Author: Christopher Keyser
Writer’s Potential: 6
At 1930s Harvard, a poor student must come to terms with the fact that his wealthy best friend is gay and has fallen in love with him.
In 1936, CHARLES KINER (18, ambitious and optimistic) arrives at Harvard College, determined to leave behind the boring old “Charlie” from Athens, Indiana. He enthusiastically discusses his college career with PROFESSOR PILLSBURY (50s, a blue blood), his academic advisor. Pillsbury reminds Charles that his scholarship doesn’t cover his full semester bill, so he must find a work-study job. Charles takes a job as a waiter in the freshman dining hall, where he’s treated poorly by the wealthy students. While crossing Harvard Yard one night, Charles sees a group of students having fun with some Radcliffe girls (including LIZA, to whom Charles finds himself attracted )as they stumble into a club. Charles attempts to follow them inside, but he’s kept out by the stern doorman. In the dining hall, Charles has the privilege of seeing the Krokodiloes (an a cappella singing group) perform. He’s amazed by the soaring harmonies and the apparent camaraderie, so he attempts to join the group. He quietly slinks into the auditions, where he’s all but ignored—until he actually starts singing. The others are dazzled by his lilting, angelic voice. Pillsbury warns Charles against joining the group, suggesting it will distract him from his studies.
When the Krokodiloes show up at his dorm room to announce he’s made the cut, Charles ignores Pillsbury’s advice and joins them enthusiastically. The other guys take him to buy his first tuxedo (the group’s official uniform), and Charles strikes up a fast friendship with ALEX, who volunteers to pay for Charles’s tux. They have lunch together, and Alex is amazed by the fact that Charles comes from Indiana and attends the school on scholarship. Pillsbury sees Charles among the Krokodiloes and chastises him for throwing away his college career for frivolities. After spending the entire night hanging out with his new friends, Charles is shocked to see the sun coming up. He excuses himself to go to work. Alex volunteers to pay the balance of Charles’s tuition, and when Charles resists, Alex points out that this will be the best use of his money so far. Charles, who would rather hang out with the Krokodiloes than work as a waiter, allows Alex to do this. Charles ditches a study session with his former coworkers at the dining hall to go to a fancy party in Newport and sing with the Krokodiloes. Liza and her family are at the party, as are Alex’s stuffy parents. Charles flirts with Liza. When he returns to Harvard, he struggles to complete an exam.
Charles calls Liza to ask her out on a date. She shoots him down, so he and the Krokodiloes stand outside her window, serenading her with “Liza” (the Gershwin song). This wins her over. Charles begs Alex to teach him how to dance in time for his date. Alex viciously refuses, but finally gives in. Charles is terrible, but Alex is great. They faux-flirt. Charles takes Liza out to a park to fly a kite. He’s horrible at it. He takes her dancing, and he’s horrible at that, too. Liza finds his ineptitude endearing. The end up in front of the Porcellian Club, an elite, male-only “final club.” They each acknowledge the fact that they don’t belong there—he’s too poor, and she’s a woman. Alex, on the other hand, does belong, and from inside the club, he witnesses Charles and Liza kiss each other goodnight.
Reality comes crashing down when Pillsbury informs Charles that he’s only pulling Bs and Cs, which are not good enough to remain on scholarship if he doesn’t improve before the end of the semester. Charles gripes that Roosevelt had a C average, but Alex observes that Roosevelt was rich. Alex tentatively invites Charles on a trip to New York, but Charles gripes that he needs to study to stay on scholarship. Alex writes Charles an IOU for the amount of the scholarship and takes Charles to New York. Charles is amazed by the size of the city. Alex takes Charles to a cool jazz club. The next morning, Charles takes the first train back so he can keep a date with Liza. Alex meets with his parents, who encourage him to find a girlfriend of his own (unaware Charles is dating her, they suggest Liza). Alex doesn’t show up for the next Kroks rehearsal, so Charles goes to his room to check on him. A drunken Alex angrily sends Charles away.
On the night before the big Harvard/Yale game, the Kroks and Yale’s Wiffenpoofs hold a joint concert. Charles is disappointed to learn Liza is ditching him for a lecture on “the Nazi problem.” When they reunite afterward, Liza’s too despondent to feign enthusiasm as Charles recounts the concert. She complains that the world is too scary to have fun. She announces they should sleep together, in defiance of the terrifying world in which they live. Charles is very enthusiastic about this idea, but neither of them can go back to their dorm rooms. Charles rents a tiny hotel room and takes an eternity removing his many layers of winter clothing, to Liza’s amusement. The next morning, Charles and Liza have breakfast with Liza’s parents. Her father is impressed to learn Charles overslept because he was “studying,” and offers to give Charles a tour of his brokerage house. After, Liza is irritated that her father would essentially offer Charles a job without knowing more about him than that Liza likes him. Charles urges her to tell her father how she feels, but she’s too afraid. Liza wonders why Charles never spends any time with Alex. Charles says he’s gotten weird, and Liza theorizes it’s because he’s jealous of their dating. She decides to fix Alex up on a double date, but Alex treats the other girl horribly and storms away from them. Charles confronts Alex about his behavior, and Alex lets it slip out that it’s Charles, not Liza, that he’s fallen in love with. Alex knows how wrong it is, doesn’t like the way he feels, but he can’t help it. Horrified, Charles flees.
Liza asks what is going on with Alex. Charles tells her she was right: he has a crush on Liza and is jealous of the time Charles is spending with her. Charles spends the entire holiday break frantically studying for final exams. Liza tries to cajole Charles into coming out, but he refuses. After the exam, Alex stands outside Charles’s windows, waiting. He apologizes to Charles about his feelings, wanting only to remain his friend. Charles tells him to keep away. Charles visits Liza, who has received a letter from Alex, spilling his guts about everything. Liza wants to know why Charles won’t talk to Alex. Enraged, Charles storms into the Porcellian Club to confront Alex. Alex tells Charles he’s spent his entire life bored, because he has everything, but now something matters to him, and he can’t simply ignore it. Charles orders him to stop talking about it. After the public confrontation, word gets out. The other Kroks move to kick Alex out of the group, and Charles does nothing to stop them.
Charles receives his final grades: still Bs and Cs. The fellowship committee revokes his scholarship. He goes to see Liza, who has learned about Alex getting kicked out of the Kroks. She dumps Charles. Charles is dragged to a party by the other Kroks, who ramble on and on about their petty, wealthy problems. Charles is going crazy, wanting to study and needing to find a job. Charles gets a job as a stock boy at a music store. Alex dines with his parents. His father has learned he’s a homosexual. His mother is shocked. Alex is thrown out of his house. Charles turns over a leaf, working his ass off (both at school and the store). One night, at the library, Liza decides to talk to Charles. She’s still angry that he turned his back on a friend in need. She points out that they both know what it’s like to want something desperately that they can’t have. Charles tells her she has no room to talk if she won’t talk to her father about a job.
Liza calls her father, but he doesn’t take her seriously. A drunken Alex shows up and commiserates. They both idly consider going to Spain to help in the war effort. Alex decides he’s going to cross the Charles River into Boston. Liza points out it’s not cold enough for the river to be frozen over, but Alex doesn’t care—he’ll swim across if he has to. Unable to stop him, Liza rushes to find Charles. Charles and Liza race for the river and find Alex in the cold water. He narrowly avoids drowning, thanks to Charles’s help. Liza tends to the two of them until they warm up. Charles and Alex argue about the stupidity of Alex’s actions, and they tentatively make amends. Charles rushes to Pillsbury’s office to turn in a paper. He witnesses Pillsbury get turned down for the job of Chairman of his department. Pillsbury tells Charles a late paper is automatically dropped two letter grades. Charles whines that this is unfair, that he’s working two jobs and taking four classes, but it’s not good enough. Pillsbury has no sympathy—he knows Charles is still spending time socializing and drinking instead of studying.
Desperate to make ends meet, Charles sells most of his possessions and begs for more hours at the store. The manager tells Charles he’d have to work full-time, plus overtime, to get what he needs to cover tuition. It’s impossible, so Charles faces facts and quits school. The bursar informs Charles that his bill for the spring term has already been paid in full. Charles knows Alex paid for it, so he instructs her to tear up the check and consider him gone. Charles visits Alex to tell him he can’t take his money. Charles is stuck working at the music store because he sold his train ticket back to Indiana and can’t afford another one. While there, he notices a book of photos of everyone who’s worked at the store since the 1880s. He’s surprised to find Pillsbury’s photo. Charles confronts Pillsbury about it. Pillsbury finally explains that he’s spent 30 years learning what he hoped he could teach Charles in six months: that status is everything, and he needs to accept who he is and stop trying to impress the blue bloods. Pillsbury disappointedly confesses he and his wife had a son who would have been Charles’s age, but he died of the Spanish flu as a baby. However, they started him a college fund, which has grown considerably over the past 20 years. Pillsbury offers it to Charles, who humbly accepts.
Liza invites Charles to a Radcliffe social. He playfully turns her down in favor of studying, but she insists. Alex is at the soiree. The three of them dance together. Later, Alex announces he’s going off to Spain, to drive an ambulance. Charles and Liza are shocked but sort of impressed. Alex tells them he’s realized he needs to do something that matters, for once. Pointedly directed at Liza, Alex asks if anyone wants to join him. Liza turns him down. Charles races to convince the Kroks to let Alex sing at a spring event at the Harvard President’s house. They’re reluctant at first, but Charles convinces them that Alex is better than all of them, including Charles. Present day: much older versions of Charles, Alex, and Liza reunite for the commencement. Charles and Alex embrace. Back in 1937, Charles and Liza receive a letter from Alex, declaring his love for both of them. On the soundtrack, the Krokodiloes sing “He Loves and She Loves” (another Gershwin song) as Charles and Liza cross Harvard Yard together.
A Great Education tells a compelling story in the most frustrating possible way. Although it contains strong, frequently witty dialogue, the stale class-warfare conflicts and cliché-ridden characters destroy any potential this script has. As written, it merits a pass.
The story starts well enough, with fresh-faced Charles arriving at Harvard and finding difficulty navigating this strange new world. The writer does a nice job of evoking the late-’30s period throughout the script. However, things go awry fairly quickly. Although the writer evidently wants audiences to believe Charles really has to struggle to get some social standing at Harvard, it all happens so quickly and with such low stakes that it all seems far too easy. Especially when Alex pays for Charles’s tuition, allowing him to quit his job and pursue social activities, Charles doesn’t seem to face any real challenges until the third act.
The second act presents Alex’s homosexuality as a big twist, which is a huge problem in the script because it’s so obvious. Had the writer depicted this solely as a shocking revelation for Charles, and not for the audience, it would be fine. However, the way it’s portrayed will probably result in more eyes rolling with annoyance than popping out with surprise. It also causes the story to lose some of its focus. The first act suggests this is a story about a poor kid trying to make it in the world of the wealthy, but in the second half, all the focus shifts to Alex’s homosexuality, how it affects Charles, how it affects Alex, how it affects Liza—how it affects pretty much everyone. Understandably, given the time period and the status-conscious characters, it makes sense that this would change everything for the characters. It just feels more like a distraction from Charles’s struggles to stay afloat at Harvard than a well-developed storyline.
The third act wraps everything up tidily, but not satisfactorily. Professor Pillsbury turning into Charles’s benefactor is an overly simplistic way to keep him in Harvard. Alex’s decision to make something of himself rings false for the character. Liza’s many twists and turns all feel arbitrary, motivated by the plot more than anything consistent in her character.
These story problems all speak to major problems with the characters. The writer tries to devote equal time to both Charles and Alex, but that ultimately leads to both of them getting the short shrift. As mentioned, Charles’s struggles to remain in Harvard are always resolved too quickly or easily to really reveal his true character. He just worries a lot, then things work out without him making much of an effort. It’s evident that he’s desperate to please the rich kids, but even this he accomplishes with too little effort.
Similarly, Alex’s struggle feel too contrived to really empathize with him. Actually, most of his struggle occur off-screen, so the agony of him coming to terms with his feelings and sexual identity never comes across as much more than a plot device to drive conflict between Charles, Alex, and Liza. When the writer does finally decide we should pay attention to Alex, it’s too little, too late. Like Charles, everything’s explained too easily: he’s drunk, or he’s confused, or he’s figured everything out and will now do something important to redeem his years of idle loafing. It’s frustratingly artificial, lacking the depth or complexity one might expect from this sort of story.
Liza and Pillsbury, the only other characters with anything close to depth, just come across as lazy clichés (the older mentor who’s a mirror image of the youthful protagonist, the rebellious woman who reflects modern views ahead of her time). The potential for a good story—actually, several good stories—exists in this script, but it’s both too unfocused and too happy to rest on lazy clichés to be truly effective without significant work.