If you have been influenced by a movie at least once in your life, raise your hand. (Am I the only one who never sits with my back to the window in a restaurant? Has The Godfather taught you nothing?). Now, if you’ve had your life somehow actually shaped by a movie, raise your hand. (Has seeing The Godfather made you long to become consigliere? Did you go to law school because of Tom Hagen? I don’t want to know.)
While I fall into both categories, today’s account is about my experience with the latter. The movie in question is The Paper Chase, which came out in 1973. It was about a first-year Harvard Law student named James Hart and the challenges facing him (not the least of which was dating his professor’s daughter). But the biggest challenge, by far, was said professor — Professor Kingsfield. In another lifetime, perhaps, the Grinch. Or Ivan the Terrible. Or Satan.
Aside from being a renowned scholar in his field, Kingsfield (played by the inimitable John Houseman), was also a renowned ball buster in a bowtie. Law students were cowed by him — panicked that they might be called on in class and terrified of being wrong and of the criticism that would inevitably follow. Kingsfield came by his misanthropic reputation the old-fashioned way — he earned it. (Extra points if you remember the Smith Barney commercial). He served up humiliation the way a Jewish mother serves up brisket — a single helping was never, never enough.
I was 15 when the movie came out — really smart, really shy, really nervous about speaking up in class. And I had an imagination as big as the Ritz. I saw myself going to Harvard Law School (what can I say — I loved Love Story). The idea of the law fascinated me; the shaping of a legal argument thrilled me; the intellectual strategizing that went into winning called to me.
And The Paper Chase knocked that right out of me.
So convincing was John Houseman in his performance that, after seeing the movie, I decided that there was no way I could survive the law school classroom. I might be chasing that law school diploma, but pure fear would be chasing me. Like Cary Grant being chased by that plane in North by Northwest. But with my feet in cement.
The good news? Instead of chasing paper, I decided to chase words. And once I started writing, I never looked back.
Except for that one time, years later, when B. and I first got married. He was a practicing attorney and I was way impressed by it.
Me: “How do you handle that kind of responsibility every day? It would stress me out to no end.”
He: “Law school trains you for that.”
Me: “But law school! I couldn’t –”
He: (Getting into the groove) “You may not believe this, but a movie I once saw about law school is what convinced me to become a lawyer.”
Me: (Feeling slightly nauseous) “What movie?”
He: “The Paper Chase. Ever see it? We should rent it.”
Me: (Running screaming from the room, law school just a blur in the proverbial rearview mirror)
I guess when it comes to dreams, you need to chase the one that truly calls to you — the one that you know in your heart is right.
Call it the law of attraction.
ⓒ 2017 Claudia Grossman
Yes… influenced by so many – – 💖 the movies of our lives.
I thought I saw your hand raised!
Never heard that one, but, I’m glad you do what you do. D
Brilliant as always!
Sent from my iPhone
Will the senior debate club at an all- girls High School suffice? I too loved the synchronized arguments & the challenge of having to argue both the pro & con of the subject- My partner & my biggest thrill was placing First at Loyola College in Westwood in 1965/ The thrill of slam/ dunking the opposing team with studied facts & then leading them to the “Ocum/ Razor”conclusion like Cher did & who could ever forget Robert Redford or was it Steve McQueen in the “Verdict?” Heady stuff & as always you nailed it Ms. Claudia!
That’s incredible! I love this story.
I remember it well (The Paper Chase). Fabulous film. I’m not sure if I knew I didn’t have in me to be a lawyer- or politician – before seeing it, but that certainly scared the hell out of me, more so than, say, Jaws. Or the Exorcist.
Since reading this last night I’ve been trying to think of life changing films.. not just favourites (as opposite as my husband and I are, when we met we discovered our favourite novel was The Great Gatsby, favourite film, It’s a Womderful Life), but life changing..
Does it help that seeing Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues, aged 15, inspired me to become anorexic before the anorexia was even a household word? Never mind that she was a heroin addict and died tragically young, all I could think about, watching her sing, was ‘if only my collar bone could jut out fetchingly like that, maybe Brian from Syosset will love me again.’
Great post, Claudia. You’ve got me thinking. Which is always a good thing.
Thank you, Jill! I don’t know a Brian from Syosset, but I do know a Bruce (I married him!).
‘Reader, I married him.’
Somehow, I feel I knew this.. perhaps when we first re-connected after all these years? My Brian was Brian Lash- curious if your husband knew him. We’re still friendly and I just saw his dad – bless him – in Florida.
I do have a film which feels life changing, btw. It immediately came to mind, but I didn’t mention it because I didn’t ‘do’ anything as a result of seeing it. But it did have a profound effect in me when I saw it, in a Paris theatre during a heat wave, summer of ’76. (We might have even gone into the theatre because it was air conditioned, before getting out of dodge and hitting the beach on the south of France).
The film was All the President’s Men. With French subtitles.
And while it didn’t propel me into a career in politics- it took til the Obama campaign for me to become active, and I did, here in London, passionately so – but it planted a seed about journalistic truth.
And now, it feels prophetic. I keep thinking of Deep Throat’s words now, re Russia: follow the money,
Great movie, Jill — and interesting, very timely insights from you for sure. No, my Bruce doesn’t know Bruce Lash — but it sounds like things worked out for you the way they were supposed to! (BTW, I love Jane Eyre!)
CGG- another great (fun) post! Like most men of our generation, I quote from The Godfather almost regularly. How else would I remember to leave the gun; take the cannolis. Jill- My love of research and investigation came from reading ATPM- the first book I read that was already a movie. While Brian may have gone to SHS, I believe he grew up in East Birch, on Forest Dr.
Thanks, Andy! Re Brian — from LA to London to Houston, we’re all talking about him! ; )
Hi Andrew! Yes that’s correct- and his story is fascinating, google Target (not the shops)- his career grew out of getting us as teenagers to sign up for ski trips so he could ski for free. And yes, Claudia, ha, re LA/Houston/London.
I’m fascinated with the idea of fate/destiny/ parallel worlds. Great New Yorker piece on it, I’ll try to post it here- but yes I wholeheartedly believe we end up with the people and the particular challenges that help us grow. We make these random choIces- where we go to school, which job, whether to turn left or rught at a street corner- which shape our lives.
I am, for example, living with an English husband in London because one night in 1985, in NY, instead of going to dinner at Indochine with a friend from Berlin and a French sort of boyfriend and his friends, I happened to go to the ladies room at my job at a Wall St bank, where a friend in the art department said she didn’t want to go to a loft party in TriBeCa and asked if I would join her.
But when my future husband and I looked at our lives in NY up to that point, we could have met at any other time. The Mudd Club, etc..
Andrew would I be too nosy if I asked what you do in research and investigation?
Claudia I love this thread- and as a screenwriter who still hasn’t given up on my dreams, despite all logistical, statistical odds, of my films being made, I am fascinated by the idea that films affect our choices in life.
Hi Jill — I’m loving that my post has sparked such an interesting conversation. Fate, destiny, and serendipity are all certainly part of your story of how you met your husband and, I believe, part of all of our lives.
(& p.s. Speaking of choices: my next big love- after Brian and before the Brit- was a five year, cinematic relationship with a nice Jewish boy from Queens who was a black belt in karate- I left college a year early, at his urging, to be with him in NY. The internship at Push Pin studios opened more design career opportunities than college would have, and I started studying at the dojo too. Reader, I didn’t marry him, after 5 or 6 years, but his brother ended up writing the Karate Kid based in my lovely soul mate).
We are all so lucky: we all have such winderful lives.
Indeed we are!