A Wolf in Intellectual’s Clothing

by Kathy Plann

IN COLLEGE CLASSROOMS, as portrayed by Hollywood, there are no female professors. I also couldn’t help noticing that in a sampling of films which span the past two and a half decades, [Jerry Lewis’s “The Nutty Professor” (1963), “Animal House” (1978), Eddie Murphy’s “The Nutty Professor” (1996), and “Road Trip” (2000)]-the male professors either date or want to date their female students. These socially inept profs. look for love in all the wrong places.They are exiles in the Siberia of intellectualism, and the degree of sympathy each movie elicits for the professor hinges on how he escapes the academic prison.

In the original “The Nutty Professor,” Jerry Lewis plays a geeky chemistry professor who regularly blows up his lab. Though the calamities could suggest ineptitude, the movie encourages us to see them as the requisite side effects of genius, which naturally also include farsightedness and disregard for safety. The professor’s genius, however, is not enough to fulfill him, something he understands painfully when, in the middle of class, one of his disgruntled student athletes stuffs him in a locker. Beautiful, blond undergraduate Stella Purdy stays after class to make sure he is okay, and the rest of the movie revolves around the professor’s desire to connect with her and to gain acceptance from the students.

Applying his genius to this quest, the professor concocts a formula that transforms him from intellectual outcast to hipcat swinger. As Buddy Love, the professor appears at The Purple Pit, a student hangout, and wins the kids over with his good looks, brash personality, and suave musicianship. Eventually, he gets caught in mid-transformation and must confess his identity. The professor says he regrets his actions and talks about the importance of “being yourself.” Stella is so impressed that she tells him how much she’d like to be a professor’s wife.

In the last scene, the professor is teaching, his betrothed staring at him dreamily in the front row, and he’s now wearing a new hairstyle and braces to correct his overbite. Apparently, the subtext of the “be yourself” message is “unless you’re a real loser, in which case, fix yourself up for God’s sake!”

The film equates intellectual with loser, and applauds the loser (i.e. professor) for landing one of the popular chicks. The overarching assumption is that a professor and his students are peers, a scenario that gives undergraduates remarkable power, and that minimizes the many ethical problems with the professor’s behavior.

In “Animal House,” the primary professorial figure is Donald Sutherland’s character, who teaches English. In one classroom scene, the students all nodding off, the professor stops mid-sentence and says, “Don’t write this down, okay? But I think Milton is as long-winded and boring as you do. He doesn’t translate well to modern audiences and his jokes aren’t funny. But that does not relieve you of your responsibility for this material. I’m still waiting for reports from some of you. [The students get up and begin leaving]. I’m not joking. This is my job!”

Later, several of the students go visit the professor, mostly because he has developed a relationship with the girlfriend (Karen Allen) of Boone, fraternity man and one of the film’s main characters. “Don’t embarrass me in front of Dave,” she says to the other students. “He’s the only professor I like.” In a conversation with Pinto, one of the freshmen, Dave says, “Teaching’s a way of paying the rent until I finish my novel.” “Is it any good?” asks Pinto “It’s a piece of shit,” Dave says. “Anybody want to smoke some pot?” These two scenes give Dave is cool.

Dave verbalizes what many students think: reading and writing have no real bearing on life. What’s truly important is partying and not buying into the system, of which the humanities are a part. Indeed, Dave has abandoned the humanities for the pleasures of the flesh. By doing so not only is Dave cool, and therefore above blame for his lecherous behavior, he is also, by implication, a peer, someone who can compete with Boone for his girlfriend’s affections.

In Eddie Murphy’s “The Nutty Professor,” the love interest’s peer status is more literal. Carla Purdy introduces herself to Professor Klump as a graduate student and a big fan of his work in chemistry. When Klump looks up Purdy’s address in the school directory and appears at her doorstep, the film portrays his actions as romantic. Most college administrators would, of course, see such behavior as inappropriate.

This remake of “The Nutty Professor” has the same basic plot of the original. The geeky, insecure professor, who is overweight this time, creates a formula that makes him thin, attractive, and wild. Eddie Murphy’s Buddy Love is more obnoxious and less likable than Lewis’s, and it is sometimes difficult to understand why Carla Purdy is interested in him at all. But, in the end, Klump beats Buddy Love into submission in a disturbing public fight scene with himself, and love triumphs. “It’s what’s on the inside that counts” seems to be the movie’s message. But let’s not forget that the whole series of events began the moment that Klump laid eyes on the beautiful young student’s rear end. It wasn’t Carla Purdy’s intellect that had interested Klump.

If Jerry Lewis’s “The Nutty Professor” and “Animal House” depict faculty as somewhat scatterbrained and lacking moral fiber, Tom Green’s “Road Trip” demonizes Joe Academic. Both the professor and his T.A. single out Josh (a main character in the film who is a student) in a crowded hallway to tell him, in an evil sort of way, that he if he doesn’t do well on the midterm, he’ll fail the course. The T.A., who wears a “God is Awesome” T-shirt, is obsessed with Josh’s girlfriend.

To sabotage his rival, the T.A. pretends to be the professor when Josh calls to ask for an extension on the exam. He grants permission but, of course, never tells the professor about it. In this movie, the professor and the T.A. are the opposites of professor Dave from “Animal House.” Neither the T.A. nor the professor in “Road Trip” ascribes to the theory that higher learning is insignificant, or that their jobs are mere stopgaps. They are antagonists who sit at the other end of the spectrum from those faculty portrayed in the other films. The professor and T.A. take themselves and their work too seriously.

Over the past almost 30 years, professors are portrayed in film as simply using their jobs to support other habits/interests (drugs, fiction writing, and lechery, for instance). Why? In our culture, it is unthinkable for a person to be as engrossed in intellectual pursuits as professors appear to be. Such pursuits simply can’t be fulfilling. Furthermore, as evidenced in the film in which the professor wins the girl (“The Nutty Professor” and “Animal House”) academics are portrayed as mere mortals in cowels. After all, to be young is to be beautiful and desirable. Thus, to possess a beautiful young woman is the ultimate form of validation for a man of any age, status or profession.

Perhaps the best way to sum up the portrayal of college faculty in film is with the following question: Professors are men, after all, are they not? The answer, according to filmmakers of the past 27 years, is yes, professors are men, quite literally and figuratively. Men obsessed with sex and power. In short, professors are wolves, intellectualism is sheep’s clothing and female students are tasty little morsels ripe for the picking.

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