April 29, 2010

The Other Cornell in Hollywood

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Ithaca, NY: The Original Tinseltown

Long before Andy Bernard started regularly making shout-outs to Cornellians and impressing ladies with his Here Comes Treble-esque skills (bet he wasn’t good enough for Key Elements, though — It’s Never Sunny in Ithaca was a great show, by the way), Ithaca was known for its silent films. Back in the day (and I mean way back, like before we invented the chicken nugget), a fine, young gentleman by the name of Theodore Wharton decided to make Ithaca his home away from home. He also just happened to be in the biz — the silent movie business, that is.  Wharton began filming movies right here in the Ith in 1912; by 1914, his brother Leopold had moved out to Ithaca to help with the endeavor and soon after the pair established Wharton, Inc.

Wharton Studios is, unfortunately, completely defunct these days. When in full swing the studio both directed and produced over 100 silent films, but by the mid-1920’s the film industry had already started moving west where filming could continue year-round without being inhibited by the not-always-this-sunny upstate New York weather. The studio, though not particularly well maintained as of late, is still standing in Stewart Park. However, two area residents — Connie Bruce and Diana Riesman — recently created the Ithaca Motion Picture Project, which aims to renovate the old studio and open it up as a tourist attraction. The end result will be a silent film museum of sorts, complete with film screenings and workshops.

Big Red Making The Big Screen

Although you probably never noticed it before coming here, the Big Red actually gets a fair amount of face time on the silver screen. Once new students first pass through the University’s the ivy-covered gate, finding Cornell movie references becomes somewhat like catching your A.P. calculus teacher swearing in class — no matter how many times it happens, it always makes you smile.Whether it be Patrick Dempsey seducing co-eds on campus, Vicky Lathum (American Pie, anyone?) getting accepted into Cornell, Sideshow Mel claiming he is a Cornell grad in The Simpsons or even that girl in Say Anything telling Ione Skye’s character that if it weren’t for her, she probably would not be Cornell-bound, we often seem to find references made to the Big Red. And while we all love it (well, I love it, so I assume the rest of you must too), there seem to be a few stereotypes that stem from these references that we don’t always love.

Don’t Judge a Cornellian By His Stereotype 

I’m sorry to say that I had only ever seen one episode of The Office before writing this piece.  I’ve now seen enough episodes to quote Andy Bernard in my sleep. As funny as Andy is, I wouldn’t exactly say that he gives Cornell a good name. In fact, he makes Cornell students seem annoying. He references his days at Cornell in some manner almost every episode, making it seem as if Cornell students feel the need to brag about their Ivy League education to assure themselves that they’re worth something. In a similar fashion (no pun intended) the irritating Ugly Betty character Nick Pepper claims that he graduated from Cornell. Even Wikipedia observes that Pepper is “… very annoying and talks too much, mostly about himself.”  What a couple of winners we’ve turned out, eh?

While this is not always the stereotype Cornellians fall into, some of the others are just as bad.  For those of you have seen the Academy Award-nominated Up in the Air, you’ll know that one of the main characters, Natalie Keener (played by Anna Kendrick), is a recent Cornell grad. (For those of you who haven’t seen the movie — see it. Trust me.) Keener’s character, though lovable, seems so sheltered by her sickeningly perfect collegiate life that she makes us here in Ithaca seem like assholes. I take that back, she doesn’t make us seem like assholes. But she does make us seem uptight and very by-the-book. We end up coming off as the type to need not only a five-year plan (a detailed one, I might add), but also a 10-year outline and probably a 20-year rough-but-really-not-that-rough draft. Super.

The references don’t have to be explicit. Sometimes all it takes is a character sipping his break room java out of a Cornell mug or, more specifically, a drug addict taking a gander through a rehabilitation center’s premises in a Cornell sweatshirt. (For those of you who missed the allusion, it was to the Sandra Bullock dramedy 28 Days, which portrays the life of a rehabilitation resident throughout a month-long stay.) Without even so much as mentioning the University’ by name, the movie manages to correlate us with the production of drug addicts. Ain’t that grand?

Though Cornell is sometimes represented as the school that produces pretentious jerks, pretentious wannabes (the kind that went to Cornell because it was the only Ivy they could get into), and not-so-pretentious drug addicts (but at least ones looking for help), we sometimes come out on top. That is to say, fortunately, not all stereotypes of Cornell students are bad ones.

Finally, A Nice Stereotype

The Perfect Score, though maybe a B-list movie, makes Cornell seem like the Big Kahuna. The movie essentially follows a high school student’s scheme to steal the answers to the SATs so that he can get a high enough score to be admitted into this fine institution. (I knew there were people out there who saw Cornell in a positive light!) However, our leading man eventually decides to forgo stealing the answers and settles on attending Syracuse, a school more appropriate for someone of his academic standing (sorry ‘Cuse).

Then there’s Roswell, a short-lived drama about aliens living in, you guessed it, Roswell, NM.  Katherine Heigl’s husband on the show, Adam Rodriguez (now starring in CSI: Miami), is a well-respected lawyer who later reveals that he attended Cornell on a full scholarship, after which he received his J.D. from our peer Ivy, Harvard. Even alien lovers have experienced life far above Cayuga’s waters!

For those of you who are not as enthralled by B-list movies and television shows, I can assure you that Cornell has garnered a good impression in A-list productions as well. Any Given Sunday — a movie staring A-listers such as Cameron Diaz, Dennis Quaid, Al Pacino, Aaron Eckhart, Charlton Heston and Jamie Foxx — is a movie about a fictional football team owned by Christina Pagniacci (Diaz). Pagniacci, who inherited the team from her father, is a woman looking to make an impact in a world that is dominated by men. She’s a strong, independent woman — I’d say that’s not too shabby of an impression to give people of Cornell grads, wouldn’t you? To help her make her way, Pagniacci is armed with an MBA from Cornell. Her degree is not only mentioned in the movie’s dialogue, but there is also a Cornell diploma feature on Pagniacci’s wall, which leads us to our next item of interest: Cornell schwag. 

How to Get Cornell Schwag: A Quick Look at University Public Relations

Writers and directors can’t just spontaneously decide that a character on their TV show or in their movie needs to have Cornell pennants on his office wall, wear a Cornell baseball cap, or have a Cornell yearbook on his bookshelf.  To get these props, production companies have to go through the school’s Director of Community Relations. Upon receiving inquiries from production companies, University Relations has to make several arrangements (including obtaining special clearances and looking into the production’s script to see how Cornell will be portrayed). If U.R. sees fit for the production to include Cornell memorabilia, the school will send apparel, yearbooks, photos, etc.

Cornell tries to make this approval process fairly easy and relatively cheap. While other schools will make companies pay a significant amount for these view books and faux diplomas, Cornell charges nothing but the cost of shipping. By making it easy, it is highly likely that the same production companies will come back and ask for more props in the future. When interviewed by Brian Herzog ’90 for the Cornell Alumni Magazaine, David Stewart, the University’s former Director of Community Relations said that this is done as “…part of getting the University’s name out there — in a positive light…”Alas, sometimes our finely distributed props end up getting edited out. Production companies may end up cutting out the scenes that highlight our Big Red gear or the director may change a character’s alma mater at the last minute. So while several production companies have received permission to feature Cornell memorabilia in their film or show, they may not have ended up doing so, making it especially difficult for U.R. to cite all the movies and TV shows featuring Cornell graduates or Cornell memorabilia. 

And The References Just Keep On Comin’

For those of you who still can’t get your fill of Cornell references, go ahead and rejoice at this: the New York Times bestseller, Water for Elephants, is going to be made into a movie that will start filming in less than a month; one of its rumored filming locations is, of course, Cornell University. The movie (staring Reese Witherspoon, Christoph Waltz and Robert Pattinson) follows Jacob Jankowski’s life after he drops out of Cornell’s vet school upon hearing of his parents’ tragic deaths and joins a traveling circus. So for those of you who will be here over summer, keep your eyes peeled — you may catch a glimpse of a certain vampire grabbing lunch at CTB.  RLD

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Original Author: Hazel Gunapala