A Different Kind of Screen Test
Everyone from Tom Cruise to Scarlett Johansson has taken the SAT—in movies. The results aren’t always 1600
Hollywood has been telling stories about college almost from the start. Buster Keaton’s The Freshman, about a working-class kid who goes off to college inspired by movies he’s seen about campus hijinks, was a big hit in 1925. The first SAT was administered to about 8,000 students in 1926, but it took almost 60 years for the test to make it on screen. Why did it take so long? In 1968 the University of California adopted the SAT as an admissions requirement. Two decades later, the high school students who took the test came of age, and studios started greenlighting projects that treated the test as part of the fabric of American culture.
But are any of them any good?
Here are six movies that refer to the SAT, scored on a scale that should be familiar.
Class is most likely to be remembered today for giving two of the biggest stars of the 1980s their first starring roles: Andrew McCarthy and Rob Lowe. (If you’re not familiar, ask your mom.) It was also the big-screen debut of the SAT. McCarthy plays Jonathan, a working-class kid who has won a scholarship to a prestigious boarding school thanks, in part, to his SAT scores. But—spoiler alert!—he cheated.
Risky Business (1983)
Class was not, let’s say, a hit. But Risky Business, a movie that came out a month later that also featured the SAT and some young actor named Tom Cruise in his first starring role, became a global blockbuster. (Whatever happened to that guy?) The film opens with Joel (Cruise), who is destined for legacy admission to Princeton, dreaming that he walks into a steamy shower with a strange woman, but after passing through it he finds himself in a room full of classmates taking “the College Boards”—that’s what the old folks used to call the SAT—and he only has two minutes to take the whole test! “I’ve just made a terrible mistake. I’ll never get to college. My life is ruined,” Joel declares. (Joel, it’s OK! You can cancel your scores and take it again!) Risky Business can be silly and is remembered more for Cruise dancing in his underwear than its plot (which involves small business entrepreneurship and call girls, earning its R rating). But rather than a run-of-the-mill teen sex comedy, it’s a smart film about 1980s America as the era of free love gave way to free-market hypercapitalism.
How I Got Into College (1989)
If it’s a stupid teen comedy you want, allow me to present How I Got Into College. Future ER star (and Revenge of the Nerds alum) Anthony Edwards and future Twin Peaks and The Practice star Lara Flynn Boyle play high school seniors—wait for it!—trying to get into college. It includes a sequence where one character imagines math word problems coming to life and arguing with him. It’s also the debut of test prep on screen. At least it’s short.
The Perfect Score (2004)
Avengers assemble—in the test center! The Perfect Score, where the test is at the center of the plot, features two future pillars of the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson. But beyond these two talented actors making their bones in a lousy film (do actors have to make movies about the SAT to become megastars the way students have to take the test to get to college?), there’s little to recommend The Perfect Score. It’s a clumsy heist movie where a group of ethnically diverse students steal a copy of the answers to the upcoming SAT and learn a little something about themselves along the way. People should not cheat on the SAT, and movies should not cheat viewers out of their time or money with clichés and racial stereotypes. This one is fun only for the early Captain America and Black Widow team-up.
Smart People (2008)
The Smart People of the title also happen to be ace actors appearing in a decent little movie where the SAT factors into the plot. Dennis Quaid is a father of a teenager, played by future Oscar nominee Ellen Page, who is obsessed with doing well on the SAT. When she visits Dad in the hospital the day before the SAT, he quizzes her on the meaning of “mercurial” and “fecundity.” College Board has done away with SAT words, but that doesn’t diminish Smart People or its message: as important as it is to get into college, it’s more important to be a decent and interesting person.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Chris Evans and Scarlet Johansson were so excited about their time working on The Perfect Score they made a second movie about the SAT! Yeah, yeah Winter Soldier (the best of the Marvel movies) isn’t really about the test, but it does have one of cinema’s weirdest SAT cameos. An agent from the super-secret neofascist organization HYDRA reveals that it’s using an algorithm to identify all possible threats. “The 21st century is a digital book,” he tells the superheroes. “Your bank records, medical histories, voting patterns, emails, phone calls, your damn SAT scores! [Our] algorithm evaluates people’s past to predict their future.” Those predictions are used to earmark smart people, so they can be wiped out “a few million at a time.” But this is not a case of art imitating life: College Board is firmly on the side of Captain America and Black Widow.