Skip to main content
Got a tip?

Meet the Wesleyan Film Professor Who Gave Michael Bay, Joss Whedon Their Start

THR brings together 34 of Jeanine Basinger’s now-famous ex-pupils for an A-list class reunion as former student Sam Wasson writes about learning under the legendary cinema scholar.

This story first appeared in the 2015 Women in Entertainment issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

There were a few jokes about having to schlep over to Los Angeles’ Mack Sennett Studios so early on a Saturday, but every single one of the 33 directors, producers, actors, agents and writers who appear in the photograph on the previous pages showed up for the shoot right on time. Nobody wanted to disappoint the woman who used to grade their papers. “We were not allowed to be late — being late was not an option,” says producer Brad Fuller (class of ’87). “If you were late for her class, she locked the door.”

She may not be a household name anywhere other than Hollywood, but Jeanine Basinger, 79, is an iconic figure in American cinema, one of the most beloved and respected film history professors in the history of film studies. In fact, she pretty much invented the discipline, starting Wesleyan University’s Film Studies program back in 1969, a time when the notion of studying movies as a serious art form was still considered radical thinking. The list of her former pupils could fill the Dolby Theatre — and quite often they do. Among them, Michael Bay (’86), Joss Whedon (’87), Laurence Mark (’71), Akiva Goldsman, (’83), Paul Weitz (’88), Marc Shmuger (’80) and Alex Kurtzman (’95). Other Wesleyans, like Stephen Schiff (’72) and Bradley Whitford (’81)), never took her courses but became campus acolytes anyway. Then there’s the list of Hollywood luminaries who simply consider her a close friend, like Clint Eastwood (“Truly one of my favorite people,” he says) and Isabella Rossellini, who donated her mother’s letters and diaries to Basinger’s famous Wesleyan Cinema Archive (“She always shows an exquisite sensitivity,” she says, “never forgetting that Ingrid Bergman is for me my mother, not just a great actress”).

Basinger, with Whedon, receiving an AFI award in 2006. “There is nobody more committed to preserving movies,” says AFI president Bob Gazzale.

“My earliest memories,” says Basinger, explaining how and why she came to devote her working life to the study of flickering images on a screen, “are of walking into a very dark movie theater and looking up at the sparking silver nitrate Technicolor movies that were being shown when I was a little girl during World War II. I loved everything I saw. It was literally like going to heaven, entering a magical world that was all my own.”

Those early memories began accumulating at age 3, when Basinger’s parents began taking their daughter to the movies near their home in Arkansas. By age 11, after her family moved to South Dakota, Basinger became an usher at a local theater, watching the same films countless times, laying the foundation for a career as a cinema scholar. “When you stand on your feet at the back of a movie house and watch the same movie over and over, you begin to understand process,” she says. “You see the way films tell stories, you see the effect they have on the audience, you see where they work and where they don’t. It’s the best way to learn — on the firing line — but in my day, it was literally the only way to learn. There were no film schools.”

Basinger would fix that. After getting her B.A. and M.A. at South Dakota State University, in 1960 she took a job in the advertising department at a scholastic publisher on Wesleyan’s Middletown, Conn., campus. Within a decade, she was piloting one of the nation’s first film study classes. “When I started teaching at Wesleyan, I realized the students were fabulous — they had so much imagination, intelligence, originality,” she says. “I kept thinking to myself, ‘Why don’t these people work in the film business?’ I told them, ‘Somebody gets those jobs. Why not you?’ And I started encouraging them to become the people they have become.”

Related Stories

The film courses she developed and taught took cinema dead-seriously as an art form but always kept the focus on commercial filmmaking. There was, for instance, her 1971 course that took a deep dive into the art of Eastwood films — at a time when the actor was doing Dirty Harry movies, decades before he was directing Oscar-winning dramas. Over the decades, between writing best-selling books (like a 1976 volume on Lana Turner and I Do and I Don’t, a warmly reviewed 2012 history of marriage on film) Basinger refined her curriculum, focusing more on personal interpretation of movies.

“What she teaches you is that everything you see is an expression of yourself,” says Whedon, “and therefore everything you film is going to be an expression of yourself. If you look at the filmmakers who’ve come up from my generation, none of us would ever make each other’s films — or possibly even sit through them.”

With former student Bay — class of ’86 —in May 2011.

“Her program reveals the inner-workings of visual language,” adds Benh Zeitlin (’04), the Oscar-nominated director and writer of Beasts of the Southern Wild. “It lifts the skirt and shows you the architecture of everything you’ve ever seen [at the movies]. You come out of it with the pieces you need to build anything you can imagine.”

Actress Dana Delany (’78) still has her term papers with Basinger’s notes in them. “It was really hard to get into her classes,” the star of Hand of God recalls. “There were waiting lists. I still hold a grudge that I didn’t get into the film noir class. What I love about Jeanine is the combination of scholar and fan. Because she still loves movies, she still gets enthusiastic about them, but she wants you to look at them in a rigorous way.”

Related Stories

Basinger, who lives in Connecticut with her actor-teacher husband, John (they have one daughter and a granddaughter) has a slightly more humble view of her accomplishments as a cinematic academic. “When you think about it,” she says, “what I actually did was find a way to get paid to do the thing I always wanted to do — which is put my butt in a movie theater and watch a good movie and share the joy of it with others.”

Sam Wasson is the author of Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M. and Fosse.


The Students Grade the Teacher
Basinger’s A-list acolytes on why they give the prof top marks.

“Nobody loves the movies more than Jeanine and nobody knows more about the movies than Jeanine.” — Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Actress

“She has an analytical mind and a rigorous work ethic — yet I have never seen her not have fun.”
— Bruce Eric Kaplan, Screenwriter and Cartoonist

“Every time I’m in a meeting and it comes out that I went to Wesleyan, they ask the same question — how is it possible that so many successful people in Hollywood come out of such a tiny liberal arts school in Connecticut? The answer is Jeanine.”
— Bradley Whitford, Actor

“I took a job teaching at Wesleyan as an excuse to hang out and talk about movies with Jeanine. There’s nothing she doesn’t know.”
— A.O. Scott, Film Critic

“Not only does Jeanine have an encyclopedic knowledge of film history, she has a profound understanding of how films relate to the world around them.”
— Larry Mark, Jerry Maguire Producer

“Jeanine taught me one of the most important lessons. If I wanted to be a screenwriter, I had to take up drumming, because dialogue and structure are all about rhythm.”
— Alex Kurtzman, Star Trek Writer

“Twenty-two years ago, I showed up on her doorstep the day before the dorms opened and she and her husband took me in. I was not supposed to study film — my father said he could show me movies — I was supposed to study the classics. But film was in my blood.”
— Domenica Scorsese, Actress and Director

“So much of what I know about film comes from [Basinger’s] basement screening room. Every day I’ve worked on Game of Thrones, I’ve put those lessons to use.”
— D.B. Weiss, Game of Thrones Creator