Britain seems to be losing its youthful talents of the 60's at an alarming rate: How could we lose Peter Cook, Jeremy Brett & Sir Robert Stephens all in the same year? Sir Robert co-starred opposite his then-wife Dame Maggie Smith in l969's "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie." For a kid raised on the often baffling rules of Woodland's Holy Rosary Convent School, Jean Brodie seemed to me to be the coolest teacher in the universe. Charismatic, idiosyncratic, fearless & funny, Miss Brodie was worshipped by her students, adored by her very married lover Teddy Lloyd (Sir Robert) & cordially hated by headmistress Miss Mackaye (Dame Celia Johnson).
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" (Miss Brodie's words) led him to sire masses of kids with his wife while not-so-secretly lusting after the radiant Miss 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) had other ideas, however, a reality that would bring down Miss Brodie's reign.
The critics of 1969 raved about the powerful acting of Smith, (who won the Oscar that year) Johnson & Franklin, but Sir Robert added genuine poignance to the deceptively lightweight predicament of the mediocre painter with delusions of superiority. Sir Robert also accomplished wonders with other roles of the 60's and 70's: with "A Taste Of Honey" as Dora Bryan's devil-may-care lover, with "Morgan!" as the conventional bridegroom who lures delectable Vanessa Redgrave away from her daft ex-husband, (David Warner) with "Travels With My Aunt", once again as Dame Maggie's unworthy but one true love, &, best of all, with the title role in Billy Wilder's "Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes". Sir Robert's style, wit & intelligence will be sorely missed on the big screen & on the stage. Like Peter Cook, he may have lived unwisely & rather too well, but his sparkling work on celluloid survives to remind us of Sir Robert Stephens' rich legacy from another time.
Copyright 1995 Monica Sullivan
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