With or without honors

The quintessential feel-good movie about how terrible higher education is.

Ah, With Honors (1994). A major film of my youth, and very mid-’90s (the soundtrack, the earnest acting, the annoying Joe Pesci accent, the lumpy sweaters and plaid). The quintessential feel-good movie about how terrible higher education is.

Some scenes were filmed on the Harvard campus, but film locations also included the University of Illinois at Chicago; University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana; and the University of Minnesota. The Widener Library plays a big role in the film, although its librarians are featured only briefly.

"Widener Library, Harvard University 2009" by chensiyuan is licensed under CC BY SA 4.0
“Widener Library, Harvard University 2009” by chensiyuan is licensed under CC BY SA 4.0

*SPOILER ALERT*

At the end of the opening credits, campus radio DJ (Patrick Dempsey) reports on a Walt Whitman ghost sighting in Widener Library (“America’s greatest poet haunting the library?”). A few minutes later, uptight Harvard student Monty (Brendan Fraser) accidentally drops his thesis down the grate and discovers that the library ghost is a homeless man, Simon Wilder (Joe Pesci), living in the bowels of the library. Simon strikes up a deal with Monty — food and lodging in exchange for the thesis.

About a half-hour into the film, Simon and Monty enter the Widener Library together (see film clip below). Simon attracts a lot of negative attention but waxes rhapsodic, “This library’s like a church isn’t it?” (Yes, it is quite beautiful.) An older, bespectacled librarian (Patricia B. Butcher as Librarian) with a short, grayish bob and wearing conservative clothes (a grey suit and a white, frilly, high-necked blouse) and conservative jewelry (a string of pearls and a brooch), walks across the room to the pair. She taps Simon the shoulder and tells him he can’t stay there. How do we know she’s a librarian? She’s carrying a book, of course!

Monty hurriedly says he’s with him, “He’s part of my research project.” The librarian responds, “Oh, I beg your pardon” and walks away, looking back once over her shoulder.

Not bothered by the incident, Simon remarks, “Women. Ain’t they perfect?”

Monty — still reflecting a similar attitude to the librarian — warns him to keep his voice low so he won’t attract attention. But then when Monty asks a question, he earns a “Shhh!” from Simon.

The unnamed librarian is your basic Information Provider, reflecting the general social attitude toward homeless people.

The Library Scene (With Honors)” video uploaded by gaiaquest is licensed under a Standard YouTube license

A little over an hour into the film, Monty spends Christmas by himself. After hearing bad news about Simon’s health conditions, Monty’s back in the Widener Library, gazing blankly over a pile of books. Behind him, it looks like the library staff are (quietly) sharing Christmas gift exchange at a desk. We see the same librarian as before, sitting to the left, dressed in a festive red cardigan and white blouse. Three other females and one male librarian are grouped around the desk/table. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that in a scene highlighting Monty’s loneliness and sadness, the librarians provide the (literal) backdrop!

Screenshot of With Honors (1994), where librarians are as much decoration as the actual holiday decorations
Screenshot of With Honors (1994), where librarians are as much decoration as the actual holiday decorations

Altogether, the reel librarians appear onscreen for less than a minute total, earning this film a spot in the Class IV category.

Although the reel librarians here don’t come across too well — neither does higher education — libraries still get a shout-out. Simon compares libraries to churches. He also is mad about losing his home in the library’s furnace room, and for good reason:  “I had a home. I had a warm place to sleep. 17 bathrooms and 8 miles of books. I had a goddamn palace!”

And at the very end of the film, after Simon has passed away, Monty goes back to the Widener Library. He looks around reverently and — bringing the film full circle — places a well-worn copy of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass on an empty library table. The library/church has become Simon’s de facto mausoleum, a fitting conclusion to his memory and influence.


Sources used:


  • With Honors. Dir. Alek Keshishian. Perf. Joe Pesci, Brendan Fraser, Moira Kelly, Patrick Dempsey. Warner Bros., 1994.

Author: Jennifer

Librarian, blogger, movie lover

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