"The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" was my favorite movie of 1969. For a kid raised on the often baffling rules of Holy Rosary Convent School in Woodland, California, Jean Brodie seemed to me to be the coolest teacher in the universe. Charismatic, idiosyncratic, fearless and funny, Jean Brodie (Dame Maggie Smith, then 34) was worshipped by her students, adored by her very married lover Teddy Lloyd (Sir Robert Stephens, then 37 and Smith's real-life husband) and cordially hated by Headmistress Miss Mackay. (Dame Celia Johnson, then 60). I can't count how many times I watched the movie & then tried to fill in the blanks of the original novel by Muriel Spark. Spark freely admitted that she only found her true voice as a writer after she converted to Catholicism. Now what did THAT mean?
Spark's satire of the sexually obsessed Catholic art teacher played by Sir Robert could not have been more biting. Teddy Lloyd was a breeder whose "unfortunate affiliation with the Church of Rome" (Jean Brodie's words) led him to sire masses of kids with Mrs.Lloyd while not-so-secretly lusting after the radiant Jean Brodie. And when she wearied of the dance, she actually selected a successor from among her young students to replace her in his bed. Lloyd & one of her OTHER students (the dependable and much-overlooked Sandy, played by Pamela Franklin, then 18) had other ideas, however, a reality that would present "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" with its gravest threat.
The critics of 1969 raved about the powerful acting of Dame Maggie (who deservedly won her first Oscar that year). They sighed wistfully about the dozens of years that separated Dame Celia's superb work here from her affecting performance as Laura in "Brief Encounter." And Pamela Franklin, who had first captivated international audiences as Flora in 1961's "The Innocents", seemed on the verge of major stardom. (Franklin nearly turned down the role because she didn't want to play another schoolgirl, but was persuaded otherwise and tore into the role of Sandy who evolves from worshipful naivete into resentful treachery.) Sir Robert, too, added genuine poignance to the deceptively lightweight predicament of the mediocre painter with delusions of superiority. And Gordon Jackson, then 48, who would later achieve his greatest fame on "Upstairs, Downstairs" as Hudson, the quintessential butler, is just right as music teacher Gordon Lowther, yearning to marry Jean Brodie and settling for a semi-discreet affair. Jay Presson Allen's powerful screenplay and Ronald Neame's meticulous direction made the political and sexual concerns of 1930's Edinburgh seem immediate & timeless. (Sadly for her admirers, Franklin made just five more films and only 1973's "The Legend of Hell House" is worth staying up late to see. Jane Carr as Mary MacGregor, the least likely to succeed among Jean Brodie's set, went on to star opposite Judd Hirsch in NBC's "Dear John" from 1988 to 1992.)
© 2002 - Monica Sullivan - Air Date: 4/24/02
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969)
UK - 1969