Tuesday, February 28, 2017

THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE 1969

“I am in the business of putting old heads on young shoulders, and all of my students are the crème de la crème. Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life.”

The malignant propagandizing of fascism—where the authoritarian poses as the individualist, the lockstep conformist masquerades as the iconoclast, and emotionalism and opinion are favored over facts and information—is vividly dramatized in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. 
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark’s 1961 novel about the influence an eccentric teacher at a conservative all-girls school has on her impressionable students, was turned into a stage play by screenwriter Jay Presson Allen (MarnieCabaretJust Tell Me What You Want) in 1966. Set in EdinburghScotland in the early 1930s, Allen’s straightforward, whittled-down play serves as the source of Ronald Neame’s exceptional 1969 film adaptation starring Maggie Smith in her Oscar-winning role.
Maggie Smith as Miss Jean Brodie
Pamela Franklin as Sandy
Robert Stephens as Teddy Lloyd
Celia Johnson as Miss Mackay
Gordon Jackson as Gordon Lowther

Jean Brodie is a dedicated Junior-sector teacher at the Marcia Blaine School for Girls who, while taking pride in cultivating fervent loyalty and compliance from her pupils (those deemed worthy of being among the elite members of her “Brodie set,” anyway), fancies herself a gifted shaper of minds and liberator of spirits. Refusing to allow herself to be labeled or stigmatized by the provincial mores of the day that would brand her a middle-aged spinster, Jean Brodie asserts that she is in her prime (“The moment one is born for”) and committed to having her students reap the benefits of such timely propinquity. 
Maintaining that the school’s orthodox curriculum promotes stagnation and the upholding of the status quo, the flamboyant Miss Brodie eschews traditional teaching methods, instead choosing to devote class time to waxing poetic on the topics of love, heroism, art, etiquette, and her romanticized fondness for the fascist dictators Benito Mussolini and Francisco Franco.

Passionate to a fault, Brodie’s dictatorial side rears its head in her penchant for passing off personal opinions and subjective tastes as unassailable facts; hard and concrete “Brodie Laws” subtly enforced and stringently adhered-to lest one risk falling out of the revered teacher’s much-coveted favor. Dismissive of “team players,” “joiners” and any institution or individual failing to share her world view, Jean Brodie is quick to characterize all who criticize or disagree with her as “the opposition” or “enemy.” This disdain for critique of any sort inspiring Miss Brodie to deputize her pupils and have them act as her protectors and co-conspirators in defying her nemesis, the school’s stern headmistress Miss Mackay.
"Do any of you little girls remember what the followers of Mussolini are called?"
"Fascisti."
"That is correct! F-A-S-C-I-S-T-I."

The narcissistic, leapfrog self-dramatization necessary to lead one to interpret mere professional criticism as personal assault (“I shall remain in this education factory where my duty lies. If they want to get rid of me they will have to assassinate me!”) is precisely the sort grand, larger-than-life attitudinizing that the four girls who make up Miss Brodie’s crème de la crème pupils find so appealing. From her florid gestures and affected speech, to the colorful palette of her wardrobe; Miss Jean Brodie represents romance and daring to the supple young minds of the Brodie girls.  The members of the Brodie set: dependable Sandy, beautiful Jenny, histrionic Monica, and hopeless Mary McGregor (every clique needs someone to pick and blame everything on).

As is often the case with self-styled iconoclasts, setting oneself apart and drawing attention to oneself eventually become indistinguishable characteristics of the breed, adding perhaps, in the case of Miss Brodie, desirability. Miss Brodie may incur the gossip and resentment of Marcia Blaine’s female staff, but the male staff members are drawn to Miss Brodie like the proverbial moths to flame.
She remains the object of amorous obsession for ex-lover Teddy Lloyd, the school’s very married-with-children art teacher - his being a Catholic the single quality disqualifying him as a suitable lover ("How could a girl with a mind of her own have to do with a man who can't think for himself?" ). Gordon Lowther, the school's vocal coach, is the current lover in her life, but Miss Brodie treats him so much like a work-in-progress sociology assignment, the precocious Brodie girls come to the not-unreasonable conclusion that Miss Brodie (who they know loves artists like Giotto) feels genuine passion for Mr. Lloyd, but because he is married, is merely "working it off" with Mr. Lowther. 
The Brodie Set
Pamela Franklin, Diane Grayson, Shirley Steedman, Jane Carr
Even in this shot one can see that Sandy will be the force to reckon with

While keeping her adult relationships at an arms-distance, those most susceptible to the magnetism of Miss Brodie’s bohemian spirit (the most naïve and unquestioning of her charge) are taken into her heart and confidence. So bound are they to her by devotion and admiration, they are blind to her manipulation. Miss Brodie, who looks upon life as a series of heroic experiences, romantic ideals, and lofty principles recklessly applied, is less concerned with the genuine education of the girls (it’s hinted that the Brodie girls, while cultured, come up rather short when it comes to basic knowledge) than she is committed to teaching them all about life…on her terms.
Setting herself apart and above as the example for the girls to follow, she preaches individualism (if Lewis Carroll’s the Red Queen’s “All ways are my ways” can be thought of as individualism) while stressing that she alone is the source of all truth, honesty, and trust. In the end, as the emergent Spanish Civil War inflames Miss Brodie’s ardency for the fascist Franco (the film takes the girls from 12-years-old to 18), her impact of her heedless influence takes a dangerous and fatal turn.
In many ways, the charismatic but pernicious Jean Brodie suggests a dark-side variant on that beloved, if overworked, theatrical archetype: the garrulous, irrepressible, meddlesome, manipulative "open a new window" drag queen pied piper exemplified by Mame Dennis, Dolly Levi, and Mama Rose. The latter being plenty dark already.


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is one of those remarkable films I fell in love with the first time I saw it. Which was approximately 15 years ago. I had the opportunity to see it during the time of its initial release, but in a year that saw the release of Sweet Charity, Midnight Cowboy, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, and The Sterile Cuckoo, my unfamiliarity with Maggie Smith coupled with the starchiness of that title (I can’t even say The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie without my spine spontaneously stiffening) kept me away. Also, being a rather hard sell, marketing wise, the film had a really lousy and misleading ad campaign. As to why I didn't see it in the intervening years, I confess that I assumed it to be one of those remote, inaccessible, British “prestige” pictures that the Academy loves award with Oscars, so it wasn’t until I was in my 40s and it was broadcast on TCM that I settled down to watch it. Immediately I knew I would have adored this film had I seen it as a youngster. Not long thereafter, I made a point of reading both the book and the play, I loved it that much.
Miss Brodie's Lovers / Mr. Lloyd
Maggie Smith and Robert Stephen were married at the time. They divorced in 1974

The chief attraction of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is simply the patent magnificence of Maggie Smith; after which comes the film’s sharp and witty screenplay, and the top-grade performances delivered by the exceptionally well-cast ensemble. A beguiling balance of character study, romantic drama, and wistful coming-of-age story; The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is also a sobering contemplation on the often disarming face of power.
In profiling an authoritarian figure who presents herself as the instrument of change when in actuality she’s merely a tinpot despot intent on imposing a new dictatorial order (demanding loyalty, repudiating differing points of view, labeling criticism opposition), The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is impossible to watch these days without drawing parallels with a certain faux-politician, fame-culture miscreant who-shall-not-be-named. Indeed, the film’s “insidious dangers of fascism” angle has never felt more prescient and relevant.
Miss Brodie's Lovers / Mr. Lowther
Gordon Jackson was married to Rona Anderson, the actress who played Miss Brodie's rival,
Miss Lockhart the chemistry teacher

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
I suspect that director Ronald Neame’s early career as a cinematographer accounts for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’s lack of staginess. While interiors dominate, the film feels neither unduly static nor needlessly opened-up, the focus remaining on the relationships, conflicts, and interactions of the characters.
The scenes come in four varieties of cyclical vignettes spanning the girls’ introduction to Miss Brodie during the school’s Junior cycle (age 12 to 15) though to their Senior cycle (15 to 18). The vignettes: (1) Miss Brodie teaching, or, more accurately, inculcating. (2) Scenes depicting the Brodie girls, spurred by their teacher’s romantic fictions and dalliances, evincing an accelerated sexual and intellectual precocity. (3) Miss Brodie’s relationships with Mr. Lloyd (arm’s length) and Mr. Lowther (a project undertaken…like starting a garden). (4) Miss Brodie’s run-ins with the formidable Miss Mackay—intensely hostile, tour de force encounters that make Batman vs. Superman look like a game of jacks.
I personally like how subtly the passage of time is conveyed in the film, but critics (and they do have a point) have cited that while the young girls make credible inroads to visible maturity over the course of the film’s five to six year time span, Maggie Smith looks exactly the same at the end of the film as she does at the beginning.

The entertaining forcefulness of Maggie Smith’s performance posits the flamboyant teacher—who remains front and center of the narrative even when she’s off-screen—as the preferred alternative to the rigidly dour Miss Mackay. (I’m reminded of The Trouble With Angels when Gypsy Rose Lee pops up as a glamorous dance instructor to the delight of the girls dominated by Rosalind Russell’s stern Mother Superior.)

Smith’s Jean Brodie is so attractive and appealing a personality that we scarcely notice—much less mind—when she exhibits troubling traits like romanticizing a dictator or attempting to orchestrate the seduction of one of her students by a man old enough to be her father. At these moments she seems more naïve and foolish than malicious, and we, like her students, side with her and feel she is an inspiring breath of fresh air.
But as the film progresses and we sense a lack of flexibility in Miss Brodie's point of view; a lack of generosity or kindness in her treatment of Sandy or Mary; when her self-centeredness reveals a disregard for the feelings of the men in her life; when it looks as though the influence she wields over the lives of the girls is really a need to control...there arrives the point of conflict. The film grows darker and we’re no longer quite as certain of whose side we’re on. Suddenly, Miss Brodie doesn't appear quite so harmless.
"She always looks so...extreme!"
Miss Brodie is sized up by members of the Marcia Blaine teaching staff


PERFORMANCES
The risk of portraying an individual who hides behind a façade of studied (and appealing) artifice is, if the artifice is more compelling than the person, caricature can eclipse character. I’m not sure how she does it, but Maggie Smith, while indulging in some of the most humorously florid vocal and physical posturings imaginable, manages to paint a vivid and moving portrait of a woman of boundless spirit and reckless bravado who lives her life without a single thing of substance to moor it to beyond the worshipful, too-impressionable girls trusted to her charge.
Depicting a woman channeling her prodigious energies in all directions at once, Smith miraculously conveys both the self-deception and desperation behind the ostentation designed to conceal what may be the truth that Miss Brodie works so hard to evade: that she is not, in fact, in her prime at all, and she knows it.
Mary McGregor (center), devoted to Miss Brodie to a fault, is the film's most poignant character

Miss Brodie's ill-informed, naive proselytizing, encouraging the impressionable to adopt beliefs and pursue risky endeavors that, as they apply to herself, yield no consequences or danger; can't help but remind me of  those selfish, privileged, bubble-protected celebrities who have much to say about political risk-taking and protest (Susan Sarandon comes to mind) while personally having absolutely nothing at stake.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is Maggie Smith’s show, to be sure, but Celia Johnson is extraordinary (both to watch and listen to; her Scottish accent is pure, lilting music). Imagine, if you will, having to find an actress capable of posing a credible threat to the likes of Maggie Smith. On the strength of her facial expressions alone, Celia Johnson’s prim and provincial Miss Mackay is more than up to the job; her scenes with Smith providing the film with some of its most spirited, volcanic moments.
Miss Brodie: "My credo is 'Lift, enliven, stimulate!'"
Miss Mackay: "No doubt...."

But for my money, it is the assured, natural performance of the highly underrated Pamela Franklin (Our Mother's House, The Innocents) that serves to ground the comic/dramatic crescendos of Mmes Smith & Johnson. In portraying the character of Sandy, whose youthful impertinence is the genuine personification of the intellectual self-determination Miss Brodie professes to encourage in her girls, Pamela Franklin’s unshowy, utterly convincing transformation from inquisitive teen to disillusioned young woman (she was 18-years-old at the time) is one of the unsung miracles of an already outstanding film.


THE STUFF OF FANTASY/REALITY
While satisfying my fondness for Maggie Smith performances and ‘60s movies set in schoolrooms (Up The Down Staircase, To Sir With Love), The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is ultimately a subtle and shrewd polemic on the seductive, corrupting nature of power, and the ease with which people can relinquish their freedom when confronted with a forceful personality.
It’s clear to us from the start that Jean Brodie—with her strict guidelines for the proper height to open a window, and dismissive attitude towards loyalties shown to anything or anyone but herself—is no champion of independent thought and critical thinking. For all her obvious professional dedication she is more an autocrat than a teacher, her self-serving politics rooted in nothing deeper than a deluded sense of her own importance.
"Benito Mussolini. Il Duce. Italy's leader supreme. A Roman worthy of his heritage.
The greatest Roman of them all."

Touting her own teaching methods as revolutionary while (inaccurately) promoting fascist regimes as drain-the-swamp implementers of a new world utopia; Miss Brodie, like all dictators, merely couches age-old totalitarian philosophies in the rhetoric of liberation.
Back in 1969 The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie spoke to the anti-authoritarianism of the youth movement, the sexual revolution, feminism, and the anti-war movement. Today…well, I hardly have to say why a film about a fascist sympathizer being given a broad forum to spread misinformation is as relevant now as George Orwell’s 1984.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a film so good that it warrants a revisit on the strength of its performances and entertainment value alone. But taken as a cautionary tale for our times—a reiteration of the duty and necessity of resistance—I’d say that in this instance, a little time spent in the classroom of one Miss Jean Brodie would be time very well spent, indeed.
"I am the potter and you are my pride.
You are shaping up.
Soon you graduate to the senior school and I will no longer teach you
...but you will always be Brodie Girls."

BONUS MATERIAL
"Jean" the theme to The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was played constantly on the radio in 1969. With two back to back hits, folk/pop singer Oliver was the flavor of the month, and Rod McKuen was everywhere. I can't think back to this time in my life (11-years-old) without recalling this song.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was nominated for only two Oscars: Best Actress and Best Original Song. "Jean" is sung over the film's closing credits by composer Rod McKuen, but singer Oliver (who had a hit that same year with Hair's "Good Morning Starshine") had a #1 hit on the adult contemporary charts with his single version. Rod McKuen's “Jean” was performed by Lou Rawls on the Academy Awards broadcast, and lost to Burt Bacharach’s “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” from Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid.
Al Hirschfeld
Copyright © Ken Anderson

Monday, February 20, 2017

THE LE CINEMA AWARDS or The Alternative Oscars®

Since I was a kid, The Academy Awards has been my Super Bowl. Then, with only three major televised award shows representing the arts: music (GRAMMY), theater (TONY), & film (OSCAR); the Academy Awards had the cachet of representing real, old-fashioned Hollywood glamour. Because I wasn't allowed to stay up to watch The Tonight Show, or play hooky from school and watch The Mike Douglas Show, the presence of movie stars on the small screen was still enough of a rarity to make Oscar Night an occasion of near-religious ritual for my sisters and me.

Searchlights scanned the Los Angeles/Santa Monica skies, fans screamed from bleachers, Army Archerd asked industry-centric fluff questions (still preferable to that tedious "Who are you wearing?" crap), and movie starsdefinitely "on" with their scripted casual bantergave acceptance speeches devoid of laundry-list recitations thanking publicists, agents, and hairstylists. The atmosphere of the broadcast was by turns glamorous, cheesy, self-congratulatory, fun, reverent, and phony as hell. I wouldn't have it any other way.
Even in my youth I could tell awards were handed out for artistic achievement as much as for popularity, cronyism, and moneymaking; but its inconsistencies and lapses in taste all just seemed to fit with my concept of the movies, anyhow. Part pop-culture diversion, part art form, movies and the film industry have always been a captivating contradiction. You'd have to look to politics to find a larger collection of phonies and anything-for-a-dollar sellouts; but at the same time it's an industry capable of producing some of the most moving, enduring, exhilarating, and life-altering art. Go figure.

These days I still get excited about The Oscars, but I've lost my youthful naiveté. Watching it has become a ritual of tradition more than devotion. I enjoy the pomp, the spectacle, and self-parody (there is no soul more self-serious than the movie star transmogrified into an artist), and I certainly enjoy the ever-present potential for disaster or an unexpectedly memorable moment. But my best contemporary Oscar Night experiences have been when my partner and I take advantage of the ghost town atmosphere of Los Angeles on Oscar Day and spend it out and about, DVRing the Oscar telecast for viewing later in the evening when we can fast-forward past the windy acceptance speeches or sound-alike Best Song nominees.
My earliest memory of The Oscars is 1967 when I was nine-years-old and my family and I watched the 39th Academy Awards in the living room on our ginormous black & white Console TV set. It was the year Elizabeth Taylor won for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and the year I remember vividly because I had to give a Current Events report on the telecast in front of the class in school the following day. I also remember it for this Las Vegas-y rendering of the theme song from Georgy Girl by Mitzi Gaynor (this is my first time seeing it color). I've never missed an Oscar telecast since.
In honor of the 50th Anniversary of my first known exposure to the The Academy Awards, I offer my non-essential alternative: The Le Cinema Awards. An obdurately subjective prize of merit awarded exclusively to films, performances, and artistic contributions which failed to garner an Oscar nomination. And so as not to encompass the entire history of cinema from its inception, the only films eligible for consideration of a Le Cinema Award are movies from my personal DVD collection. I haven't included any comments with the films listed, as many have already been written about on this blog (highlighted) or will be in the future.
There is no individual "Best" prize awarded, each of the five films entered in each category granted WINNER status by virtue of inclusion.

AND THE AWARD GOES TO...


Best Picture
Rosemary's Baby (1968) - Roman Polanski
One of the most incisively chilling contemporary horror/suspense films ever made

Eve's Bayou (1997) - Kasi Lemmons
A sensitive, mystical coming-of-age story of extraordinary beauty
What's Up, Doc? (1972) - Peter Bogdanovich
One of funniest films of the '70s. One of the funniest films ever made
The Day of the Locust (1975) - John Schlesinger
An epic vision of a Hollywood nightmare
Meet Me In St. Louis (1944) - Vincente Minnelli
A thoroughly enchanting musical with plenty of heart and humor 

Best Actress
Mia Farrow - Rosemary's Baby (1968)
Shelley Duvall - 3 Women (1977)
Debbi Morgan - Eve's Bayou (1997)
Audrey Hepburn - Two For The Road (1967)
Deborah Kerr - The Innocents (1961)


Best Actor
Gene Wilder - Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)
Gene Hackman - The Conversation (1974)
Jeremy Irons - Dead Ringers (1988)
Ivan Dixon - Nothing But A Man (1964)
Dirk Bogarde - Our Mother's House (1967)

Best Supporting Actress
Madeline Kahn - What's Up, Doc? (1972) 
Tsai Chin - The Joy Luck Club (1993)
Diana Rigg - A Little Night Music (1977)
Paula Prentiss - Last of the Red Hot Lovers (1972)
Katharine Bard - Inside Daisy Clover (1965)


Best Supporting Actor
Harry Belafonte - Kansas City (1996)
Brian Keith - Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967)
Marty Feldman - Young Frankenstein (1974)
Robert Walker - Strangers on a Train (1951)
Kenneth Mars - What's Up, Doc? (1972)
  
Best Director
Roman Polanski - Rosemary's Baby (1968)
Kasi Lemmons  - Eve's Bayou (1997)
Peter Bogdanovich - What's Up, Doc? (1972)
Martin Scorsese - Taxi Driver (1976)
Charles Laughton - The Night of the Hunter  (1955)

Best Foreign Film
Europa '51 (1952) - Roberto Rossellini 
8 Femmes (2002) - Francois Ozon
The Bride Wore Black (1968) - Francois Truffaut
Suspiria (1977) - Dario Argento
Death in Venice (1971) - Luchino Visconti 

Best Original Song
"Theme from New York, New York" - New York, New York (1977)
John Kander & Fred Ebb
"Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" - Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
Ralph Blane & Hugh Martin
"Love With All The Trimmings" - On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970)
Alan Jay Lerner & Barton Lane
"Theme from Valley of the Dolls" - Valley of the Dolls (1967)
Andre Previn & Dory Previn
"Xanadu" - Xanadu (1980)
Jeff Lynne
  
Best Original Score
Barbarella (1967) - Charles Fox, Bob Crewe
Beyond The Valley of the Dolls (1970) - Lynn Carey, Igor Kantor, William Loose
Casino Royale (1967) - Burt Bacharach
Sparkle (1976) - Curtis Mayfield
Two for the Road (1967) - Henry Mancini

Best Cinematography
Manhattan (1979) - Gordon Willis
Petulia (1968) - Nicolas Roeg
New York, New York (1977) - Lazlo Kovacs
Casino (1995) - Robert Richardson
Eve's Bayou (1997) - Amy Vincent

 Best Costume Design
Barbarella (1967) - Jacques Foneray, Paco Rabanne
The Boy Friend (1971) - Shirley Russell
On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970) - Cecil Beaton, Arnold Scaasi
New York, New York (1977) - Theadora Van Runkle
Evil Under the Sun (1982) -  Anthony Powell

Best Original Screenplay
Eve's Bayou (1997) - Kasi Lemmons

This is Spinal Tap (1984) - C. Guest, M. McKean, H. Shearer, R. Reiner
What's Up, Doc? (1972) - P. Bogdanovich, B. Henry, D. Newman, R. Benton
The Out-Of-Towners (1970) - Neil Simon
Singin' In The Rain (1952) - Betty Comden & Adolph Green
  
Best Adapted Screenplay
That Cold Day in the Park (1969) - Gillian Freeman from a novel by Richard Miles
The Hireling (1973) - Wolf Mankowitz from a novel by L. P. Hartley

Starting Over (1979) - James L. Brooks from a novel by Dan Wakefield
The Joy Luck Club (1993) - Amy Tan, Ronald Bass from a novel by Amy Tan
Last Summer (1969) - Eleanor Perry from a novel by Evan Hunter

Best Choreography
Cabaret (1972) - Bob Fosse
Hair (1979) - Twyla Tharp
It's Always Fair Weather (1955) - Gene Kelly/Stanley Donen
Can't Stop The Music (1979) - Arlene Phillips 
Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) - Robert Iscove

Winner's Roster
Eve's Bayou    5
What's Up, Doc?    5
Rosemary's Baby    3
New York, New York    3
Two For The Road     2
Barbarella      2
The Joy Luck Club   2
Meet Me In St. Louis    2
On a Clear Day You Can See Forever  2


Do you have a favorite film, performance, or behind-the-scenes artistic contribution that failed to get a much-deserved Academy nod? Would love to hear about it. What's on YOUR list?

Copyright © Ken Anderson