Growing up with Real Genius, I’ve mistaken it for a guilty pleasure. The college comedy, which opened in theaters 28 years ago today, was easily lumped in with a number of other nerdy teen movies of the era, including WarGames and Weird Science, the latter of which opened just five days before this and went on to make more money and reign as the better known of the sci-fi oriented pair. And Real Genius is really silly, with its penis enlargement jokes and goofy pranks. It always felt like, as it sort of is, a PG-rated knockoff of the previous year’s Revenge of the Nerds. Little did I know then that it received a good deal of positive reviews, including a 3 1/2-star rave from Roger Ebert.
Never mind what the critics thought, though. While it’s always hard to objectively re-examine a beloved movie from your youth (don’t dare tell me Maximum Overdrive isn’t a good film!), there’s at least some proof that Real Genius was intelligently produced and meant to be different from the pack it seems to run with. It also has a more interesting legacy than it’s given credit for. Below I’ve highlighted five bits of trivia about the making of and impact of the movie.
Filmmaker Martha Coolidge Did Her Homework
Initially, the Valley Girl director twice declined the job of making Real Genius, reportedly seeing it as the generic college/teen movie and Revenge of the Nerds knockoff it could have been and might still seem superficially to be (“it had a lot of penis and scatological jokes,” she says). But producer Brian Grazer really wanted her behind the camera so he had Neal Israel and Pat Proft’s script reworked, first by Babaloo Mandel and Lowell Ganz and later by PJ Torokvei, to remove some of the lowbrow humor and develop the smarter elements (Torokvei also added the love interest, Jordan, and wrote many of Val Kilmer’s witty lines).
Coolidge came on and did some major homework of her own, researching laser technology, learning about CIA policy and interviewing students at Caltech (the school on which the film’s Pacific Tech is based). One thing she didn’t exactly perfect with scientific support, however, is the climactic prank on Professor Hathaway (William Atherton). Not that it should have been a big surprise to anyone who has popped a lot of popcorn in various cooking vessels, but as proven by the Mythbusters TV show, even as much popcorn as they popped in the movie (and that was really three months worth of nonstop popcorn poppery, according to Atherton), it still would never burst a house the way it does on screen. Instead, it would pack together and burn.
The Frito-Lay Contest Scheme Was Real
One of the subplots of the movie features Jon Gries playing a mysterious genius who winds up winning 31.8% of the prizes in a Frito-Lay sweepstakes by submitting 1,650,000 entries. “No purchase necessary, enter as often as you want,” he explains. This storyline was inspired by two real-life schemes by students at Caltech. In 1969, there was an attempt with an actual Frito-Lay contest, but the more famous ploy was 6 years later, when Steve Klein, Dave Novikoff, and Barry Megdal used an IBM computer to help submit 1.2 million entries with their own names and those of 23 schoolmates in a McDonald’s sweepstakes (in the original script, McDonald’s is the company named in Lazlo’s plot).
Their story made the headlines and was met with complaints from other customers. In the end, they ended up winning only 20% of the prizes, including a car, which they expressed suspicious disappointment with. “Mathematically it’s feasible, but it seems like a low figure,” said Becky Hartsfield, one of the participating students. For lots more connections between the reality of attending Caltech and the fictional events at Pacific Tech (including the dry ice skating, the prank with Kent’s car, the secret passageways and the significance of DEI), check out this long list of references.
The Movie Was a Big Influence on Chip ’N’ Dale Rescue Rangers
Actress Michelle Meyrink is little remembered today outside of her two nerd love interests (the other being Anthony Edwards’ girlfriend, Judy, in Revenge of the Nerds), most likely because she quit Hollywood in 1988 to devote her life to Zen Buddhism and later became an acting teacher. Her talent may have seemed to continue at least a few years following her departure, however, because her Real Genius character, Jordan, inspired the personality of cartoon character Gadget Hackwrench in Disney’s Chip ’N’ Dale Rescue Rangers, a fact that’s been confirmed in interviews with the series’ co-creator Tad Stones.
Robert Prescott’s Character Shares a Last Name With the Screenwriter
This is only a half-fact. As it turns out, the adversarial role of Kent, played by Robert Prescott, has no last name in either the original script or the film’s credits. I can’t seem to find it mentioned in any dialogue, either. Yet in numerous media, including Roger Ebert’s movie guides and the Sony Movie Channel’s official synopsis, Kent’s last name is noted as being Torokvei. That’s also the last name of one of the film’s screenwriters.
In 2001, she came out as being a transgender woman and went by the name PJ Torokvie. While there were a number of other writers who worked on the script, Torokvei (who also co-wrote Back to School) was one of the last on board to directly work with Coolidge, and it’s interesting to wonder if she did intend for Kent to have her last name and to therefore maybe be a character she identified with. Unfortunately it’s not something we can ask her, as she died last month.
The Movie Was the First to Be Promoted via the Internet
About a week before the movie opened, it was promoted in a way that had never been done before: over a computer. Promoters set up a press conference physically held at a computer store in Westwood, California, in which Coolidge and others involved in the film answered questions asked by entertainment writers all over the country, by way of CompuServe. Reportedly there were some connectivity issues and a number of other errors, but otherwise, the debut of the online roundtable junket was a success and is considered the first of its kind.
If you’ve never seen Real Genius, or if you’re in need of revisiting the underrated classic, stream the whole thing free on YouTube here.