Lights, Camera and Algebraic Topology!

Imagine a lazy weekend night winding down, as so many do at Harvard, with a trip to the local video
By Simon W. Vozick-levinson

Imagine a lazy weekend night winding down, as so many do at Harvard, with a trip to the local video store. Imagine popping an obscure find from the romantic comedy section into the VCR and snuggling with another Ivy-League loser as the opening credits roll. Imagine watching a hip but responsible woman from the Carter era walk sunnily across a plaza and into the first lines of dialogue, where she wittily banters with a young man about—the snake lemma?

“It’s therefore in the kernel of the map g-prime, hence it’s in the image of the map f-prime, by the exactness of the lower sequence, so we can pull it back to an element in a-prime, which it turns out is well defined modulo the image of alpha!” leading lady Jill Clayburgh crows. The hapless viewer, meanwhile, may wonder whether he’s accidentally rented a tape of the most recent lecture in Mathematics 272a: “Introduction to Algebraic Topology.”

That beleaguered film enthusiast wouldn’t be entirely off base. Before Good Will Hunting, before A Beautiful Mind, there was It’s My Turn—a decidedly lame 1980 flick in which Clayburgh plays Dr. Kate Gunzinger, a beautiful young math professor stuck in a frustrating romance with stuffy Charles Grodin. “At last, Mr. Wrong,” the video’s cover cries. Clayburgh cavorts and spars with bad boy Michael Douglas while struggling for a breakthrough proof that will, she insists, put her on par with Euclid and Newton.

The movie is less concerned with theoretical problems than with the love life of the liberated woman, but a smattering of actual math shows up in the very spotty script—and those intellectual intermissions were provided by none other than Dean of the College Benedict H. Gross ’71.

In 1979, when It’s My Turn was written and filmed, Gross was just a year out of his doctoral program, working as an instructor in the math department of Princeton University. He says he laughed it off when Eleanor Bergstein, a local first-time screenwriter—still seven years away from writing Dirty Dancing, her only success—said she had a script she wanted him to look over. After all, he says, who doesn’t have a screenplay in her bottom drawer that she hawks to junior math faculty from time to time?

Once he was convinced that Bergstein was on the level—she told him production was starting in less than a month—Gross says he remained far from impressed with the draft she showed him over lunch.

“The level of inaccuracy was comical,” he says. “The math was really egregious.”

So he says he spent weeks helping Bergstein rewrite her script, penning the choice words that open the film. He also helped craft the role of a third love interest for Clayburgh’s character—a young male mathematician who he says was studiously modeled after his own mannerisms and attitudes. Sadly, Gross says his screen-doppelganger ended up on the cutting-room floor after filming.

Next, Gross traveled to New York City, where he carefully coached Clayburgh on her algebraic lines.

“She learned the math like you might learn a passage of Chinese—syllable by syllable, inflection by inflection,” he says.

Gross helped introduce Clayburgh to the rough-and-tumble life of a math wonk, referring her to three female colleagues of his so she could get an idea of what it was like for a woman in academia. When she visited them, Gross says, the movie star was crestfallen to learn that female professors in the male-dominated field of math weren’t as confident and commanding as the role Bergstein had written for her.

But it wasn’t all an uphill climb, Gross says. In fact, teaching the secret quirks of math professors to Clayburgh, still glowing from her 1978 triumph in An Unmarried Woman, had a distinct upside.

“You get excellent service at New York restaurants if you go in with the leading actress of the time,” he says with a wistful smile. “You start to think you’re an important person.”

Next on Gross’ meteoric ascent was a stay in Hollywood. In between lectures at UCLA, Gross says limousines ferried him to daily rushes, where he watched the results of the day’s shooting along with the famous cast and crew.

Still, Gross says all his scholarly expertise made little difference to the final product.

“The math was just for show,” he says regretfully. “They got everything wrong…My credit should be the first 30 seconds of the movie, and then as far as I’m concerned you can shut it off.” In fact, Gross insisted that his name be removed from the film. It’s only now, 23 years later, that he can laugh about what he calls “that ridiculous movie.”

It’s My Turn may be a minor footnote in the dean’s professional life, but his stint in Hollywood was good for something—it broke the ice the first time he spoke with the woman who would be his wife.

Upon seeing an intriguing woman at a party back at Princeton, Gross says he introduced himself, only to be rebuked. As he soon learned, the woman was irked that a man, of all people, had been selected to advise on a film about a female mathematician.

“Hello, my name is Dick Gross,” he recalls saying, and he remembers the sharp reply that started a lifetime relationship just as well.

“Oh,” she said. “You’re the asshole working on that movie.”

Gross, who is presumably now working on projects more agreeable to his wife, looks back wryly on the film’s contrast with his own career. He is especially skeptical of one subplot where Clayburgh’s character is hesitant to take a “boring” administrative job that will cut short her own research.

Says the University Hall power player, “Well, whatever administration is, it’s not boring.”