Mona Lisa Smile (2003)
A review by Shlomoh Sherman
August 22, 2018

Read about Mona Lisa Smile On the Internet Movie Data Base

Director: Mike Newell
Writers: Lawrence Konner, Mark Rosenthal
Stars: Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles
Plot Summary: A free-thinking art professor teaches conservative 1950s Wellesley girls to question their traditional social roles.
Tagline: In a world that told them how to live, she taught them how to think.
Genres: Drama
Motion Picture Rating (MPAA)
Rated PG-13 for sexual content and thematic issues
Parents Guide: See below
Country: USA
Language: English - Italian
Release Date: December 19, 2003 (USA)
Filming Locations: Wellesley, Massachusetts - Yonkers, New York - Massachusetts - Bronx Community College - University Avenue at West 181 Street, Bronx, New York City, New York - Columbia University - Broadway & 116th Street, Manhattan, New York City, New York - New Haven, Connecticut - New York City, New York - Oakland, California - Parker, Arizona - Putnam Valley, New York - San Francisco, California - St Augustine Catholic Church, Brooklyn, New York City, New York - Sterling Memorial Library, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut - Tarrytown, New York - Wellesley College - 106 Central Street, Wellesley, Massachusetts - Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut - Glen Ridge, New Jersey - Park Slope, Brooklyn, New York City, New York - Silliman College, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut
Box Office:
Budget:$65,000,000 (estimated)
Opening Weekend USA: $11,528,498
Gross USA: $63,860,942
Cumulative Worldwide Gross: $141,337,989
Company Credits:
Production Co: Revolution Studios, Red Om Films
Runtime: 117 min
Sound Mix: DTS - Dolby Digital - SDDS
Color: Color
Nominated for 1 Golden Globe. Another 5 nominations. See below


What I like about this movie is that it's totally 1950s - but with statements about all the negative aspects of that decade [that certain people think made America great]. I was there. Believe me! It wasn't great in that decade. Quite the opposite if you weren't lucky to be the "right" kind of person. Need I say more?

Katherine Ann Watson is an art professor and has accepted a position teaching art history at the prestigious and very conservative Wellesley College. Watson has very avant garde ideas for a woman of the 1950s. She is a serious teacher and cares passionately for both her subject of expertise and for her students.

Her students have been raised with the idea that although it may be important for a young woman to have a university education, their more important goal in life is to find the right man to marry.

Initially, the women put Katherine through a period of sardonic testing. She rises to the challenge and before long, becomes one of the students' favorite teachers.

Katherine realizes that her students are very bright but that they are wasting their academic potential by concentrating on marriage rather than on dynamic careers. She and her students have formed strong bonds but Watson's views are far too outrageous for the dominant 1950s culture of the college. The administration is not fond of the fact that Katherine has become a personal friend to her students and that she has entered into a romantic and sexual relationship with another of the professors. Bill Dunbar, the man with whom Katherine is having the affair, quips that she reminds him of Mona Lisa as her smile is enigmatic.

Undaunted, Katherine seeks to instill in the young women that they are more than appendages of a man they might marry. She tells them that a man who really respects them will want them to realize their full life potential in careers that they may want to pursue.

Joan Brandwyn, played by Julia Stiles, dreams of being a lawyer and wants to enroll in law school. Katherine encourages her to apply to Yale Law School, which she does and is accepted. But ultimately, Joan elopes with her fiancé, Tommy (Topher Grace), and is very happy. She chooses to be a wife and mother after graduating, and asks Katherine to respect her choice.

Katherine continues to encourage the students to seek fulfillment in life with both marriage and career. Eventually, her very liberal attitude, her interpersonal relationship with her students, and her sexual affair with another teacher cause the administration first to not pick up her tenure for the next semester. But confronted with the realization that her classes are the most popular and most attended ones, they reconsider and tell her that they will renew her tenure so long as she agrees to follow the status quo of the school culture, namely, she is not to engage in personal relationships either with her students or other staff members. These are conditions that she refuses to accept.

Sadly and happily, her students accompany her, bike riding beside her as she leaves the school grounds.

The script and acting are superb. I especially was drawn to the ending montage showing magazine and TV ads with women as the perfect housewives, catering to their husbands' personal and professional needs; showing women demonstrating the latest kitchen appliances and house cleaning products, maternity wards, Miss America pageants, and Levittown houses. Thanks for the memories! NOT! [as I giggle]

Here is an excerpt from TonstantViewer's IMDB June 15, 2004 review:

This Picture Is Better Than It Should Be
This is the kind of movie that is easy to pan but deserves better. Yes, the premise is familiar, the plot is formulaic, the characters seem like you've met them before.
"The devil is in the details," as they say, and this picture has just enough surprises, just enough charm, just enough fine acting to make it worth watching. Movies do not have to be real to be worthwhile, they just have to be about real things. The questions "MONA LISA SMILE" covers are still very much with us and may provoke considerable discussion in your house. This film is respectful enough of its subject matter and well-enough executed to make it a much better way to spend your time than most of what's out there now. Don't believe the sourpusses, this one's a good'un.

Is Katherine Ann Watson, played by Julia Robert, real or fictional? Best Answer: The character is fictional. The university is thought to be a fictionalized version of the University of California, Berkeley, but the story and characters are fiction. - noted on the Yahoo Answers page at

Experts say it is with compelling evidence that the Mona Lisa's so-called 'uncatchable smile' was a deliberate effect created by Leonardo da Vinci. The illusion behind the Mona Lisa’s enigmatic quality is thought to stem from the fact that she appears to be smiling – until the viewer looks directly at the subject’s mouth, at which point it seems downturned.
According to Sheffield Hallam’s psychology professor and expert in visual perception Dr. Alessandro Soranzo, '“Given da Vinci’s mastery of the technique, and its subsequent use in the Mona Lisa, it is quite conceivable that the ambiguity of the effect was intentional'

The phrase suggests that a positive seeming attitude put forth by people may be deceptive. The women students at the university claim that their true happiness will lie in finding a man to marry and lovingly support in his career and happily bear his children. But clearly, it's obvious to them that this role diminishes them in some important way if it is their only future.

Given the frustration that many women of the 1950s must have felt, it is little wonder that the following decade produced the movement known as Women's Liberation, especially in that it was the decade which saw the creation of the contraceptive pill which freed females of the worry of unwanted pregnancies should they choose to engage in extra-marital recreational sex.

A good analysis of the film can be found at

KUDOS TO Julia Roberts as Katherine Ann Watson; I have always wondered what people see in this actress; as far as I am concerned, she is not all that; however she delivers an excellent performance in this film
KUDOS TO Kirsten Dunst as Betty Warren; I remember Kirsten when she was a younger actress and have always appreciated her talent
KUDOS TO Julia Stiles as Joan Brandwyn; first became aware of how lovely she is on seeing her on the TV drama, DEXTER; she embodies beauty and talent
KUDOS TO Maggie Gyllenhaal as Giselle Levy; the Gyllenhaal siblings are two of my fav Jewish actors; Maggie is just great
KUDOS TO Ginnifer Goodwin as Connie Baker; first noticed on the TV series, ONCE UPON A TIME as Snow White, Ginnifer has come a long way; this was her breakout movie
KUDOS TO Dominic West as Bill Dunbar; Dominic appears as Noah on the TV Showtime series, THE AFFAIR, where I first saw him; terrific actor
KUDOS TO Marcia Gay Harden as Nancy Abbey; first noticed Marcia in the 2003 movie, MYSTIC RIVER; a wonderful actress; I realize that she shot both Mystic River and Mona Lisa Smile during the same year

Kirsten Dunst and Topher Grace also starred in Spider-Man 3 (2007).
Topher Grace appears in the August, 2018 movie, BLACKKKLANSMAN, as David Duke; reviewed on this website
Part of the film was shot at Columbia University of which actresses Julia Stiles and Maggie Gyllenhaal are both graduates
In order to prepare for their roles, the leads were all put through a finishing school two weeks prior to filming.
To prepare for her role, Julia Roberts observed art history classes at New York University.
Ginnifer Goodwin's film debut.
The painting that the girls look at is Jackson Pollock's Number 1 ( Lavender Mist)
Producers originally applied to film at Bryn Mawr College, another one of the Seven Sisters. It is unclear why they ultimately went with Wellesley College.
Ginnifer Goodwin and Topher Grace both played in Win a Date with Tad Hamilton! (2004).
The Harvard Din & Tonics is the a cappella group singing "Istanbul not Constantinople".

The end credits for cast and crew are set in front of vintage footage and advertisements showing women in the 1940s and 50s as happy housewives or pinups.

Strike It Rich (1951) (TV Series) - They watch it on the television
I Love Lucy (1951) (TV Series) - Opening credits seen on the hostel television set.
Queen for a Day (1956) (TV Series)
Once Upon a Honeymoon (1956) (Short) - During the end credits, among the clips showing different 1950's "happy household" propaganda is a clip from this short.
Calamity Jane (1953) - 'Doris Day' is heard singing 'Secret Love' from the movie.

Lift Thine Eyes from "Elijah" Written by Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (as Felix Mendelssohn) Performed by Wellesley College Chamber Singers Lisa Graham Conductor Under license from Wellesley College Chamber Singers
For the Splendor of Creation Adapted from "The Planets" Written by Gustav Holst and Carl P. Daw, Jr. Performed by Wellesley College Choir Lisa Graham Conductor Under license from Wellesley College Choir
I Love Lucy Written by Harold Adamson and Eliot Daniel Secret Love Written by Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster Performed by Mandy Moore Courtesy of Columbia Records By Arrangement with Sony Music Licensing
How High the Moon Written by Nancy Hamilton and Morgan Lewis Performed by Les Paul and Mary Ford Courtesy of Capitol Records Under license from EMI Film & Television Music
Hoop-De-Doo Written by Frank Loesser and Milton Delugg (as Milton DeLugg) Performed by Perry Como Courtesy of The RCA Records Label, a unit of BMG Under license from BMG Film & Television Music
Trio for 2 Flutes and Harp from "L'Enfance du Christ" Written by Hector Berlioz
Would I Mind Written by Joe Candullo, Jack Little, and Eddie Snyder Performed by Steve Gibson's Red Caps Courtesy of Bear Family Records
Bewitched Written by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart Produced by Trevor Horn Performed by Céline Dion (as Celine Dion) Courtesy of Columbia Records/Sony Music Entertainment (Canada) Inc.
Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring Written by Johann Sebastian Bach Performed by Scottish Chamber Orchestra Conducted by Raymond Leppard Courtesy of Teldec Classics International By Arrangement with Warner Strategic Marketing
Trumpet Voluntary in D, Op. 6, No. 5 (Andante Largo) Written by John Stanley
'S Wonderful Written by George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin Produced by Trevor Horn Performed by The Trevor Horn Orchestra
Mona Lisa Written by Ray Evans and Jay Livingston Produced by Trevor Horn Performed by Seal Courtesy of Warner Bros. Records
Besame Mucho Written by Consuelo Velázquez (as Consuelo Velazquez) Produced by Trevor Horn Performed by Chris Isaak
Murder He Says Written by Frank Loesser and Jimmy McHugh Produced by Trevor Horn Performed by Tori Amos Courtesy of Epic Records
You Belong to Me Written by Pee Wee King, Chilton Price, and Redd Stewart Produced by Trevor Horn Performed by Tori Amos Courtesy of Epic Records
The Swan from "Carnival of the Animals" Written by Camille Saint-Saëns (as Camille Saint-Saens) Santa Baby Written by Joan Javits, Philip Springer (as Phil Springer), and Tony Springer (as Tony Springer) Produced by Trevor Horn Performed by Macy Gray Courtesy of Epic Records
I've Got a Crush on You Written by George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin Produced by Trevor Horn Performed by Seal Courtesy of Warner Bros. Records
The Glow Worm Written by Paul Lincke, Johnny Mercer, and Lilla Cayley Robinson (as Lilla C. Robinson) Performed by The Mills Brothers Courtesy of MCA Records Under license from Universal Music Enterprises
I'm Sitting on Top of the World Written by Ray Henderson, Sam Lewis, and Joe Young Performed by Les Paul and Mary Ford Courtesy of Capitol Records Under license from EMI Film & Television Music
Tea for Two Written by Irving Caesar and Vincent Youmans Performed by Doris Day Courtesy of Columbia Records By Arrangement with Sony Music Licensing
Walkin' My Baby Back Home Written by Fred E. Ahlert and Roy Turk Performed by Nat 'King' Cole (as Nat King Cole) Courtesy of Capitol Records Under license from EMI Film & Television Music
I'm Beginning to See the Light Written by Duke Ellington, Don George, Johnny Hodges, and Harry James Produced by Trevor Horn Performed by Kelly Rowland Courtesy of Columbia Records
No Moon at All Written by Dave Mann and Redd Evans Performed by Brad Mehldau and Larry Grenadier Brad Mehldau appears courtesy of Warner Bros. Records By the Light of the Silvery Moon Written by Gus Edwards and Edward Madden Performed by Doris Day Courtesy of Columbia Records By Arrangement with Sony Music Licensing
Istanbul (Not Constantinople) Written by Jimmy Kennedy and Nat Simon Produced by Trevor Horn Performed by The Trevor Horn Orchestra
Sh-Boom (Life Could Be a Dream) Written by James Keyes, Carl Feaster, Floyd McRae, Claude Feaster, and James Edwards Produced by Trevor Horn Performed by The Trevor Horn Orchestra
Flying Home Written by Benny Goodman and Lionel Hampton Produced by Trevor Horn Performed by The Trevor Horn Orchestra
The Continental Written by Con Conrad and Herb Magidson (as Herbert Magidson) Produced by Trevor Horn Performed by The Trevor Horn Orchestra
What'll I Do Written by Irving Berlin Produced by Trevor Horn Performed by Alison Krauss Courtesy of Rounder Records
I've Got the World on a String Written by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler Produced by Trevor Horn Performed by Lisa Stansfield Courtesy of ZTT Records Ltd.
The Heart of Every Girl Written by Elton John and Bernie Taupin Produced by Trevor Horn Performed by Elton John Courtesy of Mercury Records Limited
Smile Written by Charles Chaplin, John Turner, and Geoffrey Parsons Performed by Barbra Streisand Courtesy of Columbia Records By Arrangement with Sony Music Licensing


Certification: MPAA Rated PG-13 for sexual content and thematic issues

Argentina:13 Australia:PG Austria:0 Brazil:12 Canada:PG (Alberta/Manitoba/Nova Scotia) Canada:G (British Columbia/Ontario/Quebec) Finland:S France:Tous publics Germany:0 Hong Kong:IIA Iceland:L Malaysia:U Netherlands:AL Philippines:PG-13 Portugal:M/6 (original rating) Portugal:M/12 (re-rating) Russia:12+ Singapore:PG Singapore:PG13 (re-rating) South Korea:12 Spain:7 Sweden:Btl United Kingdom:12A United States:PG-13 (certificate #38909)

A woman views abstract nude images on a train. Very brief.
A man and a woman kiss, the man lies bare-chested on the floor and the woman buttons her top suggesting that they have had sex; then he pulls her down to the floor, kisses her ear and neck. Men and women kiss in many scenes, and a man and a woman kiss and hug.
A married man and a woman who's not his wife kiss. A woman kisses an older man.
A woman kisses a woman on the cheek several times and moves around the room seductively while talking about another woman having had an affair.
A woman talks about having an affair with a married man.
Women flirt with men and there are several scenes full of sexual tension.
A woman talks about another woman's companion (alluding to the fact that it was a homosexual relationship).
Women talk about contraception and pass around a diaphragm.
Women talk about a man who happens to be a professor and say, "he sleeps with the students".
A younger woman says to a professor "we shouldn't have slept together."
Men and women dance together in a few scenes.
Nudes are seen in paintings shown in art history classes (the Sistine Chapel, for example). Women talk about a painting being erotic.
A woman opens a shower curtain and we see a man nude from the waist up.
Women wear bathing suits in a couple of scenes (we see bare legs and cleavage) Women are shown in undergarments and putting on corsets while the end credits roll.
Women wear dresses that are low-cut and reveal cleavage, bare shoulders and backs, in several scenes.
A woman wears a short top that reveals her bare abdomen.

Mild. Two women threaten each other. A woman grabs her daughter by the arm and shakes her. A woman screams at a woman and is very insulting to other women in many scenes. A woman yells in a few scenes. A woman talks about a man having died in World War II, and a woman talks about her companion having died.

7 sexual references, 2 scatological terms, 3 anatomical terms, 12 mild obscenities,
1 derogatory term for someone who's Jewish, 7 religious exclamations.

Smoking and alcohol use in several scenes.


Golden Globes, USA 2004
Nominee Golden Globe Best Original Song - Motion Picture - Elton John (music) - Bernie Taupin (lyrics) - Song: "The Heart of Every Girl"
Broadcast Film Critics Association Awards 2004
Nominee Critics Choice Award Best Song - Elton John - Bernie Taupin - Song "The Heart of Every Girl".
Phoenix Film Critics Society Awards 2004
Nominee PFCS Award - Best Use of Previously Published or Recorded Music
Satellite Awards 2004
Nominee Golden Satellite Award Best Original Song - Elton John - Song: "The Heart of Every Girl"

Read about Mona Lisa Smile On the Internet Movie Data Base

Cast overview, first billed only:
Julia Roberts ... Katherine Ann Watson
Kirsten Dunst ... Betty Warren
Julia Stiles ... Joan Brandwyn
Maggie Gyllenhaal ... Giselle Levy
Ginnifer Goodwin ... Connie Baker
Dominic West ... Bill Dunbar
Juliet Stevenson ... Amanda Armstrong
Marcia Gay Harden ... Nancy Abbey
John Slattery ... Paul Moore
Marian Seldes ... President Jocelyn Carr
Donna Mitchell ... Mrs. Warren
Terence Rigby ... Dr. Edward Staunton
Jennie Eisenhower ... Girl at the Station
Leslie Lyles ... Housing Director
Laura Allen ... Susan Delacorte

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