College is the great id of American movies. In the early days of film, universities were largely settings for outlandish comic escapades. But since the arrival of the youth culture in the 1960s, college has been a happy home not just for comedy, but for rebellion, anarchy and subversion, often accompanied by a big dollop of sexual awakening. In truth, Hollywood has shown little interest in college as an institution of learning. College is where the movies go for freedom, to escape the confines and mores of real life. Here are 10 movies that run a gamut of college experiences, set on campuses both real and fictional:
Long before "Revenge of the Nerds," silent comic Harold Lloyd starred in this affectionate portrait of a patsy who'll do anything to be a big man on campus. Set at the mythical Tate University, which could be any modern football factory (the film describes it as "a large football stadium with a college attached"), the film is full of satiric portraits of everyone from the menacing football coach and feckless dean to various doe-eyed freshmen. A clever spoof of 1920s college life, it also shows off Lloyd's peerless slapstick style, especially when serving as a replacement tackling dummy for the football team.
This is the anarchic Marx Brothers comedy in which -- years before students staged antiwar protests and sit-ins -- Groucho crooned, "Whatever it is, I'm against it." The film is set at the fictional Huxley College where, as the new president, Groucho assembles a hulking football team designed to trounce a cross-town rival school. Like most Marx Brothers comedies, the film also serves as a ferocious attack on intellectual pretense and various authority figures. After Groucho announces that he plans to tear down the college, a professor asks where the students will sleep. "Where they always sleep," he responds. "In the classroom."
"People Will Talk"
During the heyday of Red Scare witch hunts, Hollywood liberals often fought back with thinly veiled satiric comedies, like this one from writer-director Joseph Mankiewicz. Using a sleepy Midwestern college setting as a helpful prop, he casts the unassailable Cary Grant as an unconventional medical professor who is the victim of a smear campaign by a Joe McCarthy-like anatomy professor threatened by Grant's radical approach to medicine. Like many real-life Hollywood lefties of the time, Grant's character ends up on trial and is allowed to expose various forms of hypocrisy while earning some laughs along the way.
Made at the height of Hollywood's first mad scramble to cash in on the youth culture, this Richard Rush-directed psychedelic-era drama stars Elliott Gould as a disenchanted Vietnam vet back at college studying for a master's in English literature. Older and a bit wiser than the campus leftists, he is torn between a reactionary administration and a radicalized student body, not to mention alienated from his sweetheart (Candice Bergen) who wants a cozy life in the suburbs. The scenes of campus unrest are dated, but the scenes of Gould's egghead elders picking apart his thesis on F. Scott Fitzgerald are hilariously timeless.
"National Lampoon's Animal House"
Much imitated but never duplicated, this is the "Moby Dick" of college comedies, the inspiration for all too many low-lowbrow "American Pie"-style joke fests. Written by Harold Ramis, Douglas Kenney and Chris Miller, the movie is a perfect distillation of the Lampoon's outrageous "Buy This Magazine or We'll Shoot This Dog"-style of subversive humor. With Faber College as its mythical setting, it settles cultural scores left and right, using a strait-laced early '60s time period as a foil for its rebellious heroes, who thumb their noses at preppy frat boys, fuming college deans and anyone else with even a vague whiff of bourgeois respectability.
Though clearly full of comic intentions, this early Spike Lee film unfolds as a shrewd, often unsettling look at a subject untouched by previous Hollywood films -- the psychic divide between light-skinned and dark-skinned African Americans. Far ahead of its time, it was a commercial failure, although it introduced a host of young black stars, most notably Samuel L. Jackson. Using college fraternity members as his straight vs. nappy protagonists, Lee relies on comedy to explore all sorts of other barbed topics, from sexism and skin color to the place of black colleges in a post civil rights era.
"Good Will Hunting"
From westerns to teen comedies, there is no more enduring genre in Hollywood than male bonding drama. This one cleverly uses snooty Harvard as its setting, pitting the school's high-powered intellectual elite against Will Hunting (Matt Damon), a South Boston school janitor who just happens to be an incredible math prodigy. Snotty but sensitive, Hunting ends up bonding with a school psychologist (Robin Williams) who looks for a way to crack his hard shell. The story uses two generations of damaged men to give us a view of the willfulness of youth from the perspective of a father figure still wrestling with his own demons.
Campus life offers great examples of subcultures, none more vibrant than the world of black college marching bands. That forms the heart of this coming-of-age story about Devon, a cocky, high-stepping drummer (Nick Cannon) who discovers that his showboating skills aren't as popular as he thinks. There is plenty of conflict here, with Devon competing against an arch-rival drummer as well as butting heads with a prickly bandmaster. But the movie also does a nice job of capturing the rocky road to maturity that comes with trying to balance a personal gift with group discipline.
Going back to college may be the ultimate form of reliving one's late adolescence, but it is also an ingenious comic setup, played to the hilt in this goofball sketch comedy featuring Will Ferrell, Vince Vaughn and Luke Wilson as 30-something guys looking for a last hurrah as the proprietors of an off-campus fraternity. The high jinks that follow include everything from nude wrestling to tranquilizer dart gunplay, but there is a faint scent of male disenchantment with modern life that makes this more than just a sophomoric nostalgia trip.
"Mona Lisa Smile"
Before Betty Freidan and feminism arrived, there was Wellesley College circa 1953, a plush but prim cocoon for Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts), a free-thinking art professor who is quietly appalled by the cultural conservatism of this sequestered women's school. In Hollywood, the 1950s are inevitably portrayed as a decade of repression; so, naturally, the college's trustees are suspicious of Watson's boho attitude, which could encourage the spread of everything from promiscuity to communism. We are encouraged to be amazed that young women were once groomed simply to take care of their husbands and children, though judging by the way women are portrayed on "The O.C." and "Desperate Housewives" on television today, 1953-era Wellesley doesn't seem far away at all.
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