Oscar Vault Monday – Dead Poets Society, 1989 (dir. Peter Weir)

I’m trying to remember the first time I saw this film and I have a vague recollection of seeing it on TBS when I was in middle school. I do know that when I was a freshman or sophomore in high school one of my teachers showed it and we had an in-depth discussion of the film’s themes (well, as in-depth as you can in a podunk small town high school class filled with asshole 14 years old – I include myself in that description). A lot of what I’ll write about here is based on that discussion of the film, actually. I guess it was sophomore year because I think it was the class where the teacher who normally taught geography/history had to take over our English class, so mostly instead of reading books we watched films and discussed them. It was kind of a wonderful class if memory serves. At least, for me it was, because, well, movies. Dead Poets Society was nominated for four Academy Awards, winning one: Best Original Screenplay (won), Best Actor Robin Williams, Best Director and Best Picture. The other films nominated for Best Picture that year were Born on the Fourth of JulyField of DreamsMy Left Foot and winner Driving Miss Daisy.


Peter Weir is one of the those directors whose filmography I keep meaning to delve deeper into and yet never manage to do so. I’ve yet to see a film by him that I haven’t loved, so I’m sure when I do finally see the rest of his films, I’ll love them as well. Weir has been nominated for Best Director four times, though he’s yet to win: WitnessDead Poets SocietyThe Truman Show and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.


Oh god Robert Sean Leonard is so attractive in this movie it hurts. When I first started watching House when I was in college and then I realized he was the same guy from this movie, my brain exploded. That said, he gives an amazing performance in this film, going through a heartbreaking transformation. The main action of the film takes place at Welton Academy, an elite prep school, whose motto is “tradition, honor, discipline and excellence.” Leonard plays senior Neil Perry, whose father (played by That 70s Show‘s Kurtwood Smith) rides him extremely hard. Neil starts out a combination of cocky and henpecked, a boy who wants more than he can have, even when he knows he’s supposedly being offered everything.


The headmaster of the school is played by the one and only Norman Lloyd, who made his film debut in 1939, and is still alive and kicking at the ripe old age of 98. I’ve actually seen him introduce a film at the TCM Film Festival a few times now and I can only hope I will be as spry as he is when I am half his age. In this film he plays Mr. Nolan, who represents the old world, old way of thinking and living and being. He espouses tradition blindly, without realizing he’s denouncing change and progress.


I love Ethan Hawke. I have always loved Ethan Hawke. I will probably always love Ethan Hawke. This was Hawke’s second film, which later led Hawke being one of the most popular leading men of the 90s. Hawke has been nominated for two Academy Awards, for Best Supporting Actor for 2001’s Training Day and for Best Adapted Screenplay for 2004’s Before Sunset. Hawke plays Todd, another senior, and possibly the meekest of the group of boys featured in the film. I’ll write more about his character in a little bit.


The boys’ lives are interrupted when a new literature teachers arrives. One Mr. John Keating – who himself had attended this same school – comes with new ideas and new methods. One of the first things he does is have the students rip out the first page of their poetry textbook. For his work in this film Robin Williams received his second of four Academy Award nominations: Good Morning Vietnam (1987), Dead Poets Society (1989), The Fisher King (1991) and Good Will Hunting (1997, Best Supporting Actor, won).


Another one of Keating’s alt-teaching tactics is to take the boys out of the classroom, to introduce them to life beyond academics. This scene is probably the most famous part of the film and the line “Carpe Diem” was voted the 95th greatest movie quote of all time by the American Film Institute.


Another way in which he tries to teach the students something new, is by having them stand on their desks in order to see the world from a different perspective.  I read a few reviews that thought parts of this film were too “on the nose” and I’m guessing it’s the scenes like this that the critics dislike, but part of me wonders if people remember what it’s like to be 17? Or if people have a skewed idea of how worldly and sophisticated they were at 17? Because you really aren’t and it’s amazing how things this simple can be impact a person. And just from a cinematic point of view, the way Weir films these scenes is so intimate and loving, it’s hard not to be inspired by them.


So as the boys get to know Keating, they learn that he was once a member of a literary society known as the Dead Poets Society, which they decide to revive in a cave off campus. For those of us who love to read, this is the ultimate clubhouse type situation. Various boys in the group begin to thrive and lash out against authoritarian rules of their school. Keating warns them to be wise in their rebellion, but they are too young to be as judicious as he would like.


Neil, whose parents have been grooming him for Harvard and med school, has ambitions to be an actor and auditions for a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream without the permission of his parents. Obviously, this does not go over well and leads to the most heartbreaking part of the film.



Neil sees the life his parents have laid out for him and he doesn’t think he is strong enough to break free of his parents. He feels trapped in a life and a path that he has not chosen and feels as though he will never be able to choose for himself. This drives him to suicide. It’s interesting to note that Neil’s Puck costume has a crown of thorns and essentially, Neil is the Christ figure in this film. He has to sacrifice himself in order for the other boys to truly see the trap that has been laid before them.


After Neil’s suicide, Mr. Nolan discovers that the boys have restarted the Dead Poets Society and forces the group to sign a document stating that it was Mr. Keating who incited the boys to challenge authority.Keating is subsequently fired and Mr. Nolan takes over their class, where he is shocked to discover Keating had the boys rip out the introductory page to their poetry books. We realize that he wants everything to go back to how it was, but that’s impossible. Keating’s impression on the students is irrevocable, as is the impact of Neil’s death. It is Todd who finally realizes the change in himself and it is Todd who honors Keating as the agent of this change. He stands on his desk, shouting, as Keating once asked the boys to do, “O, Captain, My Captain!”


Several of the members of the Dead Poets Society join him, standing and chanting in honor of their mentor and their fallen friend. It’s spine-tingling cinematic moment. The film was named the 52nd most inspiring American Film by the American Film Institute.

One of the final shots of the film is that of Todd, who makes eye contact with Keating as he leaves. We realize that the other boys may have changed slightly, but Todd has “come of age” and Todd will be stronger for what he’s learned from Keating and from the death of his good friend. We realize that he will truly “seize the day” and perhaps even help others the same way that Keating helped him and that is worth everything.


About Marya E. Gates

Cinephile to the max.

Posted on July 8, 2013, in Oscar Vault Monday and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Drunk Robin Williams

    Nice thoughts. I agree that the ‘cheesiness’ is part and partial of it being a) a conservative school in a conservative time and b) the emo quality of being a teenager. Too many people in their 20s & 30s act ‘too cool for school’ and forget just how impressionable teenagers can be (I for one had a photo teacher in HS that had people jump up on their desks and yell ‘FRIDAY’ on said day…he remains one of my all time fave teachers in part because he refused to give in to institutional cynicism),

    I also had a huge crush on a girl in HS who only liked me ‘as friends’ but was totally in LOVE with RS Leonard so fuck him.

  2. Still confused about how Driving Miss Daisy won the Oscar over DPS…no accounting for taste I suppose!

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