Every director has license to the Harvard name, but no film crew can get through Johnston Gate. Mass. Hall forbids any filming on campus on the grounds that it would be too disruptive. “We get around five requests a week for some kind of movie or documentary filming and about five calls per day to use the Harvard seal on something commercial,” says University spokesperson Joe Wrinn. “The campus could turn into a soundstage given the interest.”
Harvard hasn’t always been so hostile to Hollywood. Numerous scenes from Love Story, the hokey 1970 film starring Ali McGraw and Ryan O’Neal, take place right in Harvard Yard. The movie strove to portray an aristocratic Harvard but was filmed in the midst of peace movements and student protests, so actual students had to remain in their dorm rooms while costumed extras walked through the Yard.
An arboreal disaster brought an end to filming on campus. “My understanding of the folklore is that the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back was the fact that in the late ’70s, lots of trees were damaged during the filming of Small Circle of Friends by use of fake snow,” Wrinn says.
Crafty production companies get around Harvard’s restrictions by filming from Harvard Square, so viewers can see the perimeter of the Yard framed by wrought-iron bars. Sometimes they scurry outside the Ivy League. A popular Harvard lookalike is Wheaton College in Norton, Mass. Both Soul Man, the story of a first-year Harvard Law School student desperate to secure a scholarship for black students, and the yet-to-be-released Prozac Nation were partly filmed there. With Honors was filmed at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and at the Boston Athenaeum. Legally Blonde, starring Reese Witherspoon as a sorority girl who chases her boyfriend to HLS, was filmed at the University of Southern California (the autumn leaves are imported).
USC makes a business out of on-campus filming. The school has a department that deals with production companies and earns $250,000 each year from licensing fees. Movies that film on the USC campus are not permitted to include any gratuitous language, violence or nudity; USC also screens for sexism and racism. But the Harvard of Hollywood will not permit use of its name in movies—unlike the real Harvard, which allows free use by any movie or book.
Movies like How High seem to question the wisdom of this blanket tolerance. The tale of two stoners who smoke mystical intelligence-increasing ganja and get into the College features drunk horses and prostitute-frequenting deans in addition to a great deal of pot-smoking in “Lovell House.” But administrators say they trust the public to distinguish real and fictional accounts of Harvard life and would only be concerned if there were any implied University endorsement. Harvard will not permit the use of the Veritas shield, diplomas or even the University website in any films. But if all movies want to use is the name, they’ve got a green light. “Most of the plots are so unrealistic that we don’t worry about diluting the Harvard name or educational experience,” Wrinn says.
In addition to Joe Wrinn, Harvard Explained thanks TK.