Mona Lisa Smile

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Mona Lisa Smile
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Mike Newell
Produced by Fredward Johanson
Written by
Music by Rachel Portman
Cinematography Anastas Michos
Edited by Mick Audsley
Distributed by Columbia Pictures
Release date
  • December 19, 2003 (2003-12-19)
Running time
117 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $72.3 million[1]
Box office $141.3 million[2]

Mona Lisa Smile is a 2003 American drama film produced by Revolution Studios and Columbia Pictures in association with Red Om Films Productions, directed by Mike Newell, written by Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal, and starring Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles and Maggie Gyllenhaal. The title is a reference to the Mona Lisa, the famous painting by Leonardo da Vinci, and the song of the same name, originally performed by Nat King Cole, which was covered by Seal for the movie. Julia Roberts received a record $25 million for her performance, the highest ever earned by an actress at that time.[3]


In 1953, Katherine Ann Watson (Julia Roberts), a 30-year-old graduate student in the department of Art History at UCLA and Oakland State, takes a position teaching "History of Art" at Wellesley College, a conservative women's private liberal arts college in Massachusetts. At her first class, Katherine discovers that her students have already memorized the entire textbook and syllabus, so she uses the classes to introduce them to Modern Art and encourages discussion about topics such as what makes good art. Katherine comes to know her students and seeks to inspire them to achieve more than marriage to eligible young men.

Betty Warren (Kirsten Dunst) is highly opinionated and outspokenly conservative. Betty doesn't understand why Katherine is not married and insists that there is a universal standard for good art. She writes editorials for the college paper, exposing campus nurse Amanda Armstrong (Juliet Stevenson) as a supplier of contraception, which results in Amanda being fired; another editorial attacks Katherine for advocating that women should seek a career instead of being wives and mothers as intended. Betty can't wait to marry Spencer (Jordan Bridges) as their parents have arranged and expects the traditional exemptions from attending class as a married woman: Katherine insists she will be marked on merit and attendance, resulting in more conflict.

Connie Baker (Ginnifer Goodwin) begins dating Betty's cousin, Charlie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) but Betty persuades her that he is only using her as his parents have arranged for him to marry Deb MacIntyre. Connie ends the relationship, believing Betty's story to be true. However, some weeks later, Connie and Charlie reconnect, with Charlie saying he has already decided for himself that he is not going to marry Deb, so he and Connie get back together.

Joan Brandwyn (Julia Stiles) dreams of being a lawyer and has enrolled as pre-law, so Katherine encourages her to apply to Yale Law School. She is accepted, but decides not to go because she wants to start a life with her new husband Tommy (Topher Grace). She tells Katherine that choosing to be a wife and mother does not make her any less intelligent.

Giselle Levy (Maggie Gyllenhaal) has several lovers and liberal views about sex. She admires Katherine for encouraging the students to be independent. Giselle earned the enmity of Betty whose conservative views hinder her liberal ones.

Katherine declines a proposal from her California boyfriend (John Slattery) because she doesn't love him enough and begins seeing the Wellesley Italian professor, Bill Dunbar (Dominic West). Bill is charming and full of stories about Europe and his heroic actions in Italy during the war. He has also had affairs with students (including Giselle), and Katherine makes him promise that it will never happen again. The relationship progresses but when Katherine learns that Bill spent the entire war at the Army Languages Center on Long Island, she decides to break up with him because he is not trustworthy. Bill responds that Katherine didn't come to Wellesley to help the students find their way, but to help them find her way.

Within six months of the wedding Betty's marriage falls apart as Spencer has an affair and failing to find solace with her mother, she visits Katherine. Eventually, influenced by her, Betty files for divorce and asking her for apartments at Greenwich. When Mrs. Warren confronts Betty for what she's done, she reveals her frustration with her mother for not supporting her when she went to her for help when she found out about Spencer's affair and that the only person who cared about her was Katherine. Therefore, Betty reveals she's going to have a life of her own, has applied to Yale Law School and will room with Giselle.

Katherine's course is highly popular, so the college invites her to return but with certain conditions: she must follow the syllabus, submit lesson plans for approval, keep a strictly professional relationship with all faculty members, and not talk to the girls about anything other than classes. Katherine decides to leave in order to explore Europe. In the final scene, Betty dedicates her last editorial to Katherine, claiming that her teacher is "an extraordinary woman who lived by example and compelled us all to see the world through new eyes." As Katherine's taxi speeds up, all her students follow on their bicycles and Betty is seen struggling to keep up with the taxi as a last effort to thank Katherine for changing her life.



Mona Lisa Smile
Soundtrack album by Various
Released December 9, 2003
Length 48:27
Label Sony Music
  1. "Mona Lisa" – Seal (3:11)
  2. "You Belong to Me" – Tori Amos (3:03)
  3. "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" – Celine Dion (2:45)
  4. "The Heart of Every Girl" – Elton John (3:40)
  5. "Santa Baby" – Macy Gray (3:29)
  6. "Murder, He Says" – Tori Amos (3:22)
  7. "Bésame Mucho" – Chris Isaak (2:46)
  8. "Secret Love" – Mandy Moore (3:40)
  9. "What'll I Do" – Alison Krauss (3:12)
  10. "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" – The Trevor Horn Orchestra (2:26)
  11. "Sh-Boom (Life Could Be a Dream) – The Trevor Horn Orchestra (2:49)
  12. "I'm Beginning to See the Light" – Kelly Rowland (1:47)
  13. "I've Got the World on a String" – Lisa Stansfield (2:20)
  14. "Smile" – Barbra Streisand (4:17)
  15. "Suite" – Rachel Portman (5:33)

Box office[edit]

In its first opening weekend, Mona Lisa Smile opened at #2 at the U.S. Box office raking in $11,528,498 USD behind The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.[4] By the end of its run, while the film had grossed $141,337,989 worldwide, its U.S. domestic gross did not meet its $65 million budget, falling short at $63,860,942.


Mona Lisa Smile received mixed to negative reviews from film critics. Critical aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes gives the movie a 35% "rotten" rating based on 149 reviews. In a typical review, Claudia Puig of USA Today wrote, "it's Dead Poets Society as a chick flick, without the compelling drama and inspiration... even Roberts doesn't seem convinced. She gives a rather blah performance, as if she's not fully committed to the role... Rather than being a fascinating exploration of a much more constrained time in our social history, the film simply feels anachronistic. The film deserves a solid 'C' for mediocrity and muted appeal."[5] Critic Elizabeth M. Tamny of the Chicago Reader shared this negative assessment, writing "Part of the problem is simply that Mona Lisa Smile is a Hollywood film, and Hollywood isn't good at depicting the life of the mind... And Julia Roberts is no help--you either like her or you don't, but either way it has little to do with talent. She's not so much an actor as a vessel for earnest reactions. The fact is... It's easier to take on an extremely black-and-white version of the most salient question from this film--can women bake their cake and eat it too?--than try to answer it in the present."[6]

Reaction from Wellesley alumnae[edit]

In a message to Wellesley alumnae concerning the film, Wellesley College president Diana Chapman Walsh expressed regret, given that many alumnae from the 1950s felt that the film's portrayal of Wellesley was inaccurate.[7]

Campus controversy[edit]

During the filming of Mona Lisa Smile, the Wellesley College campus broke into controversy surrounding the casting of student extras with use of the phrase "not too tan" in a casting call for current Wellesley students, sparking a fear that casting directors were using race to discriminate against potential extras. Producers claimed that they were merely stressing the importance of finding women that reflected the time period.[citation needed]

The controversy spilled over into the local media, and producers considered a compromise of hiring willing minority students to act as production assistants. The college issued a press release highlighting the realities of Wellesley in 1953 and defending their decision to allow the film to shoot on campus.[8]


  1. ^ Lang, Brent (September 1, 2011). "'Inside the Revolution Library: Where Joe Roth Went Wrong". Retrieved July 10, 2017. 
  2. ^ Mona Lisa Smile at Box Office Mojo
  3. ^ Goldman, Lea; Blakeley, Kiri (January 17, 2007). "The 20 Richest Women In Entertainment". Forbes. Retrieved July 15, 2011. 
  4. ^ "Weekend Box Office December 19–21, 2003". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved September 13, 2016. 
  5. ^ Puig, Claudia (December 19, 2003). "Crooked 'Smile'". USA Today. 
  6. ^ Tamny, Elizabeth M. (January 15, 2004). "History Versus Her Story". Chicago Reader. Retrieved September 13, 2015. 
  7. ^ Walsh, Diana Chapman (January 9, 2004). "Message from the President to Wellesley College alumnae concerning the film, Mona Lisa Smile". Wellesley College. Archived from the original on August 12, 2007. Retrieved August 19, 2012. 
  8. ^ "Wellesley College Is Among the Stars of the Film, "Mona Lisa Smile"". Wellesley College. December 3, 2003. Retrieved September 13, 2016. 

External links[edit]