It’s the beginning of another school year and so it is time for me to re-watch the Paper Chase (1973). The Paper Chase is a triumph of 1970s fashion statements based on a 1970 novel (written by John Jay Osborn Jr. while he was still a law student), and later inspiring a 4-season TV series of the same name.
The film follows James Hart (Timothy Bottoms) during his first year at Harvard Law School. The audience follows Hart as he:
A. Develops an unhealthy obsession with his Contracts professor,
B. Gets a girlfriend,
C. Measures academic (and maybe real) dicks with the members of his study group,
D. Ultimately learns that it is important to have a life outside of school
Or E. All of the Above
He does it all living in a dormitory with other Ivy League snobs who eat and shower together (including a young Edward Harriman!), and with Bach playing in the background:
John Houseman won an Oscar for his portrayal of Dr. Kingsfield, a character who is both the bad guy and part of the scenery. Houseman played him with just the right combination of sadism, disinterest, and superiority that he stands in for that professor in all of our minds.
My generation’s go-to cultural reference for Harvard Law is Legally Blonde, and the two films actually have much in common.
There’s the classic I-didn’t-know-there-was-homework-the-first-day moment:
The cramming montage:
The New England fall fashions:
The Study Group drama:
Their gender politics are different; there are no women law students in The Paper Chase. Indeed, the only women who appear are romantic interests for our male law students. But Susan (Lindsay Wagner), the most prominent female character, does not merely exist for Hart’s carnal enjoyment or character development. She has her own motivations and ambivalences towards Hart, and I love how she pushes back when Hart tries to rely on her only when he needs emotional or physical support.
While the film seethes with white male privilege and first-world problems, it’s still a compelling tale of undertaking post-graduate education. I won’t give away the ending (he was dead the whole time!), but it offers some useful wisdom about a healthy relationship between a person and their academic studies. And while I often forget this lesson, The Paper Chase is a good yearly reminder.
Watch it on Netflix.