Wesleyan maven has network of devoted grads

Jeanine Basinger’s name may never appear in lights, but to many Hollywood insiders, she’s a star in her own right.

A film studies professor at Wesleyan U. for almost 40 years, Basinger has shepherded hundreds of students through her program, yielding some of the industry’s biggest talents in the process. Her proteges include major helmers (Joss Whedon, Michael Bay, Paul Weitz), producers (Laurence Mark, Paul Schiff) and scribes (Alex Kurtzman, Bruce Eric Kaplan), but that’s just the beginning.

According to estimates provided by Wesleyan’s Center for Film Studies, close to 400 alumni work in the industry. Three serve as studio heads (Toby Emmerich, New Line; Nick Meyer, Paramount Vantage; Marc Shmuger, Universal).

That’s a remarkably disproportionate footprint for a small liberal arts university tucked away in Middletown, Conn. Yet, for Hollywood’s “Wesleyan mafia,” Basinger is their widely acknowledged Godmother: At alum Rick Nicita’s annual CAA reception for Basinger, hundreds come to revisit their mentor.

In a move that will literally concretize her legacy, this summer the university plans to dedicate a gleaming $10 million film studies complex named for Basinger. To those who know her, naming the center for her was the only choice.

“Jeanine Basinger is quite simply a force of nature,” says Wesleyan grad Gordon Crawford, who chaired the center’s capital campaign. Though not a film student himself, Crawford has become one of Basinger’s biggest admirers. “She’s built an amazing legacy of former Wesleyan students, founded one of the finest cinema archives around and developed one of the top film schools in the country. And all of this is carried on one woman’s back.”

For a number of former students, Basinger’s name summons even more evocative metaphors: She’s “Hollywood’s secret weapon,” confides Brad Fuller (exec producer, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”). To “Lolita” scribe Stephen Schiff, she’s “an unlikely superhero.”

What explains this outpouring of praise for a septuagenarian from South Dakota? It’s certainly a long way from her days at the College Theater in Brookings (pop. 5,000). Taking a job as an usher at 14, Basinger had plenty of time to hone her viewing skills, watching films over and over — even slipping behind the curtains to study the faces of enraptured audience members.

For Basinger, teaching film was a natural extension of her love of the medium. After she moved to Middletown and met her future husband, John, an actor and teacher, she discovered she could make a living by talking about the thing she loved best.

Basinger began teaching in 1969, when film was not yet a fully established field at American universities; she built the department from the ground up. Recalls actress-grad Dana Delany, “Jeanine dignified the study of film. She proved it could be as rigorous and intellectually demanding as any other discipline.”

It’s Basinger’s unapologetic love of the medium that resonates most in her teaching, extends to her students and sets her apart from other academics. Indie helmer Rodger Grossman (“What We Do Is Secret”) recalls: “After my first class with Jeanine, I was so filled with energy, I ran back to my dorm. Literally. Nobody has ever had that effect on me before, or since.”

Adds Hamptons Film Festival founder Toni Ross: “When you have a teacher who’s as passionate as she is, it’s just infectious.” Still, that passion is coupled with an intensity that’s downright daunting. Thesp Bradley Whitford remembers being too intimidated by her reputation to study with her at Wesleyan, but he now counts himself among her greatest allies.

According to filmmaker-thesp Domenica Cameron-Scorsese, “Jeanine teaches with positive reinforcement while putting the fear of God into you.” Her policies are legendary, draconian — and inarguably effective: No missed classes. No extensions. No exceptions. (She even holds her senior seminar on Sunday!) “Jeanine would say your only excuse for tardiness was death,” remembers “Cold Case” producer Liz Garcia.

But once students get past those warnings, their reward is a class more fulfilling, engaging and stimulating than any they’re likely to encounter in any discipline. Basinger’s quick wit and deadpan sense of humor are as legendary as her intellect. On the recent crop of magic-themed films, (“The Prestige,” “The Illusionist”), Basinger quipped to former student Marc Longenecker, “Magic in cinema is a bit like ventriloquism on the radio.”

That humor is an integral part of Basinger’s teaching style, which is peppered with personal anecdotes and highly original notions. Her three rules for mastering film: Watch two movies every day (to absorb history), take drum lessons (to learn rhythm) and study physics (to understand space and time).

While her courses are indeed rigorous, they contain no trace of the academic jargon that widely obfuscates the field of film studies. “She’s wholly unpretentious that way,” opines “National Treasure” helmer Jon Turteltaub. Adds “Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s” Whedon, “To go four years studying film without hearing the word ‘semiotics’ — amazing!” And “Mad About You” co-creator Jeffrey Lane (who, on Basinger’s advice, hired the young Whedon as his assistant) agrees, “Nobody is smarter than Jeanine, but she doesn’t feel the need to be above the subject.”

Adds professor Steve Collins, a former student and current colleague of Basinger’s: “Her classes are as impeccably structured as the films you study with her. They have mystery, surprise, secrets and suspense. She treats the learning process in her class with the care and precision that a filmmaker takes in creating a film.”

Moreover, Basinger’s teaching is founded on the premise that film’s form and content are inextricable. Unlike most other film schools, where production and critical studies are separate, Wesleyan’s undergraduate program, “was conceived as a wedding between history, theory and production,” Basinger explains. She is intimately involved, as are all the faculty, in the editing and writing process of students’ senior film projects. “Jeanine’s classes bridge the gap between film appreciation, film criticism and filmmaking,” concurs Weitz (“About a Boy”).

Group presentations require students to prepare an in-depth lecture, an assignment designed to teach collective problem-solving. She assigns no books — though she’s written 10 herself — because she insists that students study films by watching them. Writer Jeremy Arnold recalls the moment when a Basinger neophyte asked what he should focus on while viewing that day’s movie: “Everything,” she replied.

Producer Paul Schiff (“Rushmore”) remembers Basinger’s assignments as “probing. She wouldn’t let you get away with a cursory analysis.” A midterm paper, for instance, might require students to reconceive, in meticulous detail, a classic film by Ernst Lubitsch in the styles of Frank Capra and Howard Hawks.

The guiding principle of her teaching philosophy? “The victory must always go to the student. Everyone will tell you how rigid I am,” she says, “but a teacher has to be flexible. You can’t cut the student to your cloth; you have to cut yourself to theirs.”

When, for example, a young Toni Ross was paralyzed by writer’s block on a take-home midterm, Basinger, who knew her student understood the material, advised, “Come to my office, and tell me the paper.” That directive allowed Ross the freedom to succeed. “Once I was told I didn’t have to do it, then I could do it,” Ross recalls.

To Ross, and to so many others, Basinger has become more than a teacher; she’s been a devoted mentor and compassionate, nurturing friend. She’s invited students into her house when they were homeless and taken them to the hospital when they were ill. And she’s been known to lose sleep when she knows a former student is in crisis, offering calls of support in the wee hours.

Perhaps most importantly, Basinger has helped her students to discover and believe in their own potential. Avows helmer Miguel Arteta (“The Good Girl”), “You come out of Jeanine’s classes realizing that your own point of view is your greatest asset.”

Eric Lichtenfeld contributed to this report. Both Loewenstein and Lichtenfeld are graduates of Wesleyan U.

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more