Dartmouth in Film
By Myrel Iturrey, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Friday, January 18, 2013
We are introduced to Conrad “Ronnie” Brean — an amoral political spin-doctor and one of Robert De Niro’s most acclaimed roles — in a hectic White House Situation Room.
“Where’d you go to school, kid,” Brean asks the White House aide, played by Suzanne Cryer “Wellesley?”
The actress in the 1997 comedy “Wag the Dog,” described in the original screenplay as a “bright young woman in her 20s,” responds plainly: “Dartmouth.”
“Then show a little spunk!” Brean retorts.
The quick, albeit telling reference to Dartmouth made within the first 10 minutes of the film’s opening scene is just one amongst a slew of the College’s portrayals in cinema. From “Animal House” (1978) to “The Godfather” (1972) to, more recently, “Mad Men” and “Scandal,” Dartmouth snags screen time not only as the alma mater of a wide range of characters but also in passing recognition of its academic reputation and infamous social culture.
References to Dartmouth in film frequently fall within the cookie-cutter Ivy League stereotype. Think handsome, intelligent, well mannered all-American boy hailing from an upper class WASP family and clad in Brooks Brothers khakis. Accordingly, Freddie Prinze Jr.’s character in “She’s All That” (1999) is Dartmouth-bound after graduation.
Characters attending Dartmouth perhaps all share one thing: they’re smart. In 2007, we discovered that the endearing duo Evan and Fogell of “Superbad” (2007) were to join the Class of 2011 in the upcoming fall. One can only speculate that they enjoyed Conan O’Brien’s quip about Brown University being Dartmouth’s younger lesbian sister as much as we did.
Yet, despite Conan’s sharp and definite typecasts of each of the Ivies in his commencement speech, writers merely trying to characterize the “golden boy or girl” in their movies or television shows could arguably drop any of the Ivy names to the same end. So why choose Dartmouth?
Perhaps Dartmouth provides just the right amount of understated respectability that many writers seek. Film and media studies professor Bill Phillips ’71 suggested that Dartmouth has less of a pompous air attached to its name than other highly-regarded institutions.
“Harvard is sort of the go-to school to name if a writer wants to shorthand ‘success’ and maybe ‘nerdiness,’” Phillips said. The image of Harvard in “The Social Network” (2010) as a foreboding institution staffed by a disconnected faculty and chock-full of ambitious, self-interested legacy students comes to mind.
However, portrayals of Dartmouth on the big screen aren’t always peachy, either. Screenplays that attempt to develop the persona of a more complicated graduate might cast Dartmouth in a less flattering light. For one, comedian Stephen Colbert’s character often flaunts his Dartmouth diploma to further bolster his character’s penchant for conservatism. Additionally, Meredith Grey in “Grey’s Anatomy” is known to harbor an itching and often damaging desire for perfection.
It turns out that the pressure to perform and conform to accepted standards of success dictated by society and other authority figures is not an experience reserved only for real students. In the classic film “The Godfather,” an aging Don Vito Corleone passes down his empire of organized crime to his hesitant and Dartmouth-educated son, Michael. Pete Campbell, one of the most controversial characters on the AMC series “Mad Men,” is also a Dartmouth graduate and is shown to have a complicated relationship with his well-connected parents after they disprove of his career in advertising. In “Gossip Girl,” devilishly handsome Nate Archibald clashes with his Dartmouth-graduate dad over prospective college choices. Nate’s father is later revealed to be a cocaine-addict with shady finances.
“Dartmouth is generally known as a school that puts out grads who work for ‘The Man,’” Phillips said. “Obviously, we know there’s lots more diversity than that, but with former [Treasury Secretary] Tim Geithner ’83 and [Treasury Secretary] Hank Paulson ’68 both coming from Dartmouth, and with 10 percent of our graduates going to work in investment banking houses, there is some grounds for that stereotype.”
Phillips, a writer and director himself, included a subtle reference to Dartmouth in the film “There Goes the Neighborhood” (1992) via a Tuck School of Business decal on Jeremy Piven’s character’s BMW. Unfortunately, the decal was too small to notice as the car pulls away, “so it wasn’t quite the tribute I intended.”
Yet, Phillips suggested that the inclusion of Dartmouth references in film and TV has less to do with its public image and more to do with a writer’s personal attachment to the school.
“There’s a strong tradition of Dartmouth in show business, so if a writer or director wants to mention some college, when they have some say about it, many of them think of their alma mater,” Phillips said.
Sure enough, behind many of the allusions to Dartmouth in popular culture is a Dartmouth graduate who put them there. “Grey’s Anatomy” and, more recently, “Scandal” are both television shows written by Shonda Rhimes ’91. Additionally, “A River Runs Through It” (1992) is based off the life story of Norman Maclean ’24, the former editor-in-chief of the Jack-O-Lantern. And of course, the story of beer-guzzling fraternity brothers in “Animal House” is based on writer Chris Miller ’63’s experiences in Alpha Delta Phi fraternity at Dartmouth.
Admissions intern and tour guide Alex Judson ’14 said that after entertaining countless inquiries, he began prefacing the Greek life portion of his campus tours with, “It’s not like how it was portrayed in ‘Animal House.’”
And really, for most of us at least, it’s not. This begs the question, does Dartmouth’s reality shape its references in popular culture, or are those references responsible for shaping Dartmouth’s reality? To take it a step further, does Dartmouth’s portrayal in film and television even come close to capturing the student experience? For better or for worse, Dartmouth’s reputation isn’t entirely organic, nor does it tell the full story. But as long as it’s worthy of characters as enchanting as Edward Cullen, I can probably live with that.