When Harvard University Met Hollywood

Photo of the Hollywood Sign, in Los Angeles, California

Harvard’s presence in Hollywood is nearly as old as the movie business itself, yet the uneasy alliance between the country’s most prestigious academic institution and the nexus of mass entertainment is fraught with a singular tension: Can a highbrow university and a pop culture world just get along?

The artistic rebellion of the 1950s became physical rebellion in the 1960s, culminating with the student takeover of University Hall in 1969. Largely because of the violence that followed the takeover, the incident made front-page news: The country’s most revered university had succumbed to the same kind of turbulence dividing less-hallowed campuses across the nation. The following year, two watershed events would reinforce Harvard’s assimilation into mainstream culture.

Classics professor Erich Segal, who’d been on campus for most of his adult life, first as an undergrad and then a doctoral student, had decided to moonlight as a screenwriter. Love Story, the novelization of Segal’s screenplay, was published on Valentine’s Day 1970 and became an instant best seller. The movie was in theaters by Christmas. A devastating tear-jerker for audiences of all demographics—Harvard rebel (Ryan O’Neal) defies family, falls for girl (Ali MacGraw) from the wrong side of the tracks, girl dies—Love Story encapsulated the class and generational tensions familiar to any contemporary Harvard student. For the first time, Harvard was the subject of a pop culture phenomenon. The university could no longer shun pop culture; it was pop culture, and would continue to be in films ranging from The Paper Chase to Legally Blonde. Like any modern celebrity, Harvard had lost control over its own image—and would, in time, hire consultants and press secretaries across the university in hopes of recapturing that control.

Also in 1970, Lampooners Henry Beard, Rob Hoffman, and Douglas Kenney found another way to translate the university into mass culture: Their new National Lampoon became one of the top magazines in the country, with a readership in the millions. National Lampoon’s nothing-is-sacred humor dovetailed perfectly with post-Watergate satire, and its Lampoon Radio Hour featured new and rising comedians such as Christopher Guest, Chevy Chase, and John Belushi. The quick-sketch format on that show paved the way for Saturday Night Live, where many Lampooners would find work as writers. Indeed, beginning in the late ’70s, Lampoon alumni would come to populate the TV comedy world as writer-producers of late night TV and sitcoms. Kenney would go on to co-write Animal House, one of the most profitable comedies of all time. Harvard was changing from a bastion of elitism into a manufacturer of mass entertainment.

The marriage of Hollywood and Harvard may be an uneasy one, but in a sense, it was inevitable. Both are glamorous, powerful, iconic communities that have consciously endeavored to define and epitomize American identity. Their partnership has been an ongoing tug-of-war for cultural supremacy—and Harvard’s ambivalence may stem from a feeling that, over time, it would surely lose the fight.

The gulf between the two was greatest in the early decades of the 20th century. While Harvard was a bastion of America’s cultural and financial aristocracy, “the great irony of Hollywood is that it’s defined by people who [were] at the margins,” says Neal Gabler, author of ‘An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood. Gabler was referring to the born-poor, mostly Jewish immigrants who dominated Hollywood’s golden age during the 1920s and ’30s.

The earliest Harvard-to-Hollywood transplants, though born to privilege, also lived at the margins. In pursuit of fame, fortune, and reinvention, they defied their families, their school, and their social worlds. The first Harvard alum to make a name for himself in Hollywood was a new-moneyed upstart. William Randolph Hearst, who attended in the mid-1880s, was the son of a barely literate California prospector turned senator. At Harvard, Hearst had an anti-authoritarian streak: A member of the Lampoon, the humor magazine founded in 1876, he was expelled for giving his professors personally inscribed chamber pots. Originally a newspaper tycoon, he expanded his holdings to include film in the second decade of the 20th century. Luring stars and other moguls to his lavish San Simeon, Calif., estate and his private yacht, Hearst controlled much of early Hollywood from the shadows and inspired the Orson Welles classic, Citizen Kane.

A generation later, another Harvard outsider, Joseph P. Kennedy, followed in Hearst’s footsteps. Having made a fortune in bootlegging, and eager to go legit after Prohibition was repealed in 1933, Kennedy snapped up several studios, plus a chain of movie theaters. He was well aware of the class differences between Hollywood and his alma mater. “The Cabots and the Lodges wouldn’t be caught dead at picture shows or let their children go,” he reportedly told his mistress, Gloria Swanson. “And that’s why their servants know more about what’s going on than they do. The working classes get smarter every day thanks to radio and pictures.” The working classes, Kennedy also knew, constituted a far larger audience than the Cabots and the Lodges. But by acting as a self-appointed liaison between Harvard and Hollywood, coordinating the 1927 lecture series at HBS, Kennedy curried favor with both sides.

Though Harvard was generally aloof, Hollywood certainly wanted to forge relationships with the university. The studio moguls, though wary of people from the Ivy League conspiring in Wall Street boardrooms to steal away their industry, craved their approval. Most of the studio heads hadn’t finished high school; their garment-industry roots had given them keen commercial instincts and an intimate understanding of their audience. Yet the executives, most of whom were Jewish people, took great pains to distance themselves from their Eastern European beginnings. Louis B. Mayer, of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, actually changed his birthday to the fourth of July. In search of the Harvard imprimatur, Zukor would donate 500 prints of his films to Widener Library in 1936. Hollywood’s courtship of Harvard wasn’t only about personal validation, though. The pioneers of the new industry wanted cultural legitimacy, and they believed Harvard could give it to them.

Around the same time as the HBS summit, several producers were negotiating with Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum to develop a film archive and an annual awards ceremony, according to Peter Decherney, author of ‘Hollywood and the Culture Elite: How the Movies Became American’. Troubled by the rise of unions among “below the line” movie laborers, the producers hoped to curb unionization among actors, directors, and writers by placating them with highbrow awards. When negotiations with the Fogg broke down, the moguls established their library at the University of Southern California and quickly formed the Academy (a carefully chosen word) of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which presented its first Oscar awards in 1929. “The Academy does what Harvard would have done—convey elite status and give a sense of film artistry,” Decherney explains. Had negotiations with the Fogg proved fruitful, the Academy Awards, broadcast to hundreds of millions globally, would carry a Harvard brand.

For decades after the “Harvard Film Academy” negotiation collapsed, Adolph Zukor’s prediction failed to come true: Most Harvard men still followed the traditional tracks of law, politics, business, finance, and medicine. Those who did go to Hollywood—mostly as artists and performers, not brash businessmen such as Hearst and Kennedy—were often so eager to escape stifling upbringings and social mores that they simply dropped out of the university. Like Jewish people in Hollywood, they were cultural outsiders. Songwriter Cole Porter and actor Monty Woolley were society boys pressured by their families to attend Harvard Law; both were gay half a century before the Stonewall riots, and cruised waterfront bars together in Manhattan. The two, who knew each other at Yale, remained friends in Hollywood, and Woolley was a frequent guest at Porter’s all-men pool parties—until he fell in love with a black man. Porter, who liked men but not black people, disapproved, and their friendship ended.

By the 1940s, celebrity culture had become inescapable. As many as 90 million Americans went to the movies every week. As far as 02138 was from 90210, it was impossible for Harvard to fend off the growing influence of pop culture.

The Hasty Pudding’s century-old tradition of cross-dressing was already the sort of subversive, channeled rebelliousness—from a club independent of the university—that tweaked Harvard’s stuffy, paternalistic culture and fostered such actors as Jack Lemmon, who would later win accolades in a cross-dressing role. Then in 1951 and 1967, respectively, the Hasty Pudding Club found a way to lure movie stars to campus with its Woman and Man of the Year awards.

Such rebellions from the Pudding and another autonomous group, the Lampoon, were still marginalized. Well into the 1950s, the attitude of the Brahmin establishment toward Hollywood still ranged from ignorance to ambivalence to outright disdain. Certainly the campus curriculum–makers never accorded much import to the visual arts, which were deemed more “professional” and less intellectual than traditional areas of inquiry. In 1956, the influential Brown Report, an investigation into the suitability of the arts as an academic discipline chaired by John Nicholas Brown, concluded that Harvard devoted woefully few resources toward instruction of the arts. Similar findings surfaced in the 1990s, but a 2002 dust-up led to the dismissal of reform-minded Visual and Environmental Studies head Ellen Phelan, a working artist, and little has changed since then. Assistant Professor J.D. Connor’s courses on Hollywood films have been wildly popular but only one (The Art of Film) is included in the core curriculum. Since the 1920s, Yale’s drama program has produced gifted talents such as Meryl Streep, Paul Newman, Liev Schreiber, and Sigourney Weaver. Harvard didn’t even have a drama department until 1980, when it established the American Repertory Theatre (ART), which only in 2017 began to integrate it into the undergraduate curriculum and is paused at the time of writing. When ART director Robert Orchard proposed such a step in the early 1980s, one senior faculty member reportedly retorted, “We don’t train butchers. Why should we train artists?”

They may have had to look hard, but mavericks passionate about film and the arts managed to find energy and ideas at Harvard. In the 1950s and early ’60s, the philosophy department’s Stanley Cavell shocked peers by writing scholarly papers about Hollywood. “Film provides a unique window into the American psyche”, he argued, “and is thus a legitimate subject for academic inquiry”.

Cavell’s teachings helped shape one of Harvard’s—and Hollywood’s—film legends, director Terrence Malick. Though Malick has written just a handful of feature films such as Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Tree of Life, and The New World to name a few—they, and he, are iconic and revered. The son of a Texas oil executive, Malick studied philosophy and film theory with Cavell. As a Rhodes scholar, he read Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein, but withdrew from Oxford after a clash with his advisor. Malick taught briefly at MIT, but soon headed west and commenced a film career in earnest at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. Transcendental and nonlinear, populated by archetypical characters, Malick’s painstakingly wrought quartet of films draws heavily on his philosophical studies at Harvard. 

That evolution continued when Peter Benchley—whose father, Robert Benchley, was best known for his erudite and humorous New Yorker columns—wrote the novel Jaws and a subsequent screen adaptation. Opening in June 1975—a time traditionally considered off-season for Hollywood, as many theaters were closed—the Steven Spielberg–directed film was the first to use extensive TV advertising and to open at hundreds of theaters. Earning $7 million its first weekend, Jaws was the first film to make $100 million, almost single-handedly creating the blockbuster mentality that now defines Hollywood. The results surprised the author, who had thought that Spielberg lacked the bona fides to make the film. “He has no knowledge of reality but the movies,” Benchley said before the film’s release. “He is B-movie literate [and] will one day be known as the greatest second-unit director of all time.”

The industry that took shape in the years that followed, with its corporate suits salivating over the vast commercial potential of movies, would redefine Harvard’s relationship with Hollywood. No longer was the entertainment industry the escape route for misfits, rebels, and iconoclasts. By the 1990s, many more conventional graduates were abandoning Wall Street for Hollywood, making just as much money and, very likely, having a lot more fun. Producer Thomas Werner made billions for the television networks with landmark shows such as Roseanne and That ’70s Show. David Heyman had the foresight to option J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, launching the most lucrative movie franchise of all time. Today’s executive suites are lined with Crimson: Alan Horn at Walt Disney Studios and Sumner Redstone at Viacom to name two.

Perhaps the most successful manifestation of Harvard’s presence in Hollywood is The Simpsons, executive produced by Lampooners – Mike Reiss and Al Jean, with decades of Lampoon alums on its writing staff. Four hundred episodes and one feature film later, the animated show deftly synthesizes highbrow and lowbrow sensibilities. This approach, in which an obscure Harvard reference can commingle with a Britney Spears parody and a fart joke, has come to define much of mass entertainment for the past 25 or so years. Its current paradigm may be independent producer Michael Hirschorn, the former executive vice president of programming and production for VH1 who developed raunchy shows such as Flavor of Love and America’s Most Smartest Model but also writes cultural commentary for The Atlantic—a high-low balance that simply didn’t exist 30 years ago.

At the time of writing, some of the most notable alumni of Harvard who went on to become celebrities in Hollywood includes Natalie Portman, Tommy Lee Jones, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Conan O’Brien, Rashida Jones, Michael Schur, Dean Norris, Donal Logue and Jessalyn Gilsig to name a few.

Twenty years ago, Matt Damon—yet another dropout—and Ben Affleck won an Academy Award for their Cambridge-set screenplay Good Will Hunting, which further burnished the Harvard brand. But People’s “sexiest man alive” isn’t really the most appropriate poster boy for Harvard’s still-awkward presence in Hollywood. That would be Bart Simpson, the smart-ass kid with a slingshot aimed straight at Principal Skinner.

With the rise of movie streaming platforms such as Netflix, one might presume that Hollywood’s days could be numbered, but according to Paris Martineau at Wired Magazine, even Netflix now aligns itself with Hollywood, not Silicon Valley.

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