Ann Hornaday’s excellent Washington Post essay on college professors in movies included some of my favorites. I especially liked the comments from first-time screenwriter Mark Jude Poirier, the son of a college professor, who has spent time teaching himself. His new movie, “Smart People,” stars Dennis Quaid (who was also a college professor in D.O.A.) as a scruffy Victorian literature scholar with an “unpublishable” new book called The Price of Postmodernism: Epistemology, Hermeneutics and the Literary Canon.
One advantage to making his protagonist a literature professor, he says, was that he could endow the character with eloquence and self-awareness without straining credulity. At a pivotal point, for instance, Wetherhold tells another character that he hasn’t had any “great epiphanies” or made “sweeping changes” to his personality. “That’s something a professor would say,” Poirier says. “They’re living in a world of literature, a world where they’re thinking about epiphanies and character changes all the time. So it seems natural that they’d apply that to themselves.”
In other ways, the bored or blocked professor — teaching the same texts in the same rooms to the same if interchangeable students, day in, day out, semester after semester — perfectly embodies the ennui of any job. But in this case, that job brings the added value of involving performance. Thus the professor is the ideal personification of inertia without inert ness, suggests Poirier. “He’s onstage every day.”
Certainly, the overly introspective professor who has given up caring about much of anything appears frequently in movies. But we also see the expert who provides exposition for the audience and guidance for the hero/heroine with some expertise about arcane subjects ranging from anthropology to chemistry, history, literature, even the the occult. Sometimes they are there as a romantic interest. Then there are the absent-minded professors who create potions and machines that either result in chase scenes or comedy, occasionally both. And sometimes professors lead the action — remember, Indiana Jones teaches archeology when he isn’t out tracking down the Lost Ark or the Holy Grail.
Even future President Ronald Reagan played a psychology professor in Bedtime for Bonzo. Not his best role, but still a very cute little movie with a lovely performance by Diana Lynn as his wife.
Here are some movie professors who get A’s from me.
1. Wonder Boys Michael Douglas spends much of the movie in a ratty old bathrobe, trying to stop writing a book that has reached 2000 pages and is still going, and juggling a highly talented but depressed student, several ex-wives and a pregnant mistress who is inconveniently married to the dean, and Marilyn Monroe’s sweater. A beautifully literate script, beautifully performed and directed, with an outstanding soundtrack.
2. Monkey Business The ever-elegant, ever debonair Cary Grant is not a likely candidate to play an absent-minded professor but his impeccable timing is just right for this role, especially after the professor and his wife (Ginger Rogers) accidentally try out a youth serum that have them reverting to childhood. Watch for a very young Marilyn Monroe in a small part.
3. The Absent-Minded Professor Fred MacMurray appears in this Disney classic about “flubber” — flying rubber — that can make cars fly and basketball players jump like pole vaulters.
4. A Beautiful Mind Russell Crowe was nominated for an Oscar for his performance as John Nash, a Nobel Prize-winning mathematician who struggled with mental illness.
5. Raiders of the Lost Ark Harrison Ford does not spend much time in the classroom or the library in one of the most exciting — and popular — adventure films ever made, a loving salute to movie serials from Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.
6. Educating Rita Another scruffy, bearded, burnout, this time it is Michael Caine as a professor of literature who learns as much from his student (Julie Walters) as she does from him.
7. Stranger Than Fiction Will Ferrell has to consult an expert in literature to try to figure out why someone seems to be narrating his life “accurately, and with a better vocabulary.” He finds Dustin Hoffman, who explains that he wrote a whole paper on “had he but known” and teaches him how to tell whether he is in a comedy or a tragedy.
8. Holiday This time, Cary Grant is befriended by a married couple, both professors, played by Edward Everett Horton and Jean Dixon as the Potters (frequently called Porter by the snooty relatives of Grant’s fiancee).
9. ShadowlandsThe author of the Narnia books, C.S. Lewis, is played by Anthony Hopkins in this tender story about his late-life romance with an outspoken American (Debra Winger). There is also a very fine made-for-British-television version by the same name starring Joss Ackland and Claire Bloom.
10. Drumline Sometimes the job of the professor in a movie is to teach the main character some important lessons about responsibility, integrity, and goals. That’s what Orlando Jones does for Nick Cannon in this delightfully engaging movie about a talented but undisciplined drummer on a marching band scholarship.
Coming soon….Great Movie teachers in elementary, middle, and high school. Stay tuned.