Commencement Address - May 16, 2011

Four Fundamental Life Lessons from the Movies…

By Amy Gutmann

Chairman Cohen, Trustees, honored guests, families, friends, and alumni: Welcome to the 255th commencement of the University of Pennsylvania! Let’s hear it for the amazing Class of 2011!

Graduates, you’ve passed your final exams and handed in your dissertations. You’ve survived Walnut Walk. But I know you will always remember everyone who helped you arrive at this moment—first and foremost—your parents and families, your professors, and, of course, your Penn friends.

You know that your education doesn’t end today. You know there will always be more to explore…always more to discover…always more to learn.

Because I’m a movie buff…because we’re inspired by the presence of Denzel Washington…and because the very first Academy Awards ceremony was held on this exact date in 1929, I’m reminded that there’s a lot you can learn from the movies. And so…

With all due respect to David Letterman, I’d like to share with you: The Top Ten Things You can Learn from the Favorite Movies of Penn’s President:

Lesson #10: Early in life, The Wizard of Oz taught me that on life’s journey brains, heart, and courage come in handy.

Lesson #9: From Casablanca, I learned that even if Humphrey Bogart never quite said it, dedicating ourselves to a higher purpose and deep loyalties are values we should always treasure.

Lesson #8: As time goes by, The Social Network reminds us that virtual relationships are no substitute for real ones. …And remember that nerds can get girls, but not if they’re also…bleeps.

Lesson #7: True Grit teaches us that perseverance pays off.

Lesson #6: Avatar teaches us to respect nature—and each other.

Lesson #5: Titanic tells us that no ship—strategy or scheme—is unsinkable.

Lesson #4: E.T. should remind you to “phone” home.

Lesson #3: Silence of the Lambs gave a whole new meaning to having an old friend for dinner.

Lesson #2: Julie and Julia reminds us that everything really is better with butter.

And the #1 lesson I’ve learned from the movies: The King’s Speech teaches us to judge individuals not by their rank, but by their merit.  …And, even more strikingly, it’s not always the case that what you say is more important than how you say it.

Yes, we can learn a lot of things from the movies. But real lessons—most especially life lessons—can’t be summed up in a one-liner. That’s why today I’d like to share with you four truly fundamental life lessons that the movies have taught me. And these aren’t just any movies, they are movies that showcase the amazing City and Commonwealth that Penn calls home.

In the film Philadelphia, lawyer—and admitted homophobe—Joe Miller reluctantly takes the case of a man who believes he’s been fired because he has AIDS. Miller wins the case. But he also eventually conquers his fear of homosexuality—and challenges his ignorance: touching the dying man’s face. In realizing his common humanity with his dying client, Miller enriches and ennobles not only his client’s life— but his own.

Miller provides us with fundamental life lesson number one: Being a successful professional isn’t as important as being a good person. We all do best when we use our skills and talents to leave our world a little better then when we found it. To do good when we can. To think not just about what we can earn, but also what we can contribute. Because, with all due respect to Rhett Butler in another favorite of mine, Gone with the Wind, “Frankly, my dear, [you do have to] give a damn.”

If Philadelphia taught us to think of others, a much earlier Hollywood hit taught us to be true to ourselves. In the classic film, The Philadelphia Story, Katherine Hepburn plays wealthy Main Line socialite, Tracy Haven. She’s a head strong woman, about to marry again when her ex-husband, played by Cary Grant, re-enters her life. The very day of her wedding, Tracy breaks off her engagement with a guy who goes by the book, but whose character is no match for Cary Grant. It then hits her: All the guests have already arrived…the cake is in place…the champagne is chilled.

For a moment, it appears that her sense of decorum—of doing what’s expected of her—may triumph. But, in the end, Tracy follows her heart and refuses to walk down the aisle. On the spot, Cary Grant makes his second bid for her hand. She immediately accepts. And it looks like they’ll live, not at all perfectly, but happily, ever after.

Although The Philadelphia Story is also a great screwball comedy, it offers fundamental life lesson number two: If you want the happy ending, don’t try to be perfect, but do follow your heart.

You can’t listen to what others say you should do…or what society says you must do…or what pessimists say you can’t do. In professional as in personal life, if you want to be successful—and truly enjoy your success—you have to pursue what inspires you…what impels you: what you love. Find your dream and follow it, for it’s the only path that leads to the stars.

Pursuing a dream is one thing that boxer Rocky Balboa certainly understood. In local film favorite, Rocky, there’s a great scene where Rocky’s trainer tells him that he’s always believed that Rocky’s effort didn’t match his potential. Suddenly, Rocky is handed the opportunity to face the heavyweight champion of the world. Only by giving it everything he has—and then some…by “rising up to the challenge of a lifetime,” is Rocky the bush league boxer able to successfully meet—and nearly beat—the champion.

In Rocky’s story we can find fundamental life lesson number three: You can’t win with half-hearted effort. In order to be sitting here today, you certainly gave it your all during your time at Penn. Continue to do so. Give it your all, and when the opportunity you’ve dreamed of…“the challenge of a lifetime” comes your way, you’ll be ready for it.

When you are ready, even when disaster seems imminent—even when the proverbial train has already left the station and is barreling toward disaster—courage combined with creativity can still save the day.

That’s the fourth fundamental life lesson made vivid by one of my new favorite films, Unstoppable. In Unstoppable, an unmanned runaway train—with a deadly cargo of toxic chemicals—is barreling toward Scranton, Pennsylvania. No one knows what to do. Disaster looms. Intrepid engineer Frank Barnes—played by none other than Denzel Washington, of course—is sent to attempt the impossible. He must board the runaway train and stop it. Barnes, and a young co-worker, manage to get onboard—and through a dazzling combination of valor and vision—they’re able to save the city, and the day. Like Frank Barnes, if you combine courage with creativity, if you remain determined, then success—however you define it—is unstoppable.

My beloved Class of 2011, you are also unstoppable! Take these four fundamental life lessons to heart. If you do—like all of our extraordinary Honorary Degree recipients—you will enjoy success. You will enjoy happiness. You will enjoy a life of meaning far beyond anything you can yet imagine.

And, if you will permit me, before the credits roll, one more thing. Remember that, when taken together, these four fundamental life lessons reveal one essential truth: By following your heart…by giving it your all…by doing so with creativity and courage, you will not only be happy, you will also be GREAT! You will truly be unstoppable!

As you find your next role in life beyond Penn, my fervent and final wish for you is that you will always take great pleasure in what you’ve learned here, in your families, your friends, your work, your volunteer activities—and, of course, in great films.

It has been my privilege, and great good fortune, to have known all of you. Congratulations, and, to paraphrase film critic Roger Ebert—I’ll see you at the movies…and on Locust Walk!