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A core subject in Hollywood

Movies about inspiring teachers are nothing new. Some make the grade, many graduate to bigger things.

January 09, 2004|Steve Dollar | Special to The Times

Not all of these projects rate an "A," but Hollywood earns a lot of credit for effort. No matter what trend prevails, what sequels sizzle or slump, which star is shining brightest, the movie industry never forgets one of its favorite scenarios: the Inspirational Teacher Drama.

As dependably heartwarming as a Hallmark greeting card and, often, released late enough in the year to coincide both with the holidays and the season when insiders mull over their Oscar ballots, these grade school-to-college reveries are -- like that abundant Christmas roast -- so much comfort food.

The latest star to step up to the chalkboard is Julia Roberts in "Mona Lisa Smile." The period drama casts her as a conspicuously unmarried instructor at Wellesley College in 1953, who comes from a California college to give her charges a dose of proto-feminist enlightenment. The casting is more deluxe than usual for this genre, with a who's who of appealing young actresses, including Julia Stiles, Kirsten Dunst and Maggie Gyllenhaal. But even within the confines of formula -- the scenario echoes "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie," even if that 1969 film was set two decades earlier, in Scotland -- there is room for variation.

The classrooms may be full of tough, underachieving kids whose no-nonsense teacher saves them from a life of gang violence by -- gee, what else? -- getting them hooked on calculus. That was the "based on a true story" of "Stand and Deliver" (1988), which gave Edward James Olmos a timely career boost as his prime-time stint on "Miami Vice" came to a close. Morgan Freeman gave a similar turn as firm-handed principal Joe Clark in "Lean on Me" (1989).

The kids can be privileged, too, though callow, and attend a tweedy prep school like the one in "Dead Poets Society" (1989). There, they encounter a highly unconventional professor who challenges them to "seize the day," and, since he's played by eternal extrovert Robin Williams, they maintain a safe distance as he chews the scenery.

Of course, they may not even be kids at all. "The Paper Chase" (1973) was set in the pressurized world of Harvard Law School, where a first-year student (Timothy Bottoms) strives to win the approval of the world's most demanding professor (John Houseman, in Oscar-winning form, as the unforgettable Kingsfield) while also dating his daughter (Lindsay Wagner).

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Diverse settings

The sociocultural backdrop can reflect hip-hop, as it does in "Dangerous Minds" (1995), which not only produced a bestselling soundtrack but tendered Michelle Pfeiffer as perhaps the most beautiful ex-Marine ever to take attendance at a sketchy inner-city school. (See also: 1967's "Up the Down Staircase," in which Sandy Dennis plays a fledgling teacher, running the gantlet at New York's run-down, overcrowded Calvin Coolidge High School.)

Or, the setting could bustle with the knockabout realities of London's East End, as in "To Sir, With Love" (1967), which also yielded a pop hit: Lulu's recording of the theme song, which lingers in the memory as strongly as Sidney Poitier's signature performance as a reluctant mentor to an unruly lot of dead-end kids. (This was Poitier's second visit to Hollywood's homeroom: In 1955 he played a pivotal role, shaded with racial tensions, as a student in "The Blackboard Jungle.")

What's certain is these films provide actors with a platform for every kind of dramatic flourish, which no doubt is part of their appeal. When the actor is as showy as Williams, or Richard Dreyfuss in the title role of "Mr. Holland's Opus" (1995), there can be another reward, shinier than any apple: an Oscar nomination.

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Distinguished roles

And if the role falls at the right phase of a career, it can be defining. It was for Poitier, and for Maggie Smith, whose portrayal of sexually adventurous spinster teacher Jean Brodie at the Marcia Blaine School for Girls in 1930s Edinburgh won her an Oscar. The flamboyantly written part was wholly embraced by Smith, who gives the gung-ho and tragically delusional character pathos and complexity.

Likewise, the title role of "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" (1969) inspired Peter O'Toole to an Oscar-nominated performance. (Robert Donat, who starred in the 1939 original, won for his performance.) The latter version wasn't loved by critics, dismayed that the tale had been revived as a musical, but O'Toole won over audiences playing against type as a button-down English schoolteacher who finds true romance only to have his heart crushed by tragedy.

Of course, not every Inspirational Teacher Drama is as overwrought and profoundly committed to the concept of personal growth as an episode of "Oprah." And not every marquee attraction who lectures his or her class of delinquents on the meaning of life will make it to the lectern at the Academy Awards.

There is an exception to the rule: "Kindergarten Cop" (1990) compelled Arnold Schwarzenegger to shed his "Terminator" suit and go the quasi-Mr. Mom route. As an undercover cop masquerading as a preschool teacher in order to nab a killer (go figure), the hulking actor got to show his cuddly, awkward, fuzzy side. He didn't score any nominations but, oddly enough, it might be viewed as a warmup for another performance.

He didn't win an Oscar, just a role as governor of California.

And that's a trick they can't teach in school.

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