Yale is itself a celebrity. Those who know it intimately — we students, alumni and faculty — love it for all its qualities, magnificent and otherwise. Most people — let’s just call them “everybody else” — only know Yale in passing, if at all. They’ve heard the name, maybe visited once or have some distant familial connection to it. But close contact is strictly limited.
And because we’re so famous, we want as many publicity shots hitting as many eyeballs as possible. Right?
“A lot of films have been shot at Yale,” Yale American Studies professor Charles Musser said, citing such influential works as “Black at Yale” (Warrington Hudlin, 1972) and Standish Lawder’s “Corridor” (1968-1970), “a 20-minute experimental film that is nothing less than a tour de force.”
Wait a minute…What? Who?
With all due respect to Professor Musser, when we want to know which movies were filmed here at Yale, we’re not looking to hear the name of some brave documentary or an avant-garde masterpiece.
The only titles we’re interested in are ones we’ve heard of, ones we might have rented from Blockbuster, seen a trailer for, caught a glimpse of on AMC. When it comes to films like that, Yale hasn’t hosted very many at all.
‘There never was, and there never will be, another like you’
Here’s a tentative list of some feature Hollywood movies, easily found in the Internet Movie Database, that list Yale as a filming locale: “All About Eve” (1950), “Mystic Pizza” (1988), “Mona Lisa Smile” (2003) and the incomplete Uma project “In Bloom” (2007).
(Pay no attention to “Valley of the Dolls,” which for some reason pops up on IMDb when “Yale” is queried under “shooting locations”; it’s a horrible film that, Michael Kerbel, director of Yale’s Film Study Center, said, was thankfully not shot here.)
We can scratch a few titles off what was already a very short list.
“All About Eve” never reveals one shot of Yale in its entire running time. Actors Anne Baxter and George Sanders were filmed in front of a blank screen, then superimposed on footage from the College Street block between New Haven’s Taft Hotel and the Shubert Theater. Nor does “Mystic Pizza” ever show the façade of a single Yale building, even though several of the characters in the film are affiliated with Yale — one a future student, one a former student and one a Law School dropout.
That leaves us with “Mona Lisa Smile” and “In Bloom,” meaning only two “real movies” were filmed here, both of them within the last four years.
But it’s a stretch to say even that. In “Mona Lisa Smile,” for example, the cumulative footage of what is identifiably Yale adds up to almost nothing: The Hall of Graduate Studies sits in for the requisite college edifice, Julia Roberts pretends to research (and understand) abstract art in Sterling Memorial Library, and, en route to a hostile lecture room — on the first floor, no less — Roberts sprints up the Art Gallery’s spiral staircase.
This dearth of postcard-ready University backdrops stems from the fact that “Mona Lisa Smile” is set at 1950s Wellesley College and at Harvard; though Julia Stiles’ character applies to Yale Law School, none of the story takes place in New Haven.
“There are probably 3 seconds of cumulative footage that were shot here,” Danielle Tumminio GRD ’07, who was hired as an extra for “Mona Lisa Smile,” said. “When I saw the movie, I actually had to rewind to see if a shot was actually from Yale! A non-Yalie never would have noticed.”
‘Don’t air your dirty laundry in public’
Nevertheless, Kerbel said, the filming of “Mona Lisa Smile” in the fall of 2002 was a watershed event because it marked the first time that a feature film crew had breached Yale’s image-conscious bulwarks, signaling a shift from almost no involvement with Hollywood productions to a limited treaty of sorts.
“There appears to have been a shift in the tides,” Stephanie Schwartz, director of University Licensing, said. “Yale began to embrace opportunities” to promote itself publicly, not just to the far-reaching corners of the country, but to the whole world.
One of the biggest movies to film near Yale last year was the controversial Bollywood summer hit, “Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna” (“Never Say Goodbye”). A box-office record-breaker and one of the first Hindi films to tackle the subject of infidelity, “Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna” includes scenes filmed on the Green and at the New Haven train station. Alizeh Gangji ’09, whose cousin Karan Johar directed the film, said New Haven was chosen as a more accessible replacement for Philadelphia and Grand Central Station, where the story takes place.
Whether the footage will be used to fabricate an archetypal college campus or an entirely different city, there is a clear-cut process laid out for filmmakers who want to take advantage of Yale’s impressive architecture, urban surroundings and close proximity to prime locales like New York and Boston. All non-news requests for film, video and photography go through the Office of the Vice President and Secretary. A number of factors are considered when reviewing requests to film on campus, but only when two conditions are satisfied:
First, the Secretary’s Office mandates that the “normal operation of the University will not be disrupted in any substantive way by the filming,” Linda Boran, a representative of the Secretary’s Office, said. “Disrupted” means anything from production crews taking over pedestrian traffic for extended periods of time to the high levels of noise pollution generated by Julia Roberts’ big-toothed eruptions of laughter.
The second condition that must be met is a degree of neutrality on the part of the filmmakers.
“If Yale is identified in the production, then the content is reviewed to ensure that its inclusion is not detrimental to the image of the University or to that of anyone affiliated with the University,” Boran said.
Daddy banging the babysitter is a really old story
In other words, Yale knows it has to concern itself with appearances. It can’t just show up on the red carpet wearing a dead swan or a banner emblazoned with “We Suck.” (Leave that to you know who from you know where.)
In a major Hollywood film, Yale’s name makes a statement to millions of people. Certain risks are run. As a rather offbeat example, 1988’s “Mystic Pizza” delivers three characters who, through their Yale affiliation, implicitly promulgate common perceptions of what it means to be a Yalie.
Kat (Annabeth Gish), who comes from a working-class Portuguese family, has been accepted to Yale, where she plans to study astronomy the following semester. The script mentions that she has received a partial scholarship, but she still works three jobs in order to earn money to “pay for Yale.” One of her jobs is to baby-sit the daughter of a hunky Yale alum (William R. Moses), whose wife is away on business in England. Financial-aid-poster-child and undersexed-former-architecture-major cozy up and, eventually, hook up. The third Yale-affiliate is Charlie (Adam Storke), a cocky Yale Law dropout who parades around Mystic in a red Porsche, using up the money earned by his noveau-riche father.
The different Yalie stereotypes presented by “Mystic Pizza” might reflect the way the public — that “everybody else” which unfortunately knows no better — perceives a place like Yale
: Elusive, exclusive and mean. Poor people can come, but they have to be science majors and they’ve got to work to pay off their tuition. The attractive straight alumni lack morals and have kids just so that one day they can diddle the babysitter. All law students are on the verge of dropping out because they were just doing what Daddy wanted them to do in the first place, instead of following their real passion—doing nothing at all.
Still, some would argue that Yale’s name will always speak for itself, fighting criticism with an ingrained reputation over 300 years in the making. Tumminio, for instance, said she is not really concerned about how Yale might be portrayed onscreen.
“For me, I dreamed of coming to Yale as a kid because one of my favorite teachers had been an English major here,” Tumminio said. “She was quirky and energetic, and she inspired me as an academic, a writer and a human being. That kind of real-life inspiration doesn’t come from films. Everyone knows films are magic; they’re not real.”
But that’s not necessarily true. This country is full of small towns with not a single Yale alum to speak the truth about what it’s like to go here. As far as some people know, “Gilmore Girls” (not filmed at Yale) is totally accurate. Yale recruiters and representatives don’t — can’t — go to every high school in the world, which means that if Yale wants everyone to know how great it is, celluloid has to go where word of mouth cannot.
I’ll never forget this night as long as I live
Still, there are those who maintain that Yale needn’t worry about how word gets ’round.
Film Studies and Comparative Literature professor Dudley Andrew said that concern over “Yale’s image,” to him, “seems overblown.” Though Andrew said “there could be some horrendous misuses of this institution, and there ought to be vigilance against harmful parodies,” in general, agonizing over how Yale comes across on the silver screen is petty.
“There’s a much bigger world out there,” Andrew said.
But it’s a world to which Yale, despite its best efforts, remains only partially connected. As an institution that is both highly selective and protective of its reputation, it has no choice but effectively to shut all those “other people” out.
After all, Yale is a celebrity. It has plenty of important work to do and little time for those who might get in its way. It wants to protect its image as everything it hopes to be — welcoming, connected and vital — even as it reserves intimate access for the lucky and the few.
When Uma Thurman stopped by to film here, what did we do? Did we swarm her trailer and beg for autographs? Did we, as she casually strolled down Chapel Street, stroke her skirt because — by the rules of “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” — it’s the same thing as touching every famous person in the world?
No. We didn’t.
Instead, we smugly reminded ourselves that she’s just an actress. Something of a “real person.” Someone who, were it not for a few lucky horseshoes, would still be sending mediocre headshots to modeling agencies and hoping that her freakishly large feet wouldn’t cost her a job in the porn industry (I’m guessing).
We, on the other hand, number among our members precocious musicians, ingenious poets, scientific pioneers and, above all, Denzel’s daughter.
Maybe Mary Swartz ‘10 — Vanderbilt resident and creator of the “Uma Thurman came to Yale and I stalked her” Facebook group — said it best when she commented on her few moments in Uma-Land.
“Yeah, it was exciting,” Swartz said. “But it’s not like it changed my life or anything.”