When the camera panned from a solemn moment of a prayer at a Washington cabinet meeting to fraternity debauchery in a dark basement, the brothers of the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity erupted in loud cheers.
Anticipating their on-screen portrayal in Oliver Stone’s latest biopic, “W.,” the brothers got their first glimpse of an overly intoxicated George W. Bush ’68, who, after serving as the president of their fraternity, would later take on the same title as president of the United States.
“Delta Kapps are men of honor, decency and God-given character,” declared the fictional DKE President, clad in a blazer, sweater and tie.
Almost instantly, shouts and heckles filled the theater at Criterion Cinemas on Temple Street.
With the exception of a lone couple sitting in the back row, the sixty brothers and pledges of the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity had the theater to themselves. And in an art-imitating-life moment, the fictional brothers subjected the fictional pledges to a name test — the sort that their real-life counterparts had taken just two hours earlier.
Yet while in the movie, the brothers stood shirtless in tubs filled with liquor, forcefully funneled alcohol before being asked to name every brother in the frat, in real life the 2008 pledges insisted they underwent no such treatment before their own test, during which their sobriety was required.
DKE abides by Connecticut law and does not haze its pledges during any sort of hell week, several members of the fraternity said.
“We’re very nice to our pledges,” Uthman Arogundade ’09 said. “We don’t call it hell week. We call it inspiration week.”
“It’s more of a traditional fraternity, more like what you see in Animal House,” echoed pledge Mike McInerney ’12.
But some Yalies disagreed. One undergraduate familiar with DKE’s pledge process, for instance, admitted that new brothers are required to do “physically and mentally strenuous things.”
Still, the film’s flashback from the oval office to college-age Bush, surrounded by other inebriated brothers armed with paddles, highlights the stereotypical excess and debauchery of the old boy’s club.
That is, simply, the image that Stone uses to satirize President Bush’s time at Yale — an out-of-control Delta Kapp fraternity rush — and it is clichéd and inaccurate, said Peter Bonoff ’67. Stone’s portrayal of Yale’s 1960s fraternity scene was more a representation of the pop culture perception of privileged Yale men from that era, he said.
Jack Daniels, Smirnoff and funnels galore saturate the scene in “W.” The basement is hot and crowded. Alcohol flows freely. Brothers are drunk, but pledges are drunker; hazing has commenced, and the Whiffenpoof’s song fills the air.
“Wildly impossible; more than exaggeration,” Bonoff said. “Yale when I was there was nothing like that. Fraternities were nothing like that. There was no sense of privilege like that.”
Jay Pilkerton ’09, president of DKE, echoed Bonoff’s sentiment. While he said he found the fraternity scene entertaining, it was not accurate.
“The fact that they were supposedly trying to represent us, that’s not what we do,” he said.
However, current students interviewed did not see the scene as grossly outside the realm of possibility for how things were or still are.
“Obviously it hasn’t changed a lot since the old days, though I don’t particularly identify with the DKE scene,” said Ben Barasch ’09. “I am sure if that’s what you’re looking for, you can find it.”
But the DKE brothers today insisted that forcing alcohol on unwilling pledges is not part of the pledging process.
“In general, all drinking at any fraternity is a voluntary thing; there is no time during rush or pledging when a rush or brother is forced to drink alcohol,” DKE brother Sam Duprey ’10 said.
On the surface, the mere appearance of the fictional brothers bore little resemblance to their present counterparts. Sweatpants were more prevalent than slacks, and hoodies more common than sweater, tie and blazer combos. Stone’s portrayal was a stretch even for the time period, Bonoff said.
“We wore the solid sweaters you still see at J. Press as crewnecks or V-necks, and we wore button-down shirts all the time,” said Bonoff. “It was nowhere near as preppy as Stone portrayed.”
Bush, however, stood out. Bonoff recalled “Dubya” sporting Bush Senior’s WWII field jacket, setting him apart from the typical Yalie. Its pockets were roomy enough to each fit a beer, he said.
In the end, the film was ultimately a satire, albeit a “toothless and shapeless” one, said J.D. McClatchy, editor of the Yale Review and an adjunct professor of English. The opening scene worked to establish a theme of pointlessness and excess that carried throughout the film, he added.
“The vacuity of character is what it is about,” McClatchy said characterizing Stone’s implicit message about Bush.
“W.” made $10.6 million at the box office during its opening weekend.