January 30, 2002: On the Campus

Tigertown, meet Tinseltown
Hollywood gloss creates a skewed Princeton universe

By Michael Frazer GS

Welcome to Princeton!” the voice in the movie preview bombastically declared. “Who among you will be the next Einstein?”

I couldn’t help myself. I laughed out loud.

My fellow moviegoers in the multiplex were probably peeved. This was no preview for the latest Adam Sandler yuckfest, after all. It was for a serious drama starring Oscar-winner Russell Crowe about the Princeton mathematician John Nash and his struggles with schizophrenia, struggles which I am well aware were never a laughing matter.

My knowledge of the real drama behind Nash’s story, however, did nothing to sober my reaction to the Hollywood melodrama being presented in the preview. Wandering amid a collection of all-too-familiar Gothic spires, the dashing Crowe plays the part of a Princeton grad student as if our intellectual struggles were the functional equivalent of the gladiatorial battles of his previous film. “Find a truly original idea!” he emotes. “That is the only way I will ever distinguish myself. It is the only way that I will ever matter!”

Quick cut to a seminar room. “Where’s Nash?” one nattily attired and preternaturally attractive grad student asks. “Out there,” responds his equally striking colleague, “looking for his original idea.”

The German word for uncanny is unheimlich — literally, “unhomelike” — and I think what made me laugh was that the university I call home, when presented through the lens of Hollywood filmmaking, was rendered absurdly unhomelike. In this bizarro Princeton, colors are brighter, emotions are stronger, and everyone is much better looking.

I should have known what to expect, given my experiences with director Ron Howard’s team of filmmakers when they arrived on campus last year. A month before they began filming, signs were posted advertising auditions for extras. Among those needed were authentic-looking grad students, and I’m about as authentic as they come, so I thought I’d swing by.

Once he had us all packed into McCosh 10, the casting director let the assembled throng know that what he was looking for in what he called “background talent” was, first and foremost, “realism.” Strangely, however, when he asked all the male Princeton students to the stage, he called us to step forward one or two at a time in what was, as far as I could tell, descending order of physical attractiveness. Let’s just say my career as background talent ended before it even began.

Now that A Beautiful Mind has finally arrived at a theater near you, I’m debating whether to see it at all. It’s not that I harbor any lingering resentment towards the casting director. I’m just worried that the unfortunate scene that occurred when I saw the preview will repeat itself hundred-fold if I saw the whole movie, and that serious-minded cineastes will have what otherwise would have been a moving drama ruined by my incessant chuckling.

The fact that Howard’s opus looks like a genuinely good movie on a serious subject makes things all the more difficult. The situation was much simpler when a hopelessly cheesy teen thriller about the secret societies at my undergraduate institution came out during my senior year there. (The college will remain unnamed, as it did for legal reasons in the movie, though it is described on screen as an Ivy League university in a gritty town called “New Haven.”) Knowing that the only other attendees at the midnight show would be local high school kids breaking curfew, my friends and I had no hesitation about getting rip-roaring drunk, having our designated driver drop us at the multiplex, and spending a delightful two hours loudly jeering Hollywood’s ludicrous distortion of Ivy League life.

It’s one thing to mock the teeny-bopper heartthrob hero of The Skulls. It’s another thing entirely to mock a character based on a professor one deeply respects — even if he is being played quite uncannily by Maximus, the Oscar-winning slayer of the barbarian horde. Curse you, Maximus!

Michael Frazer is a doctoral student in the politics department.

Zachary Pincus-Roth ’02 on Triangle on tour, now on On the Campus Online.

Return to beginning of On  the Campus

Current Issue    Online Archives    Printed Issue Archives
Advertising Info    Reader Services    Search    Contact PAW    Your Class Secretary