living in

Living In: Mona Lisa Smile

by Maxwell Tielman

In Mona Lisa Smile, a 2003 film about a Wellesely College Art History class, one of the questions posed by the professor to her students is “is it good?” When it comes to films, at least, I think there are two kinds of “good” movies. There are good movies that are, in most senses of the word, actually good. They have excellent scripts, solid performances, and spots in the Criterion Collection. These are generally the kind of movies that win Oscars and acclaim from critics and viewers alike. Then, there are good movies that, by all standard criteria, fall a little short. Despite this, however, something about them wins you over. Although you know deep down that they’re predictable, overly saccharin, and more than a little flawed, they make you feel good. You can watch them over and over again, making them much better than any of the so-called “good” movies out there. Mona Lisa Smile, at least for me, is one of these movies.

The film, set in 1953, tells the story of how a group of smart yet conservative college girls is forced to reexamine art and their lives through lessons by their progressive art history professor (Julia Roberts). Throughout the course of a school year, these young women come to terms with their puritanical values and come to live, love, and learn with open minds. I know that the subject of women’s liberation has been tackled, oftentimes much more accurately and effectively, in countless other films. I also know that the film’s unintentionally melodramatic performances somewhat miss the mark. Still, there is something about this film that makes me love it. Perhaps it’s the movie’s overarching message of liberation and empowerment. Perhaps it’s the nostalgic feeling I get from watching such early-oughts starlets as Julia Stiles, Kirsten Dunst, and Maggie Gyllenhaal. Maybe I’m just no match for Julia Roberts’ effortless, toothy smile. Whatever the case may be, this feel-good movie is one of my g0-to flicks for days when I’m feeling blue or under the weather. With its beautiful (and perhaps underrated) set design and pastel color palette, it’s especially perfect for spring days like this. What are your favorite good-bad movies? —Max

1. Jackson Pollock Book | 2. Janson’s History of Art | 3. Turquoise Stud Earrings | 4. Chunky Cardigan | 5. Wooden School Desk | 6. Plaid Full-Length Skirt | 7. Rolling Hoop | 8. Vintage Smith & Corona Typewriter

1. Van Gogh Paint-By-Numbers | 2. Paintbrush Set | 3. Swim Cap | 4. Floral Pillow | 5. Organza Prom Dress | 6. Pearl Necklace | 7. Wellesley College Sweatshirt | 8. Elizabeth Arden Red Lipstick | 9. Keds Sneakers | 10. Papillionaire Bike

Film: Mona Lisa Smile

Year: 2003

Director: Mike Newell

Starring: Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ginnifer Goodwin, Dominic West, Marcia Gay Harden, John Slattery, Topher Grace

Production Design: Jane Musky

Art Direction: Patricia Woodbridge

Set Decoration: Susan Bode and Chris Nickerson

Costume Design: Michael Dennison

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  • I love your definition of “good vs GOOD” in this post! It applies to so many of my loves for tv, books, movies, etc. and I shall utilize it with the D.S trademark. =)

    I love this movie for the same reasons, but particularly because I’m an art history supergeek and I believe I was in grad school for it at the time this movie came out.

    Excellent post!

  • I was a student at Wellesley when this was filmed, and so got to be an extra in the movie. It was loads of fun to be dressed up in the period costumes and have my hair and makeup styled for 1953. In fact, I’ve been wearing cardigans ever since.

  • I was so excited to see this post, I love the visuals of Mona Lisa Smile. I may have watched this movie while studying for Art History exams in college.
    A friend went to Wellesley while they were filming, and sent us a photo of herself with her idol Kirsten Dunst in costume.

  • Mona Lisa Smile is one of those movies I can watch over and over! I love that it highlights art and some of the best scenes are the ones where Julia Roberts makes the girls really think.

    Great job putting together the collages — very creative as always! :)

  • Two other good-bad movies: Mannequin and Simply Irresistible with Sarah Michelle Geller (the one with orchids & a magic crab).

  • One of my top ten favourites…
    I loved it!
    Excellent choice…I have a screen shot of a jacket/blazer she was wearing in one scene. One day…

  • I adore this movie.

    Another (that I can’t believe I’m actually going to admit to) that I watch fairly routinely is A Lot Like Love. Yep, Ashton Kutcher. And a healthy dose of youthful angst. And the most cliche plot. I could go on.

  • I went from an “always read, rarely comment” reader to a “comment twice a day” reader, but I feel like you captured my feelings about this movie so well– sure it was a little melodramatic, but it’s one of those feel-good movies that you can watch over and over again. Plus, who doesn’t love a good Julia Roberts movie.

  • Sometimes I love a movie just because of its setting. That makes it good to me, regardless of the plot. One of those movies is The Wedding Date. such a sappy, stay-at-home-on-a-snowy-Friday night kind of flcik.
    xo Green Gable

  • This is funny, two days ago i saw this movie :3 and is one of my favorite
    you did a lovely mix, isn’t perfect the fashion?


  • This too, is one of my irrestibly bad-but-oh-so-good movies. My number 1 is Under the Tuscan Sun with Diane Lane

  • I love this movie! Cheesy, saccharine, cliche – yes. But that scene when Kirsten Dunst loses it, and Maggie Gyllenhaal grabs her and hugs her gets me every. single. time. So good!!

  • As a Wellesley alum, what I think is so funny about that movie was how inaccurate it really was in terms of the role of modern art on campus historically. A history I was so proud to be a part of as an art history major.

    In 1926, Brown hired Alfred H. Barr, Jr. as an associate professor. At Wellesley, Barr developed the first modern art course in the United States. It included painting, sculpture, film, photography, architecture, and design— categories Barr later used to define the curatorial departments he devised as founding director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

    John McAndrew, the first curator of architecture at MoMA, was appointed Wellesley College Museum Director in 1947.

  • For me, it’s “Ever After” with Drew Barrymore. And “The Craft” with Robin Tunney. I love both of these movies and can watch them over and over again….but I wouldn’t necessarily call them capital-G Good.

    Can’t wait for the day you guys do a Firefly/Serenity one!

  • I was on campus when this was filmed, but wasn’t allowed to be an extra because I wasn’t white. I’ve never liked this movie because of that.

  • @Leigh I had no idea about Barr!

    I’m also a Wellesley alum and art department major. I watched this movie on campus with my friends one time and at one point the view that was on the screen was practically the same view out the window right next to the screen. We gushed.

    I know a 1950 alum and she confirmed that the movie is horribly inaccurate regarding Wellesley in the 1950s. Apparently a lot of alums from that time period were really upset that the college allowed them to film there.

  • Well said. I love how you acknowledged its charm despite its cinematic shortcomings. The Wedding Singer, Under the Tuscan Sun, and You’ve Got Mail are some of my other favorites.

  • I love Design Sponge and am so happy about this post, since I’m a student at Wellesley right now! Thanks!

  • I love this movie because it creates a mood that reminds me so much of my days at an all-girls high school, in the best possible way. Ever After is definitely another of those movies that isn’t wonderful, but I could watch it any time.

  • This is hilarious. The night before you posted this my best friend and I watched Mona Lisa Smile. She is a teacher and I studied Art History in college so we love this movie. Neither of us had seen it in years!

  • Loved this movie – I studied art history so it brought back a lot of memories of those huge classes with antiquated teaching systems. I think the actresses in this movie are so amazing! Thanks for the inspiration

  • Since the films chosen for these segments combine feel-good plots and beautiful set design, here are my recommendations:
    Desperately Seeking Susan
    Practical Magic
    Thomas Crown Affair
    Pretty Woman
    Funny Face
    Gosford Park
    Pretty in Pink
    Philadelphia Story (Kate’s dresses!)
    So many possibilities!

  • This is one of my favorite quotes from the film:

    “You stand in class and tell us to look beyond the image, but you don’t. To you a housewife is someone who sold her soul for a center hall colonial. She has no depth, no intellect, no interests. You’re the one who said I could do anything I wanted. This is what I want.”

    To a lot of us of the younger generation, we were told that the way to happiness was following a different path — i.e. a busy and successful career. Imagine my surprise when, after moving to a new city, I found out the happiest I’ve ever been was keeping the house.

  • I love this movie, too! It’s one of those movies I have to watch whenever it’s on, and I own the DVD! It has such charm. It makes me nostalgic for the 50’s, and I wasn’t born until the mid-60’s! My favorite character is Ginnifer Goodwin as Connie. I love how, when she sneaks in to Charlie’s college to make up with him, all the boys in his dorm are yelling “no girls allowed in the dorms!” How times have changed! My main issue with this film is that Julia Roberts wardrobe or hair doesn’t really look very 50’s. I wonder what that was about.

  • Could someone please tell me the name of the painter, that Julia’s character shoes the girls straight from the crate… I’m wrecking my brain and can’t remember.. Thank you!!

  • I love this movie as well – I find myself watching it every time it’s on television and I occasionally pop in the DVD too. I never quite stopped to think about why I loved it so much but you’ve nailed it with your descriptions. And I love everything you’ve put together here. Big fan of the Living-In posts :)

  • I love how you see this movie as the good that is not popular to be good for other people. I have been watching this movie 3 times everyday for two weeks now and it’s an absolute pleasure each and every time I watch it and I discover details that I haven’t noticed the last time. And I just love it! and what I love the most about it is what was popular back then, I Love Lucy! the red screaming lipstick, the dresses, the whole makeup, the cigarettes, the banana bicycles, etc. Which is surprising because I was born on 1998. So I would love for you to post more inspired outfits from that movie, thank you!

  • My mother, who is 83 and attended an exclusive but less prestigious girls’ college in the early ’50s, will NOT hear word one said against this film. Cliché, simplistic, what have you, it gives her memories she holds fiercely to. She’s seen it a dozen times or more.

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