Intruders at Harvard: The rise and fall of America’s greatest university

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In October 1986, New World Pictures released a romantic comedy called Soul Man, starring teen heartthrob C. Thomas Howell. At the time, Howell was often mentioned in the company of Tom Cruise, Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe, and Matt Dillon, his co-stars in Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of The Outsiders. He had made Red Dawn with Swayze and Charlie Sheen, a rom-com with Kelly Preston, and almost got the lead in Back to Future. He was handsome, successful, and still only nineteen years old.

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Yet Soul Man would become something of an enduring cultural embarrassment and C. Thomas Howell would never star in a consequential movie again. The movie tells the story of a privileged UCLA grad who is accepted into Harvard Law School, only to learn that, in a fit of therapist-inspired middle-aged selfishness, his father won’t pay the tuition. So he puts on a cheap Jheri Curl wig, covers himself head-to-toe in self-tanner, and pretends to be a black man in order to get scholarship money reserved for minorities. Hilarity does not ensue.

Soul Man exists now as a reminder of how terrible movies often were back in the ‘80s, and that society has at least improved enough that major studios don’t release blackface comedies anymore.1 But it also marked the beginning of a sturdy new filmic sub-genre: Intruders at Harvard. Over the course of six films and 25 years, Hollywood would accidentally tell the story of how Harvard University came to rule the world, until the world caught up with it and moved on.

In fairness, Soul Man is not altogether terrible. It’s not a cynical movie, the supporting roles are well-acted, and there’s a certain crude earnestness in its attempts to grapple with issues of bias and identity. It also established the essential tropes of the Intruders at Harvard genre, which revolves around five stock characters: The Intruder, the Best Friend, the Love Interest, the Professor, and the Asshole.

The point of the Intruder is that he or she has won admission to Harvard, but, in some crucial way, doesn’t belong there. Resolving that conflict forms the narrative spine of the movie. The Best Friend’s job is to stay the same, serving as an advice-giver and partner in expositional conversation. The Love Interest exists to be wooed and won. The Asshole is the opponent to be vanquished. And the Professor represents the university and academia at large.

The relationship between the Intruder and the Professor is crucial, because the Intruder’s relationships with the Best Friend, Love Interest, and Asshole are pre-ordained. At the beginning, the Professor confronts the Intruder as an authority figure. By the end, the Intruder has either embraced or rejected the Professor’s values, resolving the Intruder’s character arc.

C. Thomas Howell’s Best Friend is played by Arye Gross, his amiable roommate at Harvard Law. Rae Dawn Chong is a sweet and conscientious Love Interest who struggles in class because she’s both a single mom and working menial jobs on the side due to not getting the scholarship Howell stole. The Asshole is barely formed. There’s a guy with a small role as Julia Louis Dreyfuss’s boyfriend who looks the part—preppily handsome, sneering—but he goes to BU, and the whole point of the Asshole is that he’s the Hollywood caricature of a ruling-class Harvard East Coast WASP. There are a couple of Assholes who show up like clockwork every 20 minutes to accidentally tell racist jokes within earshot of Howell. His growing anger at this is what passes for character development in Soul Man. The Professor is played by James Earl Jones as a stern, stentorian member of the law faculty. There’s an inexcusable scene at the end where Jones forgives Howell—and, by extension, the audience—for his transgressions, because the experience made him identify with the black condition.

Some parts of Soul Man are sad and chilling in modern light. The shockingly unaffordable tuition bill that drives Howell to blackface is $10,493.2 He justifies his scheme to the Best Friend by saying, “It’s the Cosby decade – America loves black people!” The scene where Howell is pulled over in his car by a racist local police officer and thrown in prison with a gang of drunken racist Celtics fans who proceed to beat him savagely is played mostly for laughs.

Melora Hardin aka Michael Scott’s girlfriend on The Office does a lot with a small part as a rich liberal who sleeps with Howell in order to commune with his people’s 400 years of oppression. Leslie Neilson is funny and hey, there’s Ron Reagan Jr.! Yet Soul Man ultimately fails because of its premise and the fact that Howell is not at all good in the leading role—he’s broad, jokey, callow. There’s a reason Tom Cruise et al became huge movie stars and he didn’t.

But despite all of that, Soul Man made about $60 million in today’s dollars, and something about it must have lodged in the collective unconsciousness of producers and screenwriters, because over the next two decades they would produce five more Intruders at Harvard films, crossing genres and playing around with conventions, but always returning to the essential premise.

There was never a question of using a different university. As Howell says to Gross when someone suggests attending a cheaper law school: “Five words. Harvard: There Is No Substitute.” All Intruders movies contain dialogue that reminds viewers of this. There are many old, fine, and exclusive colleges in the United States of America, but nobody is making “Intruders at Yale.”

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In the second Intruders film, With Honors, released by Warner Brothers in 1994, the reminding dialogue comes about 40 seconds in, spoken by louche Best Friend / alleged campus radio DJ Patrick Dempsey, aka McDreamy: “You’re at the greatest university on Earth.” Dempsey, a multi-generational legacy, also chimes in later with a mock grievance: “Harvard doesn’t have any standards left. They’ll let in anyone who’s bright.”

This goes a long way toward explaining why the Intruders genre appeared when it did. Harvard has always been America’s oldest and most famous university. But it hasn’t always been the ultra-rich global talent magnet it is today. Intermittent financial and enrollment problems persisted into the mid-20th century and there was an active debate among faculty as to whether the university should accept the billions of dollars in federal research money that ultimately powered its expansion. The admissions process continued was tainted by religious and ethnic bigotry for many years, and as late as the 1970s, men outnumbered women four-to-one.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that most high school students, reacting to the collapse of the blue-collar economy, wanted to go to college. That’s when U.S. News & World Report began publishing annual rankings and elite college admissions as the apex of the meritocracy became universally understood. Ivy League admission has long had cache on the urban coasts. But it wasn’t until the last 30 years or so that people started thinking that way in Peoria, where movies, to make money, have to play.

That new breed of striver is represented in With Honors by protagonist Brendan Fraser, who we meet in the office of Professor Gore Vidal. Fraser recites from memory the beginning of his senior thesis, which apes the anti-democratic fascist nonsense espoused by Vidal, who plays his character as an egomaniacal blowhard “public intellectual” with a made-up aristocratic accent, i.e. as himself but with William F. Buckley’s politics. (True fact: Gore Vidal never went to college.)

Then a power surge fries Fraser’s hard drive, erasing the thesis. He stupidly rushes out with his only paper copy to the nearest Kinko’s (a thing in the early ‘90s, trust me), only to trip, break his foot, and drop the thesis down a grate into the Widener Library boiler room–portrayed here as one of those steam-and-flame factories from the end of a Terminator movie–where it is captured by a bum played by Joe Pesci. The bum tells Fraser he’ll return the thesis one page at a time, in exchange for favors, thus initiating a relationship that will ultimately lead to a great deal of hugging and learning.

Fraser, in other words, is not really the Intruder here. That’s Pesci, an autodidact with a murky past who quotes Whitman and denounces Vidal when it’s dramatically convenient. Fraser is, initially at least, the Asshole. Moira Kelly plays the Love Interest as a wan off-campus housemate whose forward sexuality was probably more character-defining 20 years ago. The movie starts with rom-com tendencies before descending into pure pathos, with Pesci chewing scenery as if his life depends on winning a third Best Supporting Actor nomination. The relationship with Pesci results in Fraser’s eventual de-Assholization, culminating in a new thesis espousing truth, justice, and the American way, much to Vidal’s chagrin.

With Honors isn’t a good movie and unlike Soul Man it doesn’t even have value as a weird artifact. But it does further develop the socioeconomic issues that motivate these films. There’s a long tradition of class conflict-driven comedy and drama in literature, television and film. Since we don’t really have a British-style upstairs and downstairs here in America, storytellers have to go elsewhere. Elite universities on the east coast are as close as we come to Downton-style settings and manners, and nowhere in America is historically and psychically closer to the English aristocracy than Harvard Yard. It’s a perfect place to set tales of working-class protagonists fighting condescension.

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Those ideas are front-and-center in the next Intruders film, Good Will Hunting, directed by Gus Van Zandt and released in 1997. It is in all respects superior to With Honors, featuring the best (within-genre) Best Friend in Ben Affleck,3 the most interesting and well-developed Love Interest in Harvard undergrad Minnie Driver, and a brief but stellar Asshole performance by How D’Ya Like Them Apples Guy. Good Will Hunting also makes the fullest use of the Professor character by having two of them in Stellan Skarsgard and Robin Williams.

The movie is built around the parallel stories of blue collar math genius Matt Damon’s relationships with Skarsgard, an MIT math professor, and Williams, a psychologist at nearby Bunker Hill Community College whom Skarsgard recruits to counsel Damon and keep him out of jail. Rather than choose between the Professorial storylines of rejection and embracement, Good Will Hunting uses them both. In the end, Damon walks away from the career in NSA skullduggery and corporate sell-outing that Skarsgard has arranged for him and embraces Robin Williams’ humanism, prodded by some very good advice from Ben Affleck, who doesn’t know much, but he knows this. The movie ends with Damon heading west to meet Minnie Driver for a future in Palo Alto. This is more important than it might seem.

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Class conflict continues in How High, released by Universal in 2001.4 It’s Intruders at Harvard as a stoner comedy, starring Method Man as a marijuana-growing prodigy whose intellect is enhanced when he smokes weed grown from the ashes of his deceased friend Ivory, who appears as a ghost armed with all the answer to the Testing for Higher Credentials (THC, geddit) exam. Accompanied by co-Intruder and Best Friend Redman, Method Man uses his perfect scores to get into Harvard—played here by UCLA5—whose dean, Fred Willard, needs a little more diversity in the freshman class. Some hilarity ensues.

Stuck-up Dean Cain (that’s the character’s name, not aka the guy who played Superman) provides the requisite reminding statistics about the number of Nobel Prize winners and CEOs from Harvard (the number changes in every movie), and looks for a little while like he might be the Professor, leading to some reconciliation between his respect for academic tradition and Method Man’s street smarts. But no—Dean Cain is in fact a stock character from a different genre of college movie, the gross-out comedy. He’s the evil college administrator, definitively portrayed by John Vernon as Dean Wormer in Animal House, and ably followed by Jeremy Piven, Lisa Kudrow, and others over the years. Method Man and Redman are the “lower class,” he explains—“I’m going to send you back to your miserable existence.”

Ultimately, Dean Cain, like all problems in this movie, is solved by getting everyone stoned. There is no Professor in How High.6 The Love Interest is a good girl-type played Lark Voorhies aka Lisa from Saved By the Bell. Her boyfriend, inevitably conquered by Method Man, with weed, is the Asshole, Brad. The film puts the bare minimum effort into establishing these characters so it can get back to the funny stoner parts and jokes about the Advanced Hatred for the White Devil curriculum (and volleyball) at Reparations Technical Institute. There’s an Asian sidekick roommate with an accent, obviously. How High also straight rips off a bit from With Honors where the Intruder calls an Asshole an asshole.

At this point, the comedic Intruders movies had a record of variable commercial success and consistent artistic failure. (Average Rotten Tomatoes rating of Soul Man, With Honors, and How High: 19.3% fresh.) That pattern changed with the release of Reese Witherspoon’s star turn, Legally Blonde.

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This is, in some ways, not as good a movie as you might remember. Its story deficiencies are simply overwhelmed by Witherspoon’s performance as Elle Woods, the ultimate southern California sorority girl who happens to have a genius IQ. When her college sweetheart, the Asshole Warner, dumps her on the eve of graduation so he can get a “serious” girlfriend and start his East Coast family-ordained journey to the Senate via Harvard Law, Elle decides to win him back by acing the LSAT and following him to Cambridge.

Jennifer Coolidge, aka Stifler’s Mom and a million other funny roles, is Elle’s Best Friend and nail salon confidant, Paulette. Luke Wilson is the Love Interest and teaching assistant for Professor Callahan, who enlists Elle, Warner, and Warner’s new girlfriend Selma Blair (who takes over the Asshole role for a little while in the middle of the movie before giving it back to Warner) in assisting his defense of one of Elle’s former sorority sisters on charges of murdering her rich husband. (This last being the dumb part of Legally Blonde you probably forgot.) She rejects the lecherous Professor, wins the case, and ends up engaged to Luke Wilson. (Their romance happens off-screen in the closing captions and there’s really nothing to their relationship. Unusually for a female-led movie, Legally Blonde is all com and no rom.)

There’s nothing remotely easy about the way Witherspoon combines Elle’s confidence, privilege, and generous spirit. Her acting holds together every scene of an otherwise creaky film. But the key thing about Elle Woods from the larger Intruders at Harvard genre perspective is the way she doesn’t really give a damn about Harvard itself. She’s not overly-impressed by it, or the people who go there. When she tells her parents she’s leaving (in a poolside scene that visually mirrors the same bit in Soul Man), her wealthy father responds with incredulity. “Law school is for people who are boring, ugly, and serious,” he explains, and the same is implied about the whole retrograde New England aristocracy that runs Warner’s life. Elle is personally hurt by the way the snobs, nerds, and humorless campus activists taunt her and assume that blonde + rich = dumb. But she never for a moment internalizes their values. They think she’s an Intruder. But she sees herself, understandably, as someone who only left a better place for love.

Its no coincidence that she came from California. Harvard in 2001 was at the peak of its powers relative to other elite colleges and universities. It had the most money, the smartest students, and a killer brand. This tended to obscure certain structural weaknesses in its position. The campus is hemmed in by the municipality around it, which is fine for the liberal arts school Harvard was for most of its long history, but problematic for a global research power. Boston is a fun city but it’s not a global hub of culture or business. America’s center of gravity has been shifting south and west for a long time. New England WASPs don’t matter nearly as much as they used to.

Harvard has especially scrambled to keep up with the turbulent digital age. In terms of building the technological future, it is arguably not even the most important university in Cambridge, Massachusetts. That’s why Will Hunting intruded MIT. But the biggest threat to Harvard’s supremacy is nearly 3,000 miles away, as vividly shown in the best and final Intruders film: The Social Network.

\"TheThe Social Network, Columbia Pictures, 2010. Photo: Meld Magazine.[/caption]

At first, the movie seems to be following the well-worn Intruders path. Harvard sophomore Mark Zuckerberg has a Best Friend in Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin, a Love Interest in winsome BU undergrad Rooney Mara, and a worthy double-threat opponent in the Asshole Winklevii, magnificently portrayed by Armie Hammer. If the Intruders genre lasts for a thousand years,7 no one will ever top Hammer’s combination of Teutonic good looks and DNA-level social entitlement.8 The twins deliver some reminding dialogue about Harvard.edu being the most exclusive web address in the world9 and are themselves reminded by Larry Summers’s snooty secretary that “this building is 100 years older than the country it’s in.”

But wait – instead of hanging around for the whole movie as a trusted confidante, the Best Friend becomes the enemy after being betrayed by the Intruder with a sketchy stock-dilution scheme. The Love Interest dumps the Intruder’s ass five minutes into the movie, in the very first scene, and only reappears to confirm how much she hates him.10 And while there is very much a Professor in The Social Network, he isn’t a member of the faculty at Harvard or any other university. The Professor is Sean Parker aka Justin Timberlake. He’s the authority figure and the seducer that the Intruder must ultimately move beyond. Parker is the one who explains to Zuckerberg that in order to seize his destiny, he must abandon Harvard entirely and move to Palo Alto, where Will Hunting and Minnie Driver are presumably raising their kids.

The Social Network is an Intruders at Harvard movie, stretched and scrambled up. The combination of screenwriter and director was fortuitous—Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue is designed to create constant tension and catharsis, pop-pop-pop, very much in the same way that David Fincher’s arresting camera moves between shots. Together, they make a 120-minute film about an unpleasant person that substantially consists of lawyers, defendants, and plaintiffs sitting around conference tables arguing about the details of two since-settled civil lawsuits feel like the D-Day invasion in Saving Private Ryan.

Tellingly, the movie is bookended by scenes devoted to the question of whether Mark Zuckerberg is or is not really the Asshole here. Rooney Mara says he is, and shouldn’t pretend otherwise the next time he is righteously dumped. Rashida Jones says he isn’t, but is trying so hard to be. This confusion over the terms and conditions of Assholery is a consequence of how the underlying conditions of real-life higher education ultimately led to the demise of Intruders at Harvard.

After its heyday in the ‘90s and early aughts, the genre lay fallow until The Social Network adopted and destroyed it in 2010. There have been no new entries since. That’s because the long shadow of inherited money and reputation at Harvard are being overcome by the reality that the title of greatest university on Earth is no longer so obvious that one can construct a class of movies around it. As the New York Times reported in 2014, Stanford now has the lowest undergraduate admissions rate, the greatest fundraising prowess, and looms largest in the minds of striving high school seniors. Even as the first Intruders movies were heading into production, Boston-area computer pioneers like Wang and DEC were collapsing in a wave of disruption. Ground zero for digital innovation moved to the Silicon Valley ecosystem of which Stanford is the beating heart. The difference is so stark that Mark Zuckerberg believed he was better off living in a house near Stanford than actually being enrolled in Harvard. And he was right.

The surest sign will come when a future movie opens with an oddball student making his way onto the verdant lawns of Stanford’s terrifyingly pristine campus, blinking under the bright California sky. He’s been having trouble, he later confides to his trusty Best Friend, with this one guy in that scary Professor’s freshman class. You know, the one with the attitude and the all the acolytes scurrying around him. The guy who doesn’t make eye contact. With the hoodie. The Asshole.

  1. I know, Tropic Thunder. But there’s a difference between a movie in which a white man is made up to look like a black man, and a movie in which a white man is made up to look like a white man wearing transparently fake face paint and a wig. That’s the point of blackface–the white people don’t relinquish their whiteness. [\"↩\"]
  2. The scene where Howell attempts to borrow the money from a bank, only to be rejected because of his terrible credit history, was, of course, rendered moot by the 2006 enactment of the federal Grad PLUS loan program, which allows graduate students to borrow the full cost of attending school, including cost of living, regardless of credit. There could be no Soul Man today, for this and many other even better reasons. [\"↩\"]
  3. Best Friends, ranked: 6. Patrick Dempsey aka McDreamy, With Honors; 5. Arye Gross, Soul Man; 4. Eduardo Saverin (demoted for freezing the bank account), The Social Network; 3. Paulette the nail lady aka Stiffler’s Mom, Legally Blonde; 2. Redman, How High; 1. Ben Affleck, Good Will Hunting. [\"↩\"]
  4. Technically, How High was released a few months after Legally Blonde, but I believe it is a spiritual predecessor. [\"↩\"]
  5. Fictional Harvards, ranked by resemblance to actual Harvard: 6. How High Harvard; 5. Legally Blonde Harvard; 4. The Social Network Harvard; 3. Soul Man Harvard; 2. Good Will Hunting Harvard and greater Cambridge environs; 1. With Honors Harvard. [\"↩\"]
  6. Professors, ranked: 6. Professor Callahan, Legally Blonde; 5. Gore Vidal, With Honors; 4. James Earl Jones, Soul Man; 3. Stellan Skarsgard, Good Will Hunting; 2. Sean Parker aka Justin Timberlake, The Social Network; 1. Robin Williams, Good Will Hunting. [\"↩\"]
  7. It won’t. [\"↩\"]
  8. Assholes, ranked: 6. Brad, How High; 5. Racist joke-tellers, Soul Man; 4. Warner, Legally Blonde; 3. Brandon Fraser (first-half), With Honors; 2. How D’Ya Like Them Apples Guy, Good Will Hunting; 1. The Winklevii, The Social Network. [\"↩\"]
  9. The fact that this is utter nonsense is another example of how the The Social Network comes to the Intruders genre in order to destroy it. [\"↩\"]
  10. Love Interests, ranked: 6. Luke Wilson, Legally Blonde; 5. Lisa from Saved By the Bell, How High; 4. Rooney Mara, The Social Network; 3. Maura Tierney, With Honors; 2. Rae Dawn Chong, Soul Man; 1. Minnie Driver, Good Will Hunting. [\"↩\"]

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