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I reviewed The Visitor in this weekâs issue, and it's one of those small films with a big heart that features an impressive ensemble acting performance. Above all else, Richard Jenkins gives one of those subdued performances that in some ways is brilliant in its subtlety, as a college professor who has become detached from the real world after his wife dies.
But while itâs a great performance, I couldnât help but think about how the college professor has become the poster boy for middle-age angst in film. The fact that he drives a Volvo is almost equally cringing, but I digress. (FULL DISCLOSURE: My dad was a college professor for 40 years, so this subject cuts a little close to the bone for me.)
I thought about other college professors in movies over the years, and it's obvious theyâve fit into neat little âtypes.â For example â¦
* THE PROFESSOR AS IMPOTENT FAILURE â In retrospect, I guess I might have been a bit traumatized when I saw Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, as a kid. I mean, what a gruesome war between Richard Burton (as the professor George) and Elizabeth Taylor (his wife, Martha) in the film version of Edward Albee's stage drama. One of the greatest moments is when Martha starts telling Nick (George Segal) what a âflopâ the once-promising George has been as a faculty member â that George "didnât have the stuff.â Say hello to the shrinking penis! The only thing more horrifying than Taylorâs carping is watching Burton shrivel and fume all at once. âAssociate professorâ? Ouch! It's enough to drive an academic to drink, but more on that later.
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* THE PROFESSOR AS SELF-ABSORBED, NEEDY BASTARD â Nobody proved that more comically than Jeff Daniels in The Squid and the Whale, particularly the way he bosses his son Walt (as in Whitman?) around while spewing his pompous, literary-referencing bile. It would also go with it that theyâre generally unhealthy, as we see with Daniels in this scene with Jesse Eisenberg in a hospital. Do these guys ever eat right? What, too much escargot?Itâs enough to make a son run away in terror.
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* THE PROFESSOR AS TYRANT â Of course they're tyrants! After all, the entire class is at their whim. Students hang on their every word. Why shouldnât they treat them like pathetic sheep, and bend them to their will? John Housemanâs Professor Kingsfield is the classic example, starting right off at the beginning of The Paper Chase, in which he humiliates an unprepared Mr. Hart (Timothy Bottoms) and shows off his own legal acumen just for good measure. Iâm sure this film divided viewers, with one half spending the movie pleading for Kingsfield to give the kid a break already (or grow a heart) and the other half wanting Hart to stop being such a feckless whiny dweeb (or grow a pair). This film literally separates the men from the boys.
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* THE PROFESSOR AS MADMAN â Professors, according to Hollywood, are not conveyors of knowledge so much as they are opinionated crazies. Itâs their way or the highway; class discussion is just a prop for their unchangeable theories. And God help a student if they came up with an opinion of their own and/or one that challenged the professorâs own. Of course, the beauty of this scene from Back to School is in the fact that the student, a vapid coed, simply regurgitates an oft-repeated theory about why the U.S. lost the Vietnam War. Forget that that theory is a much-accepted theory. The important thing is that it sets off Sam Kinison in one of the movieâs best scenes. (I would have loved to sit in on this class.)
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* THE PROFESSOR AS ADDICT â Name one movie in which a professor isnât some kind of boozer or pill-popper â¦ OK, maybe thatâs a bit of an overstatement. But clearly years of being one-book wonders and being isolated in that ivory tower has done a number on our heroes of academia. So disillusioned are they from years of delivering unappreciated lectures, struggles for tenure and endless writerâs block to finish that second novel that the only answer is in a bottle or a vial. Which is how Michael Douglasâ character kicks off this scene from The Wonder Boys. (And arenât like half of cinemaâs professors just absolutely fashion-challenged?!?)
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* THE PROFESSOR AS AWKWARD LOVER â As we see in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, professors donât make the best husbands in the world. Their nose is buried so deep in their research (and the deanâs ass) and so consumed with cranking out their next novel that they wouldnât dare do something as awful as romance their wife properly. I was hoping to find better examples of this from the underrated Carl Franklin movie One True Thing, but here we see William Hurt (looking unrelentingly professorial) trying to be sweet to his cancer-stricken wife while their kids (Tom Everett Scott, Renee Zellweger) look on with mixed reactions. (Hint: Zellwegerâs the journalist.)
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* THE PROFESSOR AS LATENT KILLER â Admit it: You had to wonder about at least one of your professors finally going off the deep end and putting the smackdown on that one student who pushed all the wrong buttons. Because professors are such miserable failures, they must take all that frustration out on someone. Why not a student? David Mametâs Oleanna is arguably the most uncomfortable of his vast canon of uncomfortable works, most notably thanks to this harrowing scene in which William H. Macy really looks like heâs going to kill the student of the filmâs title.
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