Universities earn big bucks as Harvard’s stunt double


Pity the soul who watches a cinema blockbuster set at Harvard Law School and believes the campus actually looks that good.

Law students who watched this summer’s “Legally Blonde” noticed more than a few differences between the celluloid version of campus and the real deal. In place of such seige-mentality monstronsities as the Gropius Complex and Pound Hall were red brick facades draped in fake ivy. Even more surprising, Elle Woods moved into “Wyeth House” and no one gave her the “this-building-is-a-firetrap” speech. Despite the yellow silk leaves tied into campus greenery to emulate fall foliage, those cloudless, sunny skies looked suspiciously like the horizons one might spot above the University of Southern California.

What’s behind the switcheroo? For one, Harvard will not allow commercial filming on its grounds. According to the administration, movie-making in the midst of a functioning university is too much of a “disruption.”

Those who characterize the administration as a money-gobbling monster may have to come up with a new theory. By refusing to open its iron gates to movie companies, the University forfeits as much as $10,000 per day of shooting.

USC, the stand-in for HLS in both “Legally Blonde” and Timothy Bottom’s “The Paper Chase,” claims $250,000 a year in revenues from filming. Other universities have also profited from Harvard’s reluctance to embrace Hollywood. In “With Honors,” Joe Pesci moves into a “Widener Library” boiler room somewhere at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana and at the Boston Athenaeum. C. Thomas Howell’s “Soul Man” attends Harvard at Wheaton College, while “Love Story’s” tragic couple fell in love at the College City of New York.

Although the University will not roll out the red carpet to welcome production companies, it does, unlike many universities, allow authors and movie studios to capitalize on the “Harvard” name.

“At Harvard, it’s about the free exchange of ideas and different views,” Harvard Assistant Provost Susan Wald told the Los Angeles Times. “You have to hope that what Harvard does in the real world is what people will come to view of it. We all recognize that pop culture is very powerful, but we also have faith that the moviegoers will understand that what they’re seeing is fictional.”

But when studios decide to recreate Harvard at other schools, legitimacy becomes a big issue. Hoping to convince audiences that they’re watching characters emote on Harvard’s campus, filmmakers put their faith in Harvard props, emphasizing apparell bearing the “Harvard” name and other well-placed items.

All this may explain why the propmaster of “Legally Blonde” went to the trouble to get HLS’ 1L-registration packet, used conspicuously in the scene where Elle Woods registers for her classes.

“Because the movie was shot in L.A., there was extra attention to detail, to make sure anytime you could get the details right that they wanted to,” said Kirsten Smith, one of the movie’s two screenwriters. “They couldn’t just slack off and say, oh, here we are in Harvard. They had to make sure it was convincing that Los Angeles was Boston.”

Meanwhile, HLS students are left wishing the real campus looked half as “Harvard” as the one in the movie.

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