The grand finale of Jeanine Basinger’s storied career at Wesleyan took place in late September with the naming ceremony in her honor of the new Center for Film Studies.
The event, held Sept. 25, celebrated the completion of the third and final phase of the center. The 16,000 square-foot addition includes a state-of-the-art production studio, a cyclorama and green screen, a 50-seat screening room, additional indoor and outdoor classroom spaces, a three-story house dedicated to on-site film shooting, and increased archival research space.
Basinger, Corwin-Fuller Emerita Professor of Film Studies and founder of The Ogden and Mary Louise Reid Cinema Archives has been the lynchpin in securing funding for the $27 million project over the past 20 years. The center has been in development since 2000.
Hollywood luminaries mingled alongside recent graduates, all united in celebration of Basinger’s remarkable career. Nearly 300 people in attendance took tours of the new Center for Film Studies and viewed a selection of artifacts curated from the film archives, including two of Ingrid Bergman’s Oscars. The gallery presented materials from Basinger’s 50 years of teaching. The event ended with food trucks and—most appropriately—a movie: the documentary Summer of Soul, which tells the story of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival.
“I thought it would be overwhelming and it was, but everybody was having such a good time. People were happy to see each other. It was so relaxed and such a beautiful day,” Basinger said in an interview after the naming event.
Students from both Basinger’s first class (in 1969) and last classes were in attendance. When asked if she envisioned a time when Wesleyan graduates would play an important role in Hollywood (so much so that they are now colloquially known as ‘the Wesleyan Mafia’), Basinger was direct: “I did. Isn’t that the whole point? I said to them, ‘You people are fabulous at film, storytelling, screenwriting, and thinking and questioning and you’d all like to be in the film business. Why aren’t you? Why don’t you go (to Hollywood)? Somebody gets those jobs. Why not you?’” she said.
The naming event was an opportunity for Basinger to reconnect with her friends and to celebrate her life’s work. “All my students over the decades, we’ve had a great deal of fun doing our hard work. It was very challenging and there were great expectations, but it was fun,” Basinger said.
Although Basinger considers teaching her students to be the most important part of her years at Wesleyan, she is very proud of her establishment of the enlarged Ogden and Mary Louise Reid Cinema Archives. The creation of the archive in the mid-1980s was a happy accident, Basinger said. “Everything is accidental in life in many ways more than you expect,” she said.
Wesleyan already carried the archives of the famed theater and film director Elia Kazan and the television series Omnibus when Basinger arrived on campus. “Those two collections were sitting around and no one knew what to do with them,” she said.
Basinger already had contacts in the film industry, including Frank Capra, director of the Christmas perennial It’s a Wonderful Life. “He asked me if I would take responsibility for archiving his personal and professional papers. He asked me out of the blue to do it, not as part of Wesleyan,” she said.
With these three collections in hand, Basinger began to look for ways to set up a dedicated space and expand its holdings. Starting with this base made it easier to approach Hollywood notables to contribute their personal archives, including the papers of Studio Era director Raoul Walsh, Academy Award-winning actress Ingrid Bergman, actor-director Clint Eastwood, and director Martin Scorsese. “If you have that quality and that range, people are happy to have their papers in with those papers,” she said.
It will never be the biggest archive, Basinger said, but that isn’t the point. The objective is to have a collection of important materials that will truly enhance the learning experiences of Wesleyan film students. The collection is now being actively used in classroom teaching, she said. “We have also now begun the process of really collecting the work of our own film and television alumni,” Basinger said.
Even in retirement, Basinger is still on the lookout for collections that would make sense for the Reid Cinema Archives. At this point, there isn’t something she’s been pining away for. “What I want, I get,” Basinger said, and then laughed. “If it’s out there and I really wanted it, I could ask for it.”
Basinger plans to be busy in retirement. She is working with Martin Scorsese on a special project to build the study of film into the American secondary school system. Basinger has a book coming out in Fall 2022 titled Hollywood: The Oral History co-authored with Sam Wasson ’03. She is also the subject of a yet to be titled documentary directed by Oscar-winning director Alexander Payne. Finally, she will maintain her trusteeships in the American Film Institute and the National Board of Review.
And there are the two movies she views every day, an important part of immersing herself in the art form.
“My worst nightmare is that I’ll be on my death bed and as I am just trying to go peacefully, the doctor will lean over and say ‘what are your favorite movies?’” Basinger joked.
As she reflected on the film community she created, the archive she populated, and the celebration of that work, Basinger wouldn’t have done it anywhere else because no other place is like Wesleyan.
“Wesleyan is a very unique place. No other college seemed like Wesleyan. There’s always a little crackle in the air. It’s not like other universities. It seems more alive to me,” Basinger said. “I fell in love with teaching these young people who really took to the subject.”
Photos of the celebration are below: (Photos by Nick Caito)