"I envy you your school days," Doc tells Babe, half an hour into the classic 1976 film Marathon Man. "It's the last time nobody expects anything of you."
Doc, played by Roy Scheider, is the older brother, the man of commerce. Babe, aka Dustin Hoffman, is a mere graduate student.
Babe's real-life counterparts may be excused at this point for blowing latte through their nostrils.
Nobody expects anything?
Just the theses revised, the examinations retaken, the classes taught, papers graded, experiments done, data crunched, posters presented, literature absorbed . . . oh, and the odd sweep of the floor before you lock up and go home. (Lock up? Go home?)
Hoffman nicely captures the longitudinal sense of vulnerability (Where am I headed?) that is the grad student's lot. And in Doc, the film gets right the absence of sympathy evinced by denizens of "the real world." The feeling of purgatory—and of being unable to afford a decent dentist—is palpable. Marathon Man has the fittest title of any grad school movie, although Twister and Altered States are not bad either.
In Hollywood's imagination, grad students exhibit certain constants: They are nocturnal, hyper-verbal, supremely dedicated to their work, and averse to doing laundry. After a bit of couch-based, VCR-driven research, however, I've teased out some subtleties in these depictions that can be catalogued under three distinct strains.
The first arguably traces back to the dawn, or at least the midmorning, of film history. When Igor pulls back the door to the inner sanctum in the original Frankenstein, we witness the earliest appearance of grad student as lab rat. This character, essentially unchanged in innumerable subsequent films, is truly blinded by science—a lackey, with bad hair and no life outside the white coat. He (the "rat" is almost always male) is at best an idiot savant, at worst no savant at all.
The second type, best exemplified by Hoffman's Babe, is the grad student as loner. This is usually a liberal-arts type. Babe falls asleep with books in his bed. He prefers to be on his own, and remains so even to the extent that his neighbors call him "the creep." The scrawny, perpetually tattered Babe also introduces a subcategory here: grad student as starveling.
Two more recent films establish a third type: the team member. At their best, these films evoke the fun, irreverent atmosphere of "the lab," a place where goofy photos and "Far Side" cartoons are stuck to the refrigerator that holds both the petri dishes and everybody's lunch. One of them, the summer blockbuster Twister, depicts a compelling sub-strain, what might be called "gonzo."
With names like Dusty, Rabbit, and Preacher, a merry band of brothers (and one sister) gleefully beat the backroads in their motley caravan of rattletraps, blasting tunes and bellowing war whoops, in search of the perfect tornado.
Twister is rife with weighty themes from graduate life. For one, it tackles the evils of corporate sponsorship. In the battle of two labs over the same data, the lesson is clear: sell out and you get to drive late-model sport-utility vehicles and play with state-of-the-art equipment, but eventually you will be sucked up into the whirlwind. (Admittedly a somewhat paradoxical message from a picture that probably cost more to mount than the GNP of Ecuador.)
The movie also does a nice job of showing the sheer exhilaration that can be part of the grad school experience: the thrill of the chase, and the long-awaited payoff of discovery. "This," says Dusty, his eyes shining with anticipation, "is the good part."
Mostly, though, Twister is about the importance of choosing a good faculty adviser. Pick the right one, the film says, and you get frequent hugs, occasional steak and eggs, and your input taken seriously. Choose wrongly and you get ordered to shut up and drive.
Which brings us, finally, to The Last Supper. This black comedy may be the first true grad student movie, in the sense that here the students are the principal players; there are no faculty to be found. Predictably, without any kind of guidance, or even any work to do, these young whippersnappers quickly spin out of control. The results are pretty grisly, but the movie is memorable for depicting some prevalent grad-student stereotypes carried to the extreme. One is the late-night bull session, where intractable societal problems find categorical solutions. Then there's the challenge of coexisting with roommates. Lastly, the movie celebrates the grad student's normative preference for red wine.
In closing, the most Hollywood grad student of all time has to be Meg Ryan, who in the 1994 film I.Q. glides with nary a headache through a Ph.D. in quantum physics, all the while modeling a wardrobe fit for the young Grace Kelly. Contrast this with the gritty Babe, whose hair hangs limp, and whose sweatshirts all have holes around the collar.
Blessedly, Babe eventually prevails. And although he may lose a few teeth along the way, he never surrenders his pluck, or his dignity. When Doc condescendingly offers to put him in a nice apartment, Babe shakes off the suggestion with the quintessential grad student line. "Thank you," he says, "but I prefer my hovel."