Lisa Smile", with a photo roster of African-American students denied the chance to participate in the film as student extras.

Student Multicultural Affairs Coordinator Jenna O. Bond-Louden claimed that the film overrepresented the Asian student population, which was believed to be approximately three in 1953 (as the "Asian" ethnic group is not listed in the college's records), and underrepresented African-Americans: only one of the about 200 extras in the film was African-American (in reality there were 12 African-American students enrolled in a total student population of 1685, so with 200 extras approximately 1.4 of them should have been African-American).

The controversy spilled over into the local media, and producers considered a compromise of hiring willing minority students to act as production assistants. The college released a press statement highlighting the realities of Wellesley in 1953, and defending their decision to allow the film to shoot on campus. When the film's lead cast was featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show, a select group of African-American students were allowed to attend the show's taping, including the "Too Tan for Mona Lisa Smile" leader.

Students also protested the lack of concern by the studio for their ability to attend classes as normal with the blocking of pathways, streets, and buildings during the eight days of shooting the film. Producers initially tried to adhere to the class schedule by not shooting in open areas immediately before and after classes, but that lasted only a short while. Student extras frustrated professors by missing class and important exams, and the entire campus began to speak out against the film's presence.

Places and their references

  • The classroom in which Julia Roberts teaches is in fact a Chemistry classroom in Columbia University's Havemeyer Hall, Havemeyer 309.
  • The office of Professor Bill Dunbar (played by actor Dominic West) is actually the Wellesley Collegemarker quad; a grouping of four dormitories on the campus.
  • Some of the exteriors for Wellesley College and Harvard were, in fact, shot in the same courtyard at Yalemarker's Silliman Collegemarker.
  • The train station scene was shot at the Glen Ridgemarker New Jersey Transit Station in Glen Ridge, New Jerseymarker near Newarkmarker.

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