A film featuring Julia Roberts is always a huge draw for her fans. “Mona Lisa Smile” is no exception. A wonderful cast, mostly consisting of females, is an added aspect, although at times it was difficult to distinguish one from the other. Apparently, all Wellesley girls have the same look.
Yes, the film takes place in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and scenes of the college are extraordinary, inside and outside the buildings. What a wonderful place to receive an outstanding education. It is not yet a co-educational school, and most likely, will never admit males.
Julia Roberts - Wikimedia
For the 1953-54 college year, Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts) accepted a position as a teacher of Art History 101 at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. Katherine, a thirty-year-old, came all the way from Oakland, California with the idea of educating the daughters of wealthy parents, hoping to give them an alternative look at life than what they had been exposed to. Katherine had an unconventional Bohemian outlook, wanting to make a difference in a very conservative college which values old traditions. She did not have a pedigree, but she did have brains.
Katherine Settles In
Katherine was given a room at the college with the forewarning that male visitors were forbidden. She was told bluntly by an older teacher that not everyone wanted her. Another candidate was chosen, but took a position elsewhere; they settled on Katherine. Her fellow teacher, Nancy Abbey (Marcia Gay Harden) took an instant liking to Katherine, and they became good friends. Nancy taught the girls speech, elocution, and poise.
On the first day of class, Katherine met her students for the first time and told them that they would be following the syllabus. Her lesson for the day consisted of showing slides of famous paintings which were explained in the textbook. The students knew the history of every painting that was shown; all of them had read the textbook from cover to cover. At the end of class, one of the girls suggested that they might do independent study instead.
Kirsten Dunst - Wikimedia
The College President Advises Katherine
The President of the College, Jocelyn Carr (Marian Seldes), warned her that she should try for better discipline in her next class. She was curious about Katherine’s doctoral dissertation which was in process, and disagreed with the assumptions that it contained.
Katherine was despondent about her first day at Wellesley and called her boyfriend Paul (John Slattery) in California, but their conversation was interrupted.
Katherine Receives some Flak
One of Katherine’s students, Betty Warren (Kirsten Dunst) had chosen to antagonize Katherine with her questions and confrontations. Betty’s mother was the president of the Alumnae Association; therefore, Betty felt free to voice her opinions without fear of reprisal. Betty was scheduled to be married to her boyfriend Spencer in three weeks. It was a tradition at the college that married women could absent themselves from class frequently since caring for their husbands was the dominant vocation of a woman.
Betty was also the editor of the school paper and wrote some scathing editorials at times. She learned from another student that the school nurse, Amanda Armstrong (Juliet Stevenson), was distributing condoms to the girls and mentioned it in one of her editorials. Amanda was immediately fired by President Carr for her offense.
Dominic West - Wikimedia
Katherine Gets Close to Her Students
The students gradually warmed up to Katherine and wondered why she wasn’t married. The rumor was that she had a torrid affair with the actor William Holden which caused her to leave California and to settle in the East. One of Katherine’s brightest students, Joan (Julia Styles) confided in her that she was planning to get married, but often thought of going to Law School at Yale. Katherine tried to tell her that she could do both. The sense at the college was that the girls were being prepared to be the wives of successful men, and that should be their only goal in life. Katherine disagreed with the assumption.
Betty Warren wrote another editorial attacking Katherine for her views that educated women should seek a career instead of settling for being a wife and mother as God intended.
Katherine’s Boyfriend Shows Up
Katherine’s boyfriend Paul made a surprise visit to Wellesley prior to the Christmas holidays, and brought her an engagement ring, which surprised Katherine. At a night spot that evening, he introduced himself to some of her students as Katherine’s fiancée which embarrassed her. When they got back to the college, she told Paul that she could not accept his ring since she didn’t feel that strongly about him. Meanwhile, the girls spread the news around the campus that their teacher was engaged. Katherine had to explain to the girls that she had changed her mind.
Wellesley College - Wikimedia
Katherine Befriends a Fellow Teacher
Katherine was approached by the teacher of Italian, Bill Dunbar (Dominic West), a charming man who had many stories to tell about his heroic adventures in Italy when he served in the army during the war. It was rumored, quite truthfully, that he had carried on a romance with one of his students, Giselle (Maggie Gyllenhaal).
Katherine and Bill are an Item
Bill Dunbar escorted Katherine to Betty’s marriage with Spencer, and so they became an item to be discussed by everyone. Bill invited her to his summer cottage and they enjoyed each other’s company. One weekend, she was to meet Bill at the cottage but when she arrived, Bill had not come yet. She walked in on his friend Stan who was just coming out of the shower. After he was decent, they had a nice chat. Katherine said that she had heard stories of Bill and Stan’s escapades when they were in the army in Italy. Stan was surprised and said he and Bill spent the wartime years at the Army Language Center on Long Island. When Katherine confronted Bill with the news, she felt that she could no longer trust him and broke off their relationship.
Marcia Gay Harden Wikimedia
Betty is Unhappy in her Marriage
As the months went by, Betty became more and more unhappy in her marriage because Spencer spent so much time away from her. She finally became aware that he was cheating on her. Betty’s cousin Charlie was dating one of Betty’s classmates, Connie (Ginnifer Goodwin), but Betty had told her that he was planning to marry another girl whom his parents had chosen. Connie was distraught, and confronted Charlie in his dorm room, and they were able to get together again without interference.
Joan is Accepted at Yale
Joan was accepted at Yale’s Law School, but her boyfriend Tommy, who was planning to go to graduate school at Penn State, persuaded Joan to elope with him so that she could live in Philadelphia while he was finishing school. Joan told Katherine that she was happy with her decision; she had always wanted a husband and family.
Maggie Gyllenhaal Wikimedia
Betty Makes New Plans
Betty confided to Katherine that she had filed for divorce from Spencer and that she and Giselle were planning to get an apartment in Greenwich Village in New York City. She indicated that she hoped to go to Yale Law School eventually. Betty dedicated her last editorial in the school newspaper to Katherine Watson, praising her for helping her students to “see the world with new eyes.”
Towards the end of the school year, President Carr indicated to Katherine that she had received some calls about her unorthodox teaching methods.
I do not believe the ending of this film should be revealed here. Whatever the ending, it was a pleasure to see Julia Roberts at work in the career that she loves. She deserves her A-List reputation, and has never let us down.