The Paper Chase (1973)
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John Houseman hadn't been in a movie in years when he made this one and he got a deserved Oscar for it. Having a babe like Lindsey Wagner would've made law school easier but I wasn't that lucky. On the other hand, the romance in the movie depicts a dilemma that many people find themselves in---they're caught up in an important part of their life such as getting a degree, dealing with a very challenging job, and then suddenly an opportunity for romance comes along. Do you let the romance distract you from your larger cause? "The Competition" was another movie that dealt with that romance vs. career theme and did it well.
"The Paper Chase" is a rather slow moving drama laced with occasional humor. The dispassionate story is simple and straightforward, if perhaps slightly contrived. It lacks emotional intensity, especially by today's standards. But that's somewhat to be expected for a setting that is so cloistered and cerebral. Characters are stereotypical, but still interesting.
And the "heart" of the story is the discourse between student and professor, especially as Hart relates, or fails to relate, to the demanding Kingsfield, a man who never smiles. Kingsfield has a one-track mind. He lives, breathes, and sleeps contract law. He expects his students to do the same. Always impersonal, he's like an intellectual robot. And half the fun of the film is listening to John Houseman's monologues, as he "fills the room with (Kingsfield's) intelligence".
The film's color cinematography is fine; camera "takes" are very long. The film's visuals do look dated. Guys have long hair. And students use ... typewriters -- yikes! Background music is intermittent and mostly classical. Overall acting is fine. Both Timothy Bottoms and Lindsay Wagner give credible performances. And, of course, John Houseman is terrific. I can't imagine anyone else in that role.
Low-key, and nostalgic in its view of education, "The Paper Chase" is a good film to watch for its high technical quality, for its theme of the individual trying to measure up to society's expectations, and of course for the wonderful performance of John Houseman.
The film offers nice ambiance – quiet study halls, ancient academic buildings, dimly lit student accommodations, tense classrooms and study groups – and so for anyone who has attended a prestigious university, the film has a certain charm. This is academia as pure romance; campus as a fantasy-land of character building, imparted wisdom, young love and tough life lessons.
Mostly, though, it's the film's distinctly 1970s vibe which really elevates things. Like most Hollywood films of the era, "The Paper Chase" borrows liberally from New Wave and Neorealist movements, lending the film a tone which oozes an air of relaxed realism. Its cast, with their 70s moustaches, bell-bottoms and big hair, also convey a sort of anti-establishment vibe, which most Hollywood movies at the time possessed.
The film is also strange in the way that it manages to both romanticise Harvard and be "against" Harvard types. As the film unfolds, Hart goes from a kid killing himself chasing paper ("paper chase" literally means chasing grades, knowledge, money, status, approval etc), to a kid who realises that external approval ultimately does not define who he is, what he knows or what he's worth.
The film is too ambiguous (or confused) to be accepted as a simple pro-hippie "middle finger to paper chasers" flick, though. Professor Kingsfield may be the typical stern father figure who rules with an iron fist only because he "wants what's best" for his boys, but there is also a sense that Kingsfield is himself a man resigned from "the paper chase". That it is Hart (and the Professor's disgruntled daughter) who is really projecting an authoritarian image onto Kingsfield, when in fact the elderly man really is, in his own way, himself a sort of anti-authoritarian figure, in possession of very strong values. What the film offers is thus something slightly different to other anti-establishment, counterculture movies of the time. It's not a matter of "sticking it to the man", but recognising that "the man" (in this case, the authoritarian Kingsfield) is demonized only because "man" is fundamentally unable to define himself unless he places himself in opposition to others.
8.5/10 – An excellent film, its appealing atmosphere making up for its failures as a romance or message movie. Worth two viewings.
If you think you want to go to grad school, this movie may (and hopefully will) cure you.
And the one movie that defined a generation,even some who have never seen it,it is still one breathtaking piece of cinematic work,and even 30 years after its release,it still has that impact,and that motion picture,"The Paper Chase" still holds that stance to this day. This was a film that had some great performances,literate screen writing,sensitive direction and handsome production. This was a tale of a young law school student from Minnesota,in his first year of Law at Harvard,is confused by his professional calling versus his inner evolution as a human being,may seemed a bit timeless yet dated,but instead goes into the vortex of his experiences as a student as he goes through the motions here,which gets the audience a series of sideways though entertaining of the thespian declamations. James Bridges directs his own adaptation of the novel by Jay Osborn. Jr. But the performances here are sensational,with Timothy Bottoms,who is excellent as the puzzled law student,Lindsay Wagner as the girl who plays not only his love interest,but is the daughter of a tyrannical college professor. But the one who steals the show is John Houseman,who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in 1973 gives a outstanding performance as a hard-nosed but urbane law professor. A man who looms over students like a quietly arrogant Goliath. The three players here constitute the pervading plot triangle that gives the picture its intensity-Houseman as the classroom dictator,Bottoms the uncertain supplicant,and Wagner,who plays Houseman's daughter. This is a film that in some places,particularly on college campuses in shown as a midnight movie for student and it is available on video for those who really want to know what the experiences of being a law student is really like. A must see. It is to note,that Houseman later replayed his role of the college professor in a much-respected and Emmy nominated television series based on "The Paper Chase",which ran for six years on television.
Keep in mind, however, that this IS just a movie. I can see this movie discouraging 90% of potential law school students from giving it a try. The main "antagonist" is a BEAR of a professor who is legendary for his role in humiliating students in class. At one point, he gives the movie's main character a dime as he says "Here's a dime. Now go call your mother and tell her that there is serious doubt that you will ever become a lawyer."
This film is almost worth giving a look-see just for the dated 70's hairdo's alone. Keep an eye out for the character by the name of Bell. So obnoxious and pompous you love him. The Paper Chase is a classic which needs to be seen by all.
When I saw this film, I immediately knew I had made the right choice. Most of my professors were just blustering blowhards who were trying as much to intimidate me as teach me (Kingsfield must have taken lessons from one professor of mine in particular, although Houseman was not half as intimidating as he was!).
Hart's realization that experience is almost as important as education( although sometimes not as lucrative) was a turning point in my life, and I have never looked back.
Not enough credit is given to Lindsay Wagner in without a doubt what was her best performance--brava!
The opening sequence: PRICELESS. . . and utterly realistic. My adrenaline immediately began to flow when Professor Kingsley, within the first minutes of the first day, scanned the class roster and called on the movie's protagonist, Hart, to discuss the grandfather contract's case of Hawkins v. McGee. I empathized with Hart entirely as on the first day of my first law school class, I too was called on to discuss the very first case of my property class - what an experience that was! I now look back upon that day with a smile, but at the time, like Hart, I felt uneasy to my stomach immediately thereafter.
I recommend this movie to just about anybody. It is very earthy, with a decent musical score, and has decent drama intertwined with some comic relief. . . . "Good luck on your final exam. You will need it." This movie, however, will hit home I'm sure with anybody who currently attends law school, or anybody who has entered the profession already. I have recommended to friends of mine who entertain the possibility of attending law school, to give them an idea about what roughly to expect.
While the Paper Chase does provide a bit of an extreme view of the trials and tribulations of law school on various levels, it is on point. The studying, the anxiety, the bickering within the study groups, the outlines, the competition - it's all there.
Watching Paper Chase now reminds me of how hard i need to work to succeed in grad school...and also how getting a girlfriend can wait.
I recommend this movie and give it an 8.25 - most people will find it very watchable, some won't care for it.
This movie was a puzzle to me for years. I really liked it but didn't get it - the ending never seemed to work. Somewhere along the road the light went on.
On the entertaining level, the character studies are good. There really were people like Hart at school, as well as the rest of the student characters in the movie. Houseman was especially entertaining as the "Professor". His character still holds up, which is what makes his acting performance so good. Lindsey Wagner has a role similar in style to that as well. Both Houseman's and Wagner's roles are more caricatures than character. Bottoms and the rest of the actors are filling roles that are more realistic, which is one reason why they may or may not stand up to time, be misunderstood and loose some freshness 30 years later. Hippy society is gone - you just cannot capture the emotions, feelings, and personal experiences of a time and have someone who was not there get the full experience of it. I related to Bottoms role when I first saw the movie but now it is a little dated, times have changed. One of the small, underlying themes of the movie is the culture clash of young vs. establishment. All the characters are rich, entertaining, well acted, directed, and filmed. The lighting and sets give a romanticism to the feel of the movie - ivy walls, beach scenes, comfortable houses. Overall, this is a solid piece on movie making.
One interesting scene was the hotel for the "big study". I remember how radical that scene was at the time - threatening the manager with "doper" stuff. That looses allot over time and seems out of place today, even a little awkward. It is surprising how well that scene worked when the movie was new - it was the perfect comic relief then. It, also, was a microcosm of one of the movies themes: young vs. establishment.
Here comes the part you may not want to read if you haven't seen the movie.
But the underlying meaning behind the movie is about a guy taking the next step toward adulthood. It is so well hidden behind all the other stuff going on in the movie the enormity of it gets missed - you might not realize it is the main theme. The movie isn't just entertaining - it is almost a documentary of the 19 to 20 year in a person's life. Bottoms character is no longer a high school teen, but is now at the beginning of the road to maturity. Each character that interplays with him represents the different paths he could take. Lindsey Wagner's character represents the soothing inner self, urging him on, helping him take those steps that most young people are reluctant to take, nurturing him. It is the childhood safety he is leaving. Houseman is his doubts, his challenges, the hard stuff we need to learn, a taste of the side of life where we take responsibility for ourselves - adulthood. The toughest thing about growth is it means change, something many people fear. Near the end, Lindsey asks the all-important question can you stand on your own? - watch for that scene at the beach house, turns out it is the key to understanding the movie. He does the work, he prepares, he steps up to the challenge and in that he finds the toughest part is done. The last thing to do is take the test, which turns out to be easy. It is almost anti climatic, that scene is one of the shortest in the entire movie. On the surface, the "entertaining" part, that is what most of us thought the movie was all about - will he pass this course or not? But it turns out the movie was all about his growth. In the end he knows who he is and where he's going, that's the symbolism behind not looking at the grades - he already knows. The grade Houseman puts on his test is the confirmation that he knew he passed you don't score that well on a test and not know it before you actually see it. I think the last scene, where the grades are all but ignored, was for the benefit of ending the 'entertaining' side of film and as a final gesture of the real theme.
The real end of the movie is the scene in the elevator. At this point he realizes what all the stuff that came before was about - it was the path to growing up. He knows inside that he passed. Houseman turned out to be a guide - tough but true - and has brought him through. He recognizes that and thanks him. He understands what role Houseman played in his life and now is ready to go on. For such a short scene it is really climatic - yet most of us didn't get it either. We thought it was about the callowness of Houseman's role. The point is his time 'test' is over - he is now "Mr. Hart".
At least that's how I see it
1. Early in the film, Lindsay Wagner playfully bites her new boyfriend. This was quite a charged moment in 1973. Audiences gasped. Boys went home from seeing this picture and dreamed of being bitten by Wagner and/or a substitute. Girls tried this idea out. Is this perhaps the first time when a woman bites a man in an erotic way in a mainstream Hollywood film (i.e, other than in a vampire movie)? Has some student majoring in Film Studies possibly written a paper about bites in the movies? Today, Lindsays's bite is a "meh" moment with zero punch. Times change, eh.
2. Every good college in America has a Kingsfield or two or three on the faculty - i.e., a legendary prof who is the object of student obsession (i.e., a mixture of awe, love, fear, lust, lust for knowledge, etc). At Brown University in the 1970s and '80s it was Edward Beiser of the Poli Sci Department. Beiser was at his peak in 1973, and more than one person on the Brown campus speculated about whether or not he had influenced the Kingsfield portrayal. (Highly doubtful that he did, but the possibility was a major topic of conversation in Hegeman Dormitory over pizza from Domino's and Michelob beer.)
3. Check out the hair in this film! OMG! Lots of hair! This is exactly how people wore their hair circa the early '70s. Ford's hair is epic. Hart's hair is long throughout, but seems to change subtly in appearance several times, possibly reflecting some of his internal struggle to come to grips with his conflicts about life, love, ambition, being human.
4. There's a light seasoning of things nautical in the film: Kingsfield's ship model. His ship painting. The captain's chairs used by the study group. I have no idea if this has any meaning; probably not. I mainly mention it because I love captain's chairs and these examples are first-rate (to use a nautical term). BTW, I believe Hart should have knocked over Kingsfield's ship model during his intimate encounter in the study. This would have given him the opportunity to try, desperately, to piece the thing together in 30 seconds after Kingsfield arrives home - a nice parallel to the impossibility of his weekend research assignment. Alternatively, I think Hart and Susan should have done the deed in the study and been caught in the middle of it. Or how about this: they do the deed in the study and knock over the ship's model. Kingsfield hears this as he walks in, glances toward the study, sighs mightily, and walks wearily up the stairs. He's heard that very sound before, he knows what's going on in there - Susan, dear Susan, is banging another of his students and knocking over his ship model.
5. The actress Regina Baff is perfect as Asheley Brooks, wife of the gifted-but-out-of-his-depth Brooks. Baff seems not to have had much of a career in film after this performance. Odd, that.
6. Which leads me to my next question, what the heck ever happened to Timothy Bottoms? I know he's made a lot of pictures over the years but his career never again remotely approached the fabulous heights of 1971 to '73 ("Last Picture Show" and this film). He perhaps entertained the thought that he could become the next James Stewart. (Tom Hanks got that gig.) Timothy! Timothy! Where on earth did you go? (And if you recognize THAT pop culture reference, you get major points from me.)
7. We learn that Kingsfield sat with the president of the United States at a Yale-Harvard football game. This moment is described by Susan while she and Hart romp through the mostly-empty stadium. The president is not named. Judging from various clues, it must have been John F. Kennedy. We are curious, as we watch, which president it was; we are left to our own devices to figure it out. I don't see why the script doesn't just say it. The script mentions Adlai Stevenson and shows a picture of Ike; why is it so shy about JFK?
8. At least two major films of the early '70s showed Ivy League-educated young folks rebelling against, but eventually joining, the Establishment - this one and "Love Story." (Admittedly there's some ambiguity about Hart's final decision but I think we know the path he'll choose.) Thus America reassured itself that its institutions would be perpetuated.
9. To follow-up on item (1) - 1972-73 was a peak for the sexual revolution. It was during the '70s that the ferment of the '60s reached down into the general population and affected the behavior of not merely a few elite people like the Beatles and the Grateful Dead but millions of people. This fact contributes to the quickness with which Susan beds Hart. The Susan role can really be seen as a pivotal one in the sexual liberation of women in the movies.
10. One of the central challenges of the script is, how much case law should we include? How much recitation of the law will the audience tolerate? I can well imagine long discussions among the filmmakers about this. I think they present exactly the right amount of law and exactly the right kind - i.e., a modest amount of juicy, interesting, and basic stuff.
It is likely that your professors are not going to behave like total bastards as Sir John Houseman did in this movie as Timothy Bottom's contracts professor, since your teachers are obviously pretty willing to help you out and guide you through three very rigorous years of study. But, then again, law school is much different from other levels of education, and the first year is the hardest because you're being trained to think like a lawyer and get in touch with that part in your brain where you can critically analyze things. And, as this movie suggests, when you do feel yourself slipping and/or falling behind, do not suck up to your teacher or kid yourself that everything is alright. The point is to go into things with your head on straight. Think realistically and don't panic!
And yes, contract law is going to be one of the roughest first year courses.
The story here concerns a first-year student's trials and tribulations at Harvard law school. He seems to be running around in circles sometimes, trying too hard to stay on top of things. John Houseman plays his stubborn and defiant contracts law professor who he consistently butts heads with, especially when it comes to dating the guys daughter and trying so hard to impress him.
The story is actually pretty ridiculous. But then again, it would probably be pretty boring to watch an hour and half movie about a kid with his nose buried in the books as most first-year law students are. It is definitely worth a shot if you are considering law school, but don't freak out.