Liberal Arts’ Janney-Radnor Sex Scene: A Critical Analysis


Oh hello! It is I, the Irresponsibility Goblin! Your personal piece of trash going nowhere fast! My face has nary been around these parts as of late, for a number of reasons. Most of them having to do with my taking on a frankly unrealistic amount of academic work, but we’re not here to talk about that. We’re here because staff writer Nate Winer wanted somebody to close read a scene from Josh Radnor’s famous Liberal Arts, the Kenyon masterpiece. I begged him for it, and have now come out of my self-imposed exile to fulfill this promise. So here it is folks–I’m going to close read the scene where Josh Radnor has sex with Allison Janney.

So here’s the deal folks. The Thrill has covered Liberal Arts before, and so any reference can be found there, but here’s the gist of it. Josh Radnor plays a thirty-six year old disillusioned Not-Kenyon grad named Rosh Jadnor, who returns to his alma mater, Not-Kenyon College, and falls in love with a nineteen year old girl named Zibby (she’s quirky). Over the course the film he learns to shed the nostalgic illusions of his collegiate days (do I see a jackalope?) and please, please, not have sex with a nineteen year old girl. He also learns to accept adulthood, or whatever. It’s basically your typical Kenyon alum story, and every white male Kenyon student’s nightmare (am I peaking? What if it’s all downhill from here? What if I have no summer internship and this ends up being my peak?) and it’s nuts. Man, it’s nuts. Now here I am, watching this fucking movie all over again.

Here’s the scene: Academy Award Winning actress and Kenyon Pride Allison Janney plays Rosh Jadnor’s old Romantic poetry professor, Professor Janney (why not) and she is having dinner with Rosh in Not-The VI. Rosh loved her class, but Prof. Janney is cold and closed-off. This coincides in the movie with the part in the larger arc where Rosh Jadnor has just said no to having sex with Zabby, (even though she reads Dostoevsky!) because he is a Good Guy TM. So that makes this scene a consummated reversal of what Rosh wants to do with Zibiah. Only now the tables are turned, it is Radnor who has sex with the older woman, fulfilling the need for a cross-age sexual encounter, but this time pinning Radnor as the seduced and wronged by the older generation, thereby absolving him of the responsibility of having sex with (not legally but spiritually) a child. Plus, it fulfills that sexual fantasy of student-professor relations in a way that does not lead to a criminal investigation, or at the very least, some kind of academic hearing.

But this is all big-picture stuff. I want to take you now, into the small details of what is admittedly only about a six minute scene, if you count the dinner. Which I do. It starts with Janney telling Radnor an anecdote about her screwing up the only good Keats poem “Ode to a Grecian Urn,” which Radnor insists is “really funny” and “a great, great story.” This is another moment in which his character (read: Radnor) compliments his own writing; there are numerous instances where Rosh Jadnor compliments someone else’s story or writing, and since he wrote the screenplay…

So Janney calls him enthusiastic and eats a french fry for a comically long amount of time. It takes her a full twelve seconds to eat it, which sounds short, but really sit down and feel out for yourself twelve seconds to hold a shot of someone chewing. No dialogue, no background music, just mouth squelches. Janney then tells Radnor that she has a car, and wants him to get in it, so she can drive them, somewhere. Where? Actually, never explained by the film. They just appear in a bedroom. The implication here (in case you just couldn’t crack it) is that she’s basically announcing right out that they’re gonna have sex, which shows off this kind of brash assertiveness about sex that I’ve never seen or experienced in my own life or in the lives of anyone I’ve ever known. I mean, can you imagine, going on a (first!) date and being told straight out that you’re gonna go have sex now? Can you imagine saying that right out to someone? Maybe so. But for me, this kind of feminine assertion of “We’re gonna go have sex right now” is something I only see in male-authored screenplays, which is to say, most screenplays.

NEXT–there’s a quick scene where Zibbidy Doo Da is at a “college party” next to some guy extra who is acting is Birdemic like in quality. She finishes her drink, turns to the boi, and starts hooking up with him, in what is probably the low-point of her arc because she’s a good girl who wants a serious thing and casual sex is always bad. This shot is honest to God overlaid with Allison Janney moaning, loudly, before fading to black. We hear heavy breathing and bing! The light turns on and Janney tells Radnor to leave with the aforementioned unseen brashness. So unfortunately, my fellow thrillers and lovers of–I mean if you’re reading my stuff so I’d say, degeneracy?–no flesh here. The sex is off-camera, but it happens in the movie. Allison Janney and Josh Radnor, bumping uglies. Picture it. 

Now here is the great stuff. Radnor comments about Janney’s “post-coital cigarette” (yes that exact phrasing) and Janney calls him a pussy for quitting smoking. This is one of my favorite parts of the film.

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Janney then says he’ll live longer, but his life will be “joyless” which honestly, comes out of really nowhere. What more do you want? She’s gonna take an Ambien and go to bed, so get the fuck out of her room Josh Radnor.

But no, NO! What about romance? And feelings? Janney says “What did you think we were gonna cuddle while I read you Wordsworth?” which okay. I’m an English major and that sounds insufferable. Janney calls Radnor an “effete, over-articulate man-boy” and essentially tells him to get a real job. Are you listening to me? Are you still on board here?

Remember Radnor’s position here. He’s looking to a mentor figure, who he thought he shared an intimate moment with, for some solace or guidance to make him feel better about adulthood, and the slow Chekhovian misery of later life. He asks her if she was ever satisfied teaching in a prestigious school. Janney drops this absolute gem.

“Sit in a faculty meeting at a liberal arts college Mr. Young Person, and I assure you, you will lose all faith in humanity.”

Oof!! But wasn’t teaching ever fun? Satisfying? She used to love it, she says, but now the magic’s gone. “What happened?” Radnor asks.

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No further explanation, because Janney is not of our monologuing generation. She “values discretion” and “loathe[s] self-pity” which–fair, honestly. But! Then the diatribe. “People are disappointing,” Janney tells Radnor, and Radnor comes back with several desperate arguments. What about the Romantic poets? What about them? “They were miserable men…Byron was probably the happiest and that’s only because he put his dick in everything.”

Radnor: “This is the saddest evening of my life.” This is actually a pretty ingenious reference to a popular Kenyon phrase usually uttered in and around the DKE Bullseye, and various all-campuses. So kudos to Radnor for that. Janney’s response: “Get used to it.” Ooooooh. And we get the trailer line from Janney: “Put some armor around that gooey little heart of yours.”

When Radnor leaves, commenting on the irony that he’s had “the least romantic evening of his life with his former Romantics professor” Janney gives him, the longest middle finger I have ever seen.

Last thing: the scene ends with Radnor doing his dramatic doorway turnaround, where just as he’s about to leave, the perfect thing to say strikes him. He says something to put a crack in the armor Janney has around her heart, and he leaves.

And now for your viewing pleasure, and as reward for reading this whole article I present to you, this:

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Put that in your goddamn pipe and smoke it Kenyon Memes for Philandering Teens. That is good meme content right there.


Ah well. Back to my goblin hovel. I’ll see you in Warm Kenyon.

6 responses

  1. Thank you for this. I remembered this scene earlier today (no idea why but it was most unfortunate) and you’ve helped me heal.

  2. You do know that Radnor was inspired by a certain Kenyon alum who has been a prof here for many years who did in fact have an affair with one of his lady professors when he was a student?

  3. Pingback: The Thrill’s favorite comments 2017-2018 «

  4. Pingback: Did You Miss Us? ;) «

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