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Mona Lisa Smile - This moment really paved the way for so much stuff



Feature by: Jack Foley

JULIA Roberts describes the character she plays in her latest movie, Mona Lisa Smile, as someone who was at the ‘cusp of that revolution of the woman's voice’.

She plays revolutionary art history teacher, Katherine Ann Watson, who arrives at the staid Wellesely College, in 1953, determined to make a big impression.

However, attempts at providing her intelligent students with a broader outlook on like, other than merely finding themselves a husband, throw her into conflict with some of them, while also provoking the wrath of the college hierarchy, who are opposed to such forward-thinking.

The film, directed by Mike Nicholls, has been dubbed, in many quarters, as a ‘Dead Poets Society for women’, but Roberts, and the rest of her star-studded cast (including Kirsten Dunst, Marcia Gay Harden and Maggie Gyllenhaal), believe it contains a serious message, and is historically fascinating.

Roberts, certainly, wasn’t aware of the importance of the period, until she started researching the material.

"This moment really paved the way for so much stuff," she explained. "And yet, we're kind of trapped because this is just before the feminine mystique and all that kind of stuff."

The Oscar-winning actress also produces the film, which failed to ignite with US audiences as spectacularly as had been hoped for, but the star remains grateful for the opportunity it provided to work with so many of Hollywood’s leading actresses.

Needless to say, she is gushing in her praise for them, talking of how ‘beautifully performed’ each of the students appear on screen, and describing fellow Oscar-winner, Gay Harden, as both ‘extraordinary and amazing’.

The big cast also proved an attraction for director, Nicholls, who commented: "It's fun. It's, great having these great big casts.

"I've had a lot of shows with great big casts and I've always enjoyed them, because you never find yourself simply plowing a single furrow. You know, you're always plowing multiple, multiple lines and I enjoy that."

Commenting on the appeal of the story, he continued: "There was a tremendous amount of argument in the story about what women should and shouldn't be doing... all of which had the air, at any rate, of never having been publicly broached before.

"And so this notion of opening a can of worms was, was really strong in it, and I think that's what took me to it."

Kirsten Dunst, another of the film’s illustrious co-stars, who has already made a name for herself in blockbusters such as Spider-Man, also believes that the film has many issues which are as relevant today, as they were in the Fifties, and, commenting on her character, stated: "I definitely think that these girls can relate to people. Everybody has certain things in their mindset, when they grow up in a certain family, and, to be faced with new things and to be educated with them, and not reject them right away - it's like a lesson that we all learn."

Julia Stiles, whose character is inspired by Roberts, to realise her dream of attending law school, also felt drawn to the way in which the movie forces its characters to ‘make drastic decisions that are different from what they would have been at the beginning’, believing it is always something interesting for audiences to watch.

And she leapt at the chance of working alongside Roberts, an actress she had always respected, but from whom she was able to learn a lot.

"She's so generous," she explained. "And I'm floored at what a good actress she is, because I've been watching her very closely, take after take, after take, and she does everything with a new slant, and everything is fresh and seems like she's done it for the first time, which is really hard when you're doing the same scene over and over again."

Another of Roberts’ fans, while filming, was Gay Harden, who portrays a teacher of speech, elocution and poise.

She described the star as ‘a gal, in every sense of the word’, whom she adores.

"You know, she's generous and funny and right there with you in the scene," she explained. "She's incredibly talented and she's full of laughter and ease; she cares about her work. She's full of surprises for me."

The final word, however, goes to another of the movie’s emerging stars, Maggie Gyllenhaal, star of movies such as Donnie Darko (with her brother) and Secretary, who was equally as taken with the message of Roberts’ character, as she was with the star herself.

"She is encouraging these women to acknowledge the things that they actually feel," she commented. "I think you could say she's saying that she's telling these women to think for themselves, which is what she sort of explicitly says, which I think is not as interesting as what she's actually doing.

"I think what she's doing is saying, ‘look, all of you are individuals; all of you feel things specifically and in a different way than the person next to you; acknowledge it, it's okay."

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