John Keating: “No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world!”
[Robin Williams, “Dead Poets Society” (1989)]
“Academic education” has been generally defined as an education which has learning as its primary purpose. For most of us, attainment of an education is one of the most important parts of our life. Whether we did it when we were very young or much later in life, our need or necessity to learn, has been instilled into us as a means or a way to have a successful or more fulfilling life. However, what sort of learning or wisdom do we or can we ultimately gain to attain such goals? Numerous novels, plays and various dramatizations focusing on obtaining an education or school life itself have been done for film, television, and cable. Comedy, romance, drama, tragedy, even SY/FY and fantasy have all been utilized to good effect for a multitude of tales about learning or obtaining wisdom. It is this subject that this month’s Blog Post will discuss in further detail.
A number of plays, situated in an academic setting, have been adapted into films over the years with varying degrees of success. One of the earliest ones was from the novel, “Tom Brown’s School Days”, an 1857 novel by Thomas Hughes. “Days” chronicled Hughes experiences in an elite English public school during the 1830s focusing on the aforementioned Tom Brown, a fictional character thinly based on Hughes brother George. Brown’s efforts in obtaining an education are helped by his friendship with an older classmate named Harry East and by Dr. Thomas Arnold, the actual historical headmaster of the school at that time. The novel also chronicled Brown’s travails with another classmate, the drunken and bullying Harry Flashman, who becomes Brown’s nemesis. This novel’s popularity resulted in many screen adaptions with the very first one made in an early 1916 silent film version all the way up to a recent 2005 TV film.
A different type of a play concerning a student who, unlike Tom Brown, causes mayhem to all of those around her was the famous 1934 Lillian Hellman play, “The Children’s Hour.” “Hour” was set in an all-girls boarding school where a disruptive child named Mary, accuses the two women who run the facility of having a lesbian relationship. This results in their lives and those of others around them either destroyed or irreparably damaged. Here, the child was just a secondary character that wasn’t trying to obtain any wisdom at all. Instead, the focus was firmly on the two women whose lives were permanently altered. This play was a huge hit and controversial due to its lesbian theme. It was later adapted into a film version titled “These Three” (1936), and directed by William Wyler. However, because of the Hays Production Code banning any mention of or subject concerning homosexuality or lesbianism, the movie’s storyline had to be changed. Now the storyline consisted of just having the child make accusations that one of the two women was having an elicit sexual affair with the other one’s fiancé. Although this film was a hit, the theme of adultery, which might have been “hot” stuff back in the Puritanical nineteen thirties was, by the standards of today, about as scandalous as an unwanted “good night” kiss on a first date. The picture also wasn’t helped by Joel McCrea miscast as the fiancé. McCrea, who was never much of an actor, and more suitable riding a horse and brandishing a six gun, looked about as comfortable playing a suit and tie wearing doctor as rock star Meatloaf would have been if he wore a speedo. Wyler later had a chance to remake the film, now properly named “The Children’s Hour” in 1961 with the lesbian theme basically intact. This version starred James Garner as the Doc, Audrey Hepburn as his fiancée, and Shirley MacLaine as Hepburn’s (more than just a friend) co-worker in charge of the school. MacLaine gave an outstanding performance emanating a strong sexual desire, sometimes by just a look or a slight gesture towards Hepburn that told more than any words could. Unfortunately, it’s too bad that the same was not also true for Hepburn and Garner’s performances. Both of them were barely pedestrian in their roles, and this flaw turned “The Children’s Hour” into a soap opera rather than a strong drama.
A number of TV shows had, not just one young adult student acting disruptive, but rather, the entire student class possibly acting disruptive too. Such shows were social dramas involving teachers striving to motivate students to learn at various interracial inner-city schools where numerous conflicts could arise. For television you had such fine shows as the CBS drama, “The White Shadow” (1978-81) which starred Ken Howard as a white former professional basketball player who takes a job coaching basketball at an impoverished urban high school with a racially mixed team in South Central Los Angeles. For ABC you also had the comedy-drama “Room 222” (1969-74) with Lloyd Haynes as an idealistic African-American school teacher in a racially diverse high school also in Los Angeles. This half hour show was much milder than “Shadow” and didn’t touch on more controversial subjects. Not to limit such shows to just being situated in Los Angeles, you also had a sitcom like “Welcome back Kotter” (1975-79) which was situated in Brooklyn, New York. This comedy starred Gabe Kaplan (the aforementioned “Kotter”) in charge of a racially and ethnically diverse remedial class of loafers nicknamed the “Sweathogs”, and with one of them being John Travolta who played a dumb, stupid punk (before moving on up into playing an even bigger dumb, stupid punk in the movies). Also, not to be ignored was “Fame” (1982-87), which was based on the hit 1980 motion picture of the same name. This one was a comedy-drama interspersed with music that followed the lives of students and faculty at the fictional NYC High School for the Performing Arts. It won a number of Emmy Awards and led to numerous concert tours, hit records, a Broadway musical, and even a bad 2009 film remake.
Serious motion pictures about teachers at multi-ethnic inner-city schools trying to help students to learn were popular too. Unfortunately, too often their quality left a lot to be desired. Maybe the worst one of them all was the unintentionally laughable, but for its time controversial, hit MGM film, “The Blackboard Jungle” (1955). “Jungle” starred Glenn Ford as Rick Dadier, a new teacher at an inter-city high school with various students of mixed ethnic backgrounds. Soon enough his idealism is smashed by the sometimes indifferent and other times open defiance of the students led by Gregory Miller (Sydney Poitier) and Artie West (Vic Morrow), who resist his efforts to motivate them to learn. Dadier’s resolve is tested by (1) having to break up an attempted rape of a teacher in the school library on his first day there, (2) getting mugged by some of the students in an alley one night, (3) having his pregnant wife (Anne Francis) almost miscarry due to anonymous phone calls and letters suggesting he is having an affair, and (4) worst of all, having to put up with listening to Bill Haley and the Comets “Rock Around the Clock” instead of a real film score throughout the entire picture.
To say this movie was dated is putting it mildly. Supposedly, originally someone had the bright idea to have the beginning of the film start with some Soviet type guy in Russia commenting about American decadence of some sort leading into the Comets blasting out “Rock around the Clock” as the credits started rolling down the screen. Fortunately, that semi-brilliant idea was canned! Unfortunately, other things were not! First, you had a bunch of actors obviously in their twenties playing high school kids. Second, you had Poitier as the sole African-American in the classroom being one of the class leaders that his predominantly Caucasian classmates follow. Yeah, and I believe in the “Tooth Fairy” too! Third, you had a heavy handed, overt, and deliberately sensationalistic portrayal of juvenile delinquent gangs openly terrorizing the entire school along with their staff which probably scared the pants off of the nineteen fifties viewing public. “Jungle” made it seem like law enforcement was powerless to stop the violence and the chaos. Gee, maybe they just needed John Wayne charging in with a Marine battalion to put those anarchistic Commie juvenile delinquents in their place! Fourth, you were inundated with crude stereotypes instead of real believable characters in this movie. You had your burned-out teacher (Louis Calhern with a wig more fake than a ten-dollar Rolex), your naïve jazz loving math teacher (Richard Kiley) who, of course, quits after getting his jazz records smashed by the juveniles, the needy frightened wife (Francis), the secret musically gifted student (Poitier), and the perpetually sneering gang leader (Morrow) to name a few. This film was originally banned in Memphis and Atlanta, the U.S. Ambassador to Italy prevented the film from being shown at the Venice Film Festival, and a Senate committee condemned the film saying that “Jungle” would not have beneficial effects on contemporary youth. So of course, both the movie and Bill Haley and the Comets became a big hit, especially among those supposed masses of delinquent Fifties juveniles. And as for myself Dear Reader, even though I first saw the picture on TV when I was pretty young, I just thought that “The Blackboard Jungle” was one of the funniest, and most ridiculously campy things that I had ever seen!
Other inner city school films were also later made like “To Sir, with Love” (1967) with Sydney Poitier now as the teacher instead of the student, “Up the Down Staircase” (1967) with Sandy Dennis, “Stand and Deliver” (1988) with James Edward Olmos in an Academy Award nominated performance as real-life high school math teacher Jaime Escalante, “Dangerous Minds” (1995) with Michelle Pfeiffer as real-life teacher LouAnne Johnson, and “Critical Thinking” (2020) with John Leguizamo who directed and starred as real-life social studies teacher Mario Martinez who led his Miami Jackson High School chess team to a win at the U.S. Chess Federation’s National High School Chess Championships in 1998. All of these pictures except “Dangerous Minds” (which was really bad with more stereotypes than even “Blackboard Jungle”) had their merits, especially “Stand and Deliver” and “Critical Thinking” (Leguizamo deserved more acclaim both for his performance and for his directing). However, motion pictures about students learning or developing wisdom, as I previously mentioned, were also a fertile area for stories involving horror or science fiction where maybe the students were just trying to “learn” how to survive!
For example, you had “Carrie” (1976) which was based on the Stephen King novel with Sissy Spacek laying telekinesis waste to her high school prom dance class after receiving an unappreciated pig blood makeover. Although Piper Laurie’s awful over the top performance as Carrie’s psycho mom could make even Nicolas Cage’s worst bug-eyed drooling performances seem sedate by comparison, the real culprit for how bad this movie really is, was due to the ever-inept directing style of Brian De Palma. De Palma never had a scene that he couldn’t misdirect, where you could always be sure he would overuse some sort of camera trickery as a distraction so he could throw in as much excessive sex, nudity, graphic violence, blood, and gore as was humanly possible. Although “Carrie” was a big financial success, it’s the type of garbage that didn’t even deserve to be dumped into a rusted-out Dixie Dumpster. However, a much better high school horror film was “The Faculty” (1998). This film was sort of like an “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and “The Thing” YA clone where different members of an Ohio high-school faculty and their students were being infected by a wormlike parasite that would crawl into their earlobe to infect and control their minds (Hmm! Sort of like Fox News!). When a bunch of the students discover what is going on, they team up to try and find and destroy the creatures’ queen before everyone is infected and the aliens “Take Over the World!!!” (Yeah, that one again!). This one was an unabashed campy cult flick, but it was surprisingly suspenseful with some real comic moments thrown in to lighten the horror. It also had a surprisingly huge top-notch ensemble cast with such veterans as Salma Hayek, Famke Janssen, Piper Laurie (Yeah, her again, but not as bad!), Bebe Neuwirth, Robert Patrick, Louis Black, and Jon Stewart slumming along as infected or future infected faculty. It also had Josh Hartnett, Elijah Wood, Shawn Hatosy, Jordana Brewster, and Clea DuVall as some of the students trying to stop the alien invasion while also trying not to develop any zits in the process. If you just want to have some fun without needing to learn any wisdom, “The Faculty” is a High-School Horror Hoot! (OK, even I’m groaning at that one).
Comedies were also readily available for movies pertaining to academia where laughter rather than learning took precedence. Far too often they could just be a mix of gross out humor, nudity, and sex. However, at other times, they could also be very, very funny. Some of the good ones were “Animal House” (1978), “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” (1982), and “Back to School” (1986) for example. However, one that I especially want to praise, and it’s not even a motion picture at all but a comedy drama television series especially created for Netflix and taking place in England, is “Sex Education” (2019 to present). This series is an ensemble drama, but with the two main characters consisting of Otis (Asa Butterfield), an awkward teenage son, and his noted sex therapist mom, Jean (Gillian Anderson). Jean, who is divorced, has no hesitation about talking or encouraging Otis to discuss all aspects of sexuality with her which makes Otis constantly uncomfortable and embarrassed. What’s even worse is, that as the series begins, Otis is a virgin who struggles in even being able to masturbate. He goes to a multi-ethnic high school with his best friend Eric (Ncuti Gatwa), a flamboyant gay teen who keeps his sexual identity hidden from his religious family. When Otis, who has picked up vast knowledge about sexuality over the years from his mother, helps a student resolve a sexual issue, he is approached by Maeve (Emma Mackey). She is a beautiful, smart, and outwardly confident but internally troubled student with a false reputation for being promiscuous. She proposes that the two of them start a little underground sex therapy clinic for the students where Otis helps them with their sexual issues while Maeve handles the financial side of the business along with finding future student patients for Otis. As Otis conducts his therapy sessions, his status at school improves. Unfortunately, so does his stress due to his own impotency issues, his necessity to keep his therapy work secret, and his slow growing attraction to Maeve and she to him.
“Sex Education” is hysterical. Each episode explores some student or faculty member’s sexual issue right from the get go. Just about nothing, either gay or straight, is off limits or taboo for this show. However, this series is far more than a cheap titillating sex comedy show with heavy handed humor and card board characterizations. “Education” is also a well-developed drama which discusses some serious contemporary issues in a thoughtful and intelligent way. It is extremely well written allowing the entire cast to develop detailed complex characters that are believable and full of true feeling. This was due to series creator Laurie Dunn, who wanted the show to be an homage to the John Hughes high school films of the 1980s (“The Breakfast Club”, etc.). Well, my own honest opinion is that “Sex Education’ is better than the John Hughes films due to its honest depiction, not just of sexual issues, but of human relationships in general. No one on the show is ever always right or ever always wrong. No one is ever always bad or ever always good either. And most importantly, no one on the show is so set in their ways that they cannot see an opposing view and even change with time. This is a comedy drama where you see individuals, both adults and teenagers learning about themselves and gaining wisdom and understanding about life in general. Each year, “Sex Education” is getting better and better along with every character showing more and more complexity and self-awareness. That makes it truly special. It has been a long, long time since I can honestly say that a particular television series is truly touching. “Sex Education” definitely is!
The last two motion pictures that I want to highlight about teachers striving to help teens to learn, and to grow are serious dramas that have achieved past acclaim, and are both still relevant after all of these years. They also have another thing in common. Both films have a great performance by actor Robin Williams. These two films are “Dead Poets Society” (1989) and “Good Will Hunting” (1997). “Dead Poets” starred Williams as John Keating, a new English teacher at Welton Academy, an all-male elite prep school in Vermont in 1959. Keating’s teaching methods are unorthodox to say the least. They include everything from having the students stand on the top of their desks to look at life from a different perspective to even having them make up their own distinct way of walking outdoors to encourage each of them to develop his own individuality. The students enthusiastically take to his new way of teaching and branch out into developing new interests and passions, which Keating defines by the Latin expression of carpe diem meaning, “Seize the day!” They even discover that Keating, a Welton alumni, was formerly a member of the unsanctioned Dead Poets Society when he was a student there. The students resurrect the club which basically consists of their sneaking off into the woods to read and recite poetry and verse, including some of their own compositions. As the year progresses, they each more and more live their lives more fully on their own terms. Unfortunately, the prep school’s administration is steeped in rigid conformity which is contrary to both Keating’s teaching methods and even the existence of a group like the Dead Poets Society. This conflict will ultimately result in tragedy.
“Dead Poets” was a huge hit that year thanks to fine direction by Peter Weir and a fine original screenplay by Tom Schulman who won an Oscar. Weir did not have the picture focus primarily on Williams’ Keating, but rather on the students themselves, and how they were affected by Keating’s teaching. This does nothing to diminish Williams’ performance which is mostly restrained and thoughtful which was not how Williams was ordinarily thought to be able to do convincingly. Also fortunate was that the students, played by a young Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard, Josh Charles, and others all gave fine performances too. Weir, Williams, and the picture itself all received well deserved Academy Award nominations although none of them won. Interestingly, at that same time, a number of film critics like Siskel and Ebert, Leonard Maitin, John Simon, etc. were dismissive of the film as a whole. That’s OK! Like I have said a number of times, always remember my personal mantra… “The Critics are full of S&*T!” Carpe Diem, Dear Reader!
“Good Will Hunting”, directed very well by Gus Van Sant (“Drugstore Cowboy”) tells the tale of Will Hunting (Matt Damon in a star making performance), a wayward young adult with genius level intelligence, especially in mathematics, who works as just a janitor at MIT. When Will secretly solves a complex mathematical problem left on a blackboard for graduate students and later, after getting into a gang fight where he is arrested, the professor who discovered that Will was the one who solved his problem confronts Will and gives him a choice. Either Will can go to jail or agree to be released into his personal supervision where Will must study mathematics and also see a psychotherapist. Will grudgingly agrees and ultimately is referred to Dr. Sean Maguire (Robin Williams) to address anger issues and self-loathing from abuse that he received as a foster child. “Hunting” is helped by a great Oscar winning screenplay written by Damon and Ben Affleck who also plays his friend Chuckie in the film. Damon is fantastic as Will, so cynically smart yet so secretly self-hating that he’d rather deliberately sabotage all of his interpersonal relationships because of the fear of failure which would cause him additional emotional pain. He is equally matched by Williams as Dr. Maguire, restrained, analytical, but capable of pushing Will’s emotional buttons as well as having to take stock of his own issues when Will cruelly pushes Maguire’s emotional buttons right back. Both individuals learn from each other and the best scenes in the entire movie are their fascinating interactions with each other. By the time the Academy Awards came around, Robin Williams wasn’t denied this time. He won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. After twenty-five years, “Good Will Hunting” can still touch your heart!
Well, that raps it up for now! You can have magical schools of learning like those in the various Harry Potter films. You can also have superhero schools of learning like Professor Charles Xavier and his X Men school for mutants. Or maybe you can just have something smaller, like a chronicle of a first year Harvard Law School student having to face the formidable Professor Charles W. Kingfield played so expertly by John Houseman in “The Paper Chase.” The choices are almost limitless regarding motion pictures and television shows about places of learning or ways for individuals to learn and to seek wisdom. Whatever, choices you may have made, Dear Reader in what you have wanted to learn, and what wisdom you may have attained …
I hope you became a better person because of it!
See you next month!