Mona Lisa Smile

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Mona Lisa Smile
Theatrical release poster
Directed byMike Newell
Written by
Produced byElaine Goldsmith-Thomas
Deborah Schindler
Paul Schiff
CinematographyAnastas Michos
Edited byMick Audsley
Music byRachel Portman
Distributed bySony Pictures Releasing
Release date
  • December 19, 2003 (2003-12-19)
Running time
119 minutes
CountryUnited States
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 to 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, a 30-year-old graduate student from the Department of Art History at UCLA and Oakland State,[a] takes a position teaching the history of art at Wellesley College.

At her first class, Katherine discovers her students have memorized the entire textbook and syllabus, so she introduces them to modern art and encourages discussion about what is good art. Katherine comes to know them, seeking to inspire them to achieve more than marriage.

Opinionated Elizabeth "Betty" Warren is outspokenly conservative. She does not understand why Katherine is not married, and insists a universal standard exists for good art. She writes editorials for the college paper, exposing campus nurse and lesbian Amanda Armstrong as a supplier of contraception, resulting in her termination.

Other editorials attack Katherine for advocating that women seek a career instead of being wives and mothers. Betty cannot wait to marry Spencer and expects the traditional exemptions from attending class as a married woman; however, Katherine insists she will mark her on merit.

Constance "Connie" Baker begins dating Betty's cousin, Charlie, but Betty tells her he is together with Deb MacIntyre. Believing her, she cuts ties with him. However, some weeks later, Connie and Charlie reconnect, with him telling her he had stopped seeing Deb after the previous summer.

Joan Brandwyn considers studying law, so Katherine encourages her to apply to Yale Law School. Accepted, she still opts to play the role of a housewife to Tom Donegal. She tells Katherine that choosing to be a wife and mother does not reduce her intelligence.

Giselle Levy has several lovers and liberal views about sex. She admires Katherine for encouraging the students to be independent, while earning Betty's enmity.

Katherine declines a marriage proposal from her California boyfriend as she does not love him enough, and begins seeing the Wellesley Italian professor, Bill Dunbar. He 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 he will stop.

The relationship progresses, but Katherine learns that Bill spent the entire war at the Army Languages Center on Long Island, so breaks up with him. He responds that she did not come to Wellesley to help the students find their way, but rather her way.

Betty's marriage falls apart after Spencer neglects her and Giselle sees him with another woman. Rather than offering support, Betty’s mother orders her to return to her husband. Betty visits Giselle in her dorm, at first attacking her for her promiscuity, but eventually allowing Giselle to comfort her. In turn, Betty regrets how she has treated Katherine with her poor behavior. Eventually, influenced by her, Betty files for divorce and looks with Giselle for an apartment in Greenwich Village.

When Betty’s mother confronts her for what she has done, Betty reveals her frustration with her for not supporting her when she asked for it. She says the only person who cared about her enough to help her out was Katherine. Betty says she is going to have a life of her own.

Katherine's course is popular, so she is invited to return, but under certain conditions: she must follow the syllabus, submit lesson plans for approval, stop giving private advice to scholars and keep a strictly professional relationship with all faculty members and students.

Katherine decides to leave to explore Europe. In the final scene, Betty dedicates her last editorial to Katherine, calling her "an extraordinary woman who lived by example and compelled us all to see the world through new eyes." As she leaves in a taxi, all her students follow on their bicycles, with Betty reaching out to say goodbye until the taxi speeds away.



Melanie Lynskey auditioned for the roles of Connie and Giselle.[4]


Mona Lisa Smile
Soundtrack album by
ReleasedDecember 19, 2003
GenreJazz • easy listening • big band
LabelSony Music

Box office[edit]

In its first weekend, Mona Lisa Smile opened at number two at the U.S. box office, earning US$11,528,498 behind The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.[5] By the end of its run, while the film had grossed a respectable $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. On Rotten Tomatoes, it has a 34% approval rating based on 152 reviews, with an average score of 4.9/10 and a consensus: "Though Mona Lisa Smile espouses the value of breaking barriers, the movie itself is predictable." On Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 45 out of 100, based on 40 critics, indicating "mixed or average reviews".[6]

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."[7] 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."[8]

David Ansen of Newsweek wrote, "What drew the usually astute Mike Newell ('Four Weddings and a Funeral', 'Donnie Brasco') to this project? There are hints that the script (credited to Mark Rosenthal and Lawrence Konner) may once have had more shadings - a suggestion that Katherine's idealism is a form of power-tripping; that she's afraid of intimacy - but any ambiguity is quickly brushed aside to make way for the Julia lovefest. Newell, no hack, tries not to milk the cliches shamelessly, and that may be the movie's final undoing. Lacking the courage of its own vulgarity, 'Mona Lisa Smile' is as tepid as old bathwater."[9]


Association Category Recipient Results
Critics Choice Movie Award Best Song Elton John
Bernie Taupin
Golden Globe Award Best Original Song Nominated
Phoenix Film Critics Society Award Best Use of Previously Published or Recorded Music Nominated
Satellite Award Best Original Song Elton John Nominated
Teen Choice Award Choice Movie Actress - Drama/Action-Adventure Julia Stiles Nominated
Choice Movie - Sleazbag Kirsten Dunst Nominated

Reaction from Wellesley and Wellesley alumnae[edit]

The college issued an official statement explaining their decision to allow the film to shoot on campus.[10]

In a message to Wellesley alumnae concerning the film, Wellesley College president Diana Chapman Walsh expressed regret about some of the reactions it generated, given that many alumnae from the 1950s felt that the film's portrayal of Wellesley was inaccurate.[11]


  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. ^ "The failed audition that changed Melanie Lynskey's life". The Independent. 2023-04-28. Retrieved 2023-06-23.
  5. ^ "Weekend Box Office December 19–21, 2003". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved September 13, 2016.
  6. ^ "Mona Lisa Smile Reviews". Metacritic. CBS Interactive. Retrieved March 12, 2018.
  7. ^ Puig, Claudia (December 19, 2003). "Crooked 'Smile'". USA Today.
  8. ^ Tamny, Elizabeth M. (January 15, 2004). "History Versus Her Story". Chicago Reader. Retrieved September 13, 2015.
  9. ^ Ansen, David (2003-12-21). "Wipe Off That Smile". Newsweek. Retrieved 2022-07-19.
  10. ^ "Wellesley College Is Among the Stars of the Film, "Mona Lisa Smile"". Wellesley College. December 3, 2003. Retrieved September 13, 2016.
  11. ^ 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.
  1. ^ Oakland State is fictional.

External links[edit]