From the canopy of elm trees on Washington Road to the homey interior of P.J.'s Pancake House, from the Greco-Roman antiquities of its world class art museum to the stacks of vinyl at the legendary Record Exchange off Nassau Street, there's a lot that makes Princeton University special. None of that, unfortunately, is on view in the otherwise quite amusing and touching Tina Fey / Paul Rudd vehicle “Admission.”
Other than a quick glimpse of Blair Hall, the movie could have been shot anywhere, which seems like a wasted opportunity to feast upon Princeton's unique blend of gothic and modernist architecture. Still, the essence of an enriched milieu permeates this elevated rom com, and speaks to a larger issue: Hollywood's love of the Ivy League. To that end, let's take a cinematic tour of the eight elite Northeastern institutes of higher learning and determine which film best represents each school.
Due to these schools' wacky rivalries – stolen pig mascots and the like – we'll simply list them in the order of their founding years from 1636 to 1865.
"The Paper Chase" (1973). Directed by James Bridges.
Never in film history has the Socratic method been so sensational! And if you were at the other end of Professor Kingsfield's questioning, you'd take the Socratic method to its inevitable conclusion – drinking hemlock!
Timothy Bottoms stars as the sympathetic Harvard Law student up against John Houseman who used the film and its Academy Award as a segue from theater and film producer to television spokesperson. Yes, Orson Welles' John Houseman is the same John Houseman who did those ridiculous Smith Barney commercials. “The Paper Chase” is one gigantic dare to come and see if you have the mental and emotional fortitude for a Harvard education. Also: lots and lots of 70s mustaches.
(Note: when you go to the comments to argue “The Social Network,” know that I'll come back at you with “Soul Man” as my number two pick.)
"The Skulls" (2000). Directed by Rob Cohen.
We were thinking about picking “The Good Shepherd” but who are we kidding? If we want to go with Yale's notoriety for Monty Burns-style Illuminati conspiracy, let's go with “The Skulls.”
It wasn't even shot at Yale and the secret society it's based on is actually called Skull and Bones, but consider the inclusion of both Joshua Jackson and Paul Walker (and the fact that it spawned two direct-to-DVD sequels) and you can't help but love this dopey paranoid thriller of secrets and rituals. Who among us can deny the third act invocation of rule #119? None of us, that's who.
University of Pennsylvania
"Unbreakable" (2000). Directed by M. Night Shyamalan.
This was a tough one. Maybe UPenn needs a better PR team. (Or, maybe they don't. The school was co-founded by Benjamin Franklin, which earns it bragging points for centuries to come.)
While we'd really prefer to focus on the academics over athletics, the only film we could recall was M. Night Shyamalan's “Unbreakable.” That iconic shot of Bruce Willis entering a football stadium? That's U of Penn's Franklin Field. Go Quakers!
"I.Q." (1994). Directed by Fred Schepisi.
“A Beautiful Mind?” Failing grade! “I.Q.” to the head of the class!
A few things: the whole movie is made up. Albert Einstein didn't waste his time working as a matchmaker for Meg Ryan (doctoral candidate) and Tim Robbins (mechanic.) A common misconception is that Einstein taught at Princeton University when his official affiliation was with the mysterious Institute for Advanced Study. The IAS, also in Princeton, New Jersey, is a weird, science-fiction sounding center for geniuses to take long walks along a stream and ponder quantum mechanics and phase space and other things that no mere mortal could ever understand. (Oh, how we've yearned for a movie set entirely HERE!) Anyhow, “I.Q.” still does a good job of presenting Princeton as the epicenter of 20th century theoretical physics, which means scenes of Walter Matthau's Einstein eating ice cream with Kurt Godel, Boris Podolsky and Nathan Liebknecht.
"Altered States" (1980). Directed by Ken Russell.
Next time you are on the campus of Columbia University you can skip the Low Memorial Library or St. Paul's Chapel or even V&T Pizza and just head to the darkest, least occupied basement. There you will find William Hurt in an old boiler, juiced to the gills on Mesoamerican hallucinogens and in communion with a primordial “first self.”
Paddy Chayefsky's very heavy science fiction story (based loosely on scientist John C. Lily) is both far out and eloquent and, most importantly, offers a nice taste of what counter-culture prone research may have been like at New York's Columbia University in the 1960s and 70s.
(ed. note: I can abide the lack of "Ghostbusters", but your omission of "New York Minute" is disturbing, and speaks to what I can only assume is a profoundly uncultivated awareness of film history. Good day, sir).
"One Crazy Summer" (1986). Directed by Savage Steve Holland.
It wasn't just Lisa Simpson who said “Not Brown!”
We couldn't think of a movie set there, though the kid in “Varsity Blues” has his eyes on attending. Still, we're hesitant to make that our pick, so, considering Brown's reputation as the most liberal of the Ivys, we're gonna' bend the rules.
John Cusack's character in “One Crazy Summer”, in addition to having hijinks with Bobcat Goldthwaite, Curtis “Booger” Armstrong and (really?) Demi Moore, is working on his illustration portfolio. His dream is to go to the Rhode Island School of Design which, if you know the layout of Providence's College Hill, is practically right on top of Brown University. No wealthy Brown prep earns their stripes til they go on at least one date with a RISD freak, right? To that end, Savage Steve Holland's weak follow-up to “Better Off Dead” is our pick.
"National Lampoon's Animal House" (1978). Directed by John Landis.
Woah, woah, woah. Delta House at Faber College? It's actually based on Alpha Delta Phi from Dartmouth. Chris Miller, co-writer of the screenplay, lays it all out in his 2006 book The Real Animal House: The Awesomely Depraved Saga of the Fraternity That Inspired the Movie, which shows just how tame the raunchy Belushi film is by comparison.
No doubt “Animal House” loses more of its critical fans each year, you know, what with the sexism and all, but one must keep in mind that its anger, however misguided, was rooted in a very real non-conformists' rebellion. We'll need a few more beers before we can come up with a rationalization for how climbing a ladder to peep at an undressing coed is actually about the Vietnam war.
"Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me" (1971). Directed by Jeffrey Young.
Perhaps part of my defense of “Animal House” is me projecting themes from Richard Fariña's chaotic yet heartfelt 1966 novel “Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me.” Perhaps best described as “Fear and Loathing in Ithaca,” Fariña, was half of the acclaimed as a folk duo with his wife Mimi (sister of Joan Baez.) He wrote the book as a student at Cornell. It has all the rage of a counter-culture classic, as well as numerous dazzling sequences set on the road. Fariña died two days after the book's eventual publication and years later his Cornell chum Thomas Pynchon dedicated “Gravity's Rainbow” to his memory.
A movie was made in 1971. We've never seen it.