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