The Paper Chase
Theatrical release poster
Directed byJames Bridges
Screenplay byJames Bridges
Based onThe Paper Chase
by John Jay Osborn Jr.
Produced by
  • Rodrick Paul
  • Robert C. Thompson
CinematographyGordon Willis
Edited byWalter Thompson
Music byJohn Williams
Distributed by20th Century Fox
Release date
  • October 16, 1973 (1973-10-16)
Running time
111 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$3.6 million[1]

The Paper Chase is a 1973 American comedy-drama film starring Timothy Bottoms, Lindsay Wagner, and John Houseman, and directed by James Bridges.

Based on John Jay Osborn Jr.'s 1971 novel The Paper Chase, it tells the story of James Hart, a first-year law student at Harvard Law School, his experiences with Professor Charles Kingsfield, a brilliant and demanding contract law instructor, and Hart's relationship with Kingsfield's daughter. Houseman earned an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance as the professor. Houseman later reprised the role in a TV series of the same name that lasted four seasons, following Hart, played by James Stephens, through his three years of law school.


James T. Hart starts his first year at Harvard Law School in a contract law course with Professor Charles W. Kingsfield Jr. When Kingsfield immediately delves into the material using the Socratic method and asks Hart the first question, Hart is totally unprepared and feels so humiliated that, after class, he throws up in the bathroom.

Hart is invited to join a study group with five others:

Each member of the group agrees to focus on a specific course and write a synopsis of their notes to share with each other before the final exams. Hart chooses contract law.

While out getting pizza, Hart is asked by a woman, Susan Fields, to walk her home, as she says she feels uncomfortable about a man who has been following her. Hart returns to her house soon after and asks her on a date, after which they begin a complicated relationship: she resents the time he devotes to his studies and his fascination with Kingsfield, while he expects her to provide him with considerable attention and wants a firm commitment. When Hart and a select few of his classmates are invited to a cocktail party hosted by Kingsfield, he is stunned to discover that Susan is Kingsfield's married daughter. She is, however, separated from her husband and eventually gets a divorce. She and Hart break up and get back together several times.

Hart categorizes his classmates into three groups: those who have given up; those who are trying, but fear being called upon in class to respond to Kingsfield's questions; and the "upper echelon" who actively volunteer to answer. Hart strives to move from the second classification to the third, and succeeds as time goes on.

Hart eventually learns of the existence of the "Red Set", the archived and sealed personal notes that Harvard professors wrote when they were students, which are stored in a locked room of the library. Late one night, Hart and Ford break into the library to read Kingsfield's notes.

The mounting pressure gets to everyone as the course nears its end. Brooks attempts suicide and drops out of school. The study group is torn apart by personal bickering, with only three of the six members remaining. With final exams looming, Hart and Ford hole up in a hotel room for three days and study feverishly. On the last day of class, Hart and his classmates give Kingsfield a standing ovation. Later, as Susan brings Hart his mail at the beach. Hart climbs to the highest rock, makes a paper airplane out of the unopened envelope containing his grades and sends it flying into the water.

The film is a faithful adaptation of the novel, although it adds two elements not in the book: Hart's first name and middle initial (James T.), and his final grade in contract law (93, an A).[2]


Inspiration for Kingsfield

There are several possible inspirations for the character. The late[3] Harvard Law professor Clark Byse is said to have been the inspiration for the character's position at Harvard Law School, though not the character's personality. According to John Houseman,[4] the inspiration for Kingsfield was crusty professor Edward "Bull" Warren, also reflected in The Boston Globe in 2004.[5] Houseman had noted that Kingsfield's behavior is actually a toned-down version of Warren's famous classroom rudeness, as enshrined in classroom lore, and recounted several examples of the professor's putdowns.

James Bridges originally earmarked James Mason for the Kingsfield role, but he was unavailable. After attempts to cast Melvyn Douglas, Edward G. Robinson, John Gielgud, Paul Scofield, and other famous actors in the role, Bridges offered it to Houseman, who agreed to fly to Toronto (where the film's interior sequences were to be shot) for a screen test. Bridges called it "fabulous", and Houseman accepted the part, thus launching his acting career. He had seldom acted before, but knew Bridges from the time he was a stage manager in Houseman's UCLA Professional Theater Group. Houseman then recommended Bridges as a writer for the television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents, for which Bridges wrote 18 teleplays before establishing himself as a motion picture writer-director.[6]


The exterior shots of the Harvard Law School buildings were filmed on the Harvard Law School campus, and the library shots were filmed in the Harvard Andover library at the Harvard Divinity School. All interiors were shot on stages in Toronto. In a 1999 interview, Gordon Willis said production designer George Jenkins "reproduced the Harvard Law School in The Paper Chase beautifully."[7] The hotel scene was filmed at the Windsor Arms Hotel.[8] The scene of Hart and Ford entering a building to take their final exam near the film's end was shot in front of the Law School's oldest building, iconic Austin Hall. Most of the extras for the Harvard Law School venue scenes were then current Harvard Law students, paid a $25 per diem by 20th Century Fox.

Willis shot The Paper Chase in anamorphic format due to the "schoolroom and the graphics in the film."[7] He also commented on the cinematography, noting that the composition of the scenes with Houseman and Bottoms "related to who had command of the situation. We used huge close-ups of John, and demeaning shots of Timothy. Then as the movie goes along and Timothy begins to get on top of it, you'll notice the shot sizes begin to diminish on John and begin to get a little bit bigger on Timothy—until finally they are equal partners shooting back and forth."


Vincent Canby wrote that the film "goes slowly soft like a waxwork on a hot day, losing the shape and substance that at the beginning have rightfully engaged our attention;" he concludes "it takes a long while for The Paper Chase to disintegrate, and there are some funny, intelligent sequences along the way, but by the end it has melted into a blob of clichés."[9] Jay Cocks called it a movie of "some incidental pleasures and insights and a great deal of silliness:"[10]

What [writer/director] Bridges catches best is the peculiar tension of the classroom, the cool terror that can be instilled by an academic skilled in psychological warfare. His Ivy League Olympian is Kingsfield, a professor of contract law who passes along scholarship with finely tempered disdain. In an original bit of casting, Kingsfield is played by veteran theater and film producer John Houseman. It is a forbidding, superb performance, catching not only the coldness of such a man but the patrician crustiness that conceals deep and raging contempt.

The University of Chicago Law School called Houseman's rendition of the Socratic method "over-the-top", telling prospective students:[11]

John Houseman may have won an Oscar for his impressive performance, but if anyone ever did teach a law school class like his Professor Kingsfield, no one at Chicago does today. The Socratic Method is a valuable tool used to engage students in discussion and develop critical thinking skills. It is employed at Chicago to foster intellectual approaches to the law, rather than to intimidate or break down new students. Through probing questions, the method helps students delve into the core of the subject matter and encourages them to think critically.

Others disagreed; another reviewer found it accurate:

This is really the only serious flick about law school life. It's brooding and intense, perfectly capturing the dynamic between law professor and student. The movie is worth watching just for actor John Houseman's Academy Award-winning performance as Professor Kingsfield. Every school still has a professor that knows how to absolutely terrify the 1Ls — for us at UChicago, that was Richard "The Hammer" Helmholz. The Paper Chase's Professor Kingsfield is like a distillation every one of these scary arch-villain type professors.[12]

One law professor, Ed Fallone, opined:

From the point of those of us who are law professors, it makes sense to criticize the oppressive law school environment reflected in the movie. However, from the point of view of current law students, the movie illustrates a heroic journey by the protagonist that they would like to emulate.[13]

Roger Ebert gave the movie four stars and singled out the performances of Bottoms and Houseman for praise.[14]

On review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 83% based on 30 reviews, with an average rating of 7.2/10.[15] On Metacritic, which sampled seven critic reviews and calculated a weighted average score of 67 out of 100, the film received "generally favorable reviews".[16]

Awards and nominations

Award Category Nominee(s) Result
Academy Awards[17] Best Supporting Actor John Houseman Won
Best Screenplay – Based on Material from Another Medium James Bridges Nominated
Best Sound Donald O. Mitchell and Larry Jost Nominated
Golden Globe Awards[18] Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture John Houseman Won
National Board of Review Awards[19] Best Supporting Actor Won
New York Film Critics Circle Awards[20] Best Supporting Actor Runner-up
Writers Guild of America Awards[21] Best Drama Adapted from Another Medium James Bridges Nominated

The American Film Institute has placed the film at #91 on its 100 Years...100 Cheers list.

Television series

Main article: The Paper Chase (TV series)

The film was followed by a television series that ran for one season on CBS (1978–79) and three seasons on Showtime (1983–1986).

See also


  1. ^ Solomon, Aubrey. Twentieth Century Fox: A Corporate and Financial History (The Scarecrow Filmmakers Series). Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 1989. ISBN 978-0-8108-4244-1. p232. Please note figures are rentals accruing to distributors and not total gross.
  2. ^ Walsh, Colleen (October 2, 2012). "The Paper Chase at 40: Law School audience reflects on iconic film about earning degree". Harvard Gazette. Retrieved October 10, 2016.
  3. ^ "Clark Byse, 1912-2007". Harvard Law Bulletin. Retrieved 27 August 2023.
  4. ^ TV Guide[permanent dead link], August 9, 1986
  5. ^ "He's still crimson after all these years".
  6. ^ Houseman, John, Unfinished Business: Memoirs 1902-1988, New York, Applause Theatre Books, 1989, p. 459–460.
  7. ^ a b LoBrutto, Vincent (1999). Principal Photography: Interviews with Feature Film Cinematographers. ABC-CLIO. p. 248. ISBN 0-275-94955-9. Retrieved 2011-09-02.
  8. ^ Fleischer, David (July 27, 2011). "Reel Toronto: Quality Cinema Grab-Bag". Torontoist. Archived from the original on July 7, 2012. Retrieved 2011-09-02. Toronto locations are next to impossible to spot, but there's one scene where a couple of the law students lock themselves in a hotel room to cram for finals. It was shot at the Windsor Arms...
  9. ^ Canby, Vincent (October 17, 1973). "Paper Chase: Adaptation of Osborn Novel Is at Columbia I". The New York Times. Retrieved 2011-09-01.
  10. ^ Cocks, Jay (October 29, 1973). "Hells of Ivy". Time. Archived from the original on September 15, 2012. Retrieved 2011-09-01.
  11. ^ "Prospective Students : Studying Law at Chicago : The Socratic Method". University of Chicago Law School. October 17, 1973. Retrieved 2011-09-02.
  12. ^ Jones, Evan (24 February 2014). "The Best Legal Movies That Every Law Student Should Watch". lawschooli.
  13. ^ "Best Film Depicting Law School – The Paper Chase". CDTA College of Law. September 2020. Retrieved June 26, 2023.
  14. ^ Ebert, Roger (October 16, 1973). "The Paper Chase".
  15. ^ "The Paper Chase (1973)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved November 19, 2022.
  16. ^ "The Paper Chase Reviews". Metacritic. Retrieved December 22, 2020.
  17. ^ "The 46th Academy Awards (1974) Nominees and Winners". Archived from the original on March 15, 2015. Retrieved December 31, 2011.
  18. ^ "The Paper Chase – Golden Globes". HFPA. Retrieved June 3, 2021.
  19. ^ "1973 Award Winners". National Board of Review. Retrieved July 5, 2021.
  20. ^ "1968 New York Film Critics Circle Awards". New York Film Critics Circle. Retrieved June 3, 2021.
  21. ^ "Awards Winners". Writers Guild of America. Archived from the original on 2012-12-05. Retrieved 2010-06-06.