Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

"The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" (1969) is one of those films that I am never quite done with. No matter how many times I see it, there are things about it that disturb me and make me want to go back for more. I have also changed my view about Jean Brodie over the years, which is probably a good thing (being that she was a proponent of Fascism, Mussolini, Franco and all that).
Charismatic people are always fascinating. And scary. And often dangerous. The hold they have on their subjects can so easily be used for selfish or harmful ends, and I'm afraid Miss Brodie, in all of her fabulous-ness, does just that.

Based on the novel of the same name by Muriel Spark* (and more closely on the later play by Jay Presson Allen), "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" tells the story of the lady of the title, a teacher at the ultra-conventional Marcia Blaine School for Girls in 1930s Edinburgh, Scotland. How Jean got a job teaching there is a bit of a mystery, but, nevertheless, there she is.  Why she would rather teach there than, as arch enemy and headmistress Miss Mackay suggests, a more progressive school is evident. Miss Brodie loves to flaunt convention, to tickle the nose of authority, to push the boundaries and to be a resplendent peacock in a flock of peahens. 

"Little girls, I am in the business of putting old heads on young   shoulders, and all of my pupils are the creme de la creme. Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life."

The story centers on Miss Brodie and her chosen girls known as "The Brodie Set." They are: 
Sandy: known for her practicality and chosen as Jean's confidante.
Monica: known for her mathematical brilliance
Jenny: known for her beauty and sexual appeal
Mary McGregor: Jean's most impressionable scapegoat

The film follows these "gels" (as Jean pronounces them with her Scottish burr) from their pre-teen exposure to Miss Brodie to graduation. Long after they have left Miss Brodie's class, she still keeps them close at Marcia Blaine and basks in their adoration of her as she holds forth court on art, love, beauty and politics. She also exposes them to her messy love life. She is passionately in love with married art teacher Mr. Lloyd, and he with her, but his marital status and his religion (Roman Catholicism) makes her keep him at tortuous arms length. Ever the master manipulator, Miss Brodie schemes to have her cake and eat it, too. She dallies with the boring but respectable bachelor Mr. Lowther, and schemes to arrange an eventual affair between Jenny and Mr. Lloyd, thereby conducting a vicarious affair between the man she truly loves and the beautiful girl she can control. Sandy is to be designated as Miss Brodie's spy.
Unfortunately, in addition to her tastes in art and thoughts on love, Miss Brodie also imparts her romantic infatuation with fascism to her gels. Mary McGregor, impressionable and eager to please, leaves for Spain to join her brother (who is fighting in the Spanish Civil War). She goes with Miss Brodie's encouragement and a head filled with a romanticized notion of war and fascism and ends up a casualty in Franco's war when the train she is traveling on is bombed. Most unfortunate for Miss Brodie, she selected the wrong confidante. Not only does Jenny not have the planned affair with Mr. Lloyd (whose various portrait subjects all look like Jean Brodie), it is Sandy who ends up making love to the art teacher. Miss Brodie once declared Sandy to be "insightful, but not instinctive," intimating that she lacked the Brodie flair for life. But clever little Sandy had a few surprises up her sleeve. Jean Brodie could never imagine that any of her chosen set could betray her. How little she really knew them. 


Hurt over Mr. Lloyd's continual fascination with Jean, disgusted by Jean's attempts to get Jenny into a married man's bed and horrified at Mary McGregor's fate, Sandy is the one who finally has enough and confronts her old teacher. She lays Miss Brodie's crimes before her (Brodie did not bother to learn that Mary's brother was fighting against Franco), but Jean is unrepentant. It is Sandy who feels the pain of her adored teacher's influence so thoughtlessly and foolishly wielded over her creme de la creme. Before Sandy leaves to turn her in and get her fired, Jean Brodie yells "Assassin!" Mary McGregor's death, Mr. Lloyd's and Mr. Lowther's and Sandy's great disappointment in the person she admired most mean nothing to her.
The performances, along with the subject matter, raise this film above the ordinary. Maggie Smith won a much-deserved Oscar for her complex and affecting performance. She is stylish, outrageous, refined and utterly spell-binding as Jean Brodie. Never once does this narcissistic creature ever realize the real damage she has done to so many. Smith makes her hard to forget for all of Jean Brodie's failings.
Pamela Franklin, as Sandy, is her equal every step of the way. Her performance goes to the top of my list as one that should have not only received an Academy Award nomination, but one that deserved a win.
In the end, I have to  side with Sandy. When I was younger, I was just as enthralled with Miss Brodie as her students. I overlooked her faults because she was "special." However, Sandy, blindly misjudged and underestimated by Jean, only turns her former teacher in ("betrays" is the word Miss Brodie uses) to the dreaded Miss Mackay after her thoughtless actions lead to the death of poor Mary McGregor and her machinations attempt to start an affair between Jenny and a married man. Maybe Sandy was jealous of Miss Brodie's adoration of Jenny and of Mr. Lloyd's undying passion for her teacher, but Miss Brodie did real harm. Impressionable girls deserve better. The person who influences us the most has the capacity to hurt us the most.

There are some movies that just speak to us and draw us back for repeated viewings. For me, "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" is one of those films.


* the film and the book differ in many ways. In the book, there are more girls in the Brodie Set. The emphasis on religion is muted on the screen, as is Sandy's eventual conversion to Catholicism and decision to become a nun.

30 comments:

Mythical Monkey said...

I think you nailed The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie -- she's dangerously narcissistic and much more interesting in living vicariously through a few hand-chosen acolytes than she is in preparing her students for the world. And I would think her fascination with Mussolini would be the tip-off, that rather than being the hero of the story betrayed by the forces of mediocrity, she is the villain, a pretty, perky, charming one, but a villain nonetheless.

You'd be surprised how many comments I read about the film, though, that seem to miss this.

By the way, I've already cued up some short comments about Jean Brodie for tomorrow morning's post -- purely coincidentally since I happen to be arriving at 1969 -- but I'll go back and add a link to your post today. Anyone interested in the movie should read it.

readerman said...

Very nice write-up. I agree, this is a film that calls you back again. Terrific performances all around. I love the color scheme; everyone is muted except Brodie. Also, Rod McKuen's beautiful theme.

FlickChick said...

Hi Monkey - thanks so much. I know what you mean about people supporting Jean! That is the danger of the charismatic types. Sandy is usually reviled, but I admire her. Plus, I love Pamela Franklin in this.

FlickChick said...

Thank you, Readerman. Yes - Jean is quite the colorful peacock - she is enticing - but oh so dangerous!

RB said...

This is a multi-layered film, and one that eschews simple caricatures. Real people, like the characters in this film, are mish-moshes of good and bad, as is the world itself. The arch-conservative Miss MacKay, to take one example, is "wrong" in oh so many ways; she is hostile to Miss Jean Brodie for all the wrong reasons. Sandy knows this, yet ultimately allies with her (in part) because MacKay is less wrong than Brodie. It's the sort of imperfect choice we most commonly have to make.

FlickChick said...

RB- correct all around. It's such a complex character study. That's what makes it so fascinating. I think we have all known a Miss Brodie at one time or another - a very influenctial person who was also quite dangerous.

The Lady Eve said...

FlickChick - You and I have had the same experience with "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie": When young, I was quite enthralled with the character, felt she'd been betrayed by Sandy, etc. Now I see the two characters and the situation from the opposite point of view. Maggie Smith was (as she always seems to be) brilliant in the role and made an already memorable character impossible to forget. Pamela Franklin was quite an actress, too (she also played Flora in "The Innocents"), but her career seemed to run its course long ago.

Excellent take on a fascinating film.

KimWilson said...

Jean Brodie is just an over-powering character. I expect this has a lot to do with Maggie Smith's fine performance. I never really liked the character, especially her insanity regarding Mussolini, but I did appreciate the spell-binding pull she had over her students.

Inge Gregusch said...

This IS serious. Do I need to change the name of MY blog?

FlickChick said...

Lady Eve - this really is a film that shifts focus depending from angle you view it. As a young "gel" I hated Sandy. Now I respect her. We have seen too often how personality can sway things for the worse. As for Pamela Franklin - she is one of those who is rarely seen, so I am always thrilled to find her!

FlickChick said...

@ Kim - Maggie Smith is nothing short of magnificent here, but I think she understood her character well. The fact that we don't despise her (she did, after all, do much good is quite an accomplishment. It's one of my favorite performances.

FlickChick said...

Inge! I thought of you when I wrote this. Miss Brodie used that phrase for selfish purposes. You - on the other hand - only use it for good!

RB said...

I think it's worth noting that Sandy owes much of her self-confidence and independence of mine to Miss Brodie, even as she turns on her. She's still "mine for life."

FlickChick said...

RB - oh, I agree that Miss Brodie had a great influence on her "gels" and much of it for the good. After all, she exposed them to great art and grand ideas - but Sandy was always made of much stronger stuff than Miss Brodie preferred.

Erik Beck said...

I agree that Pamela Franklin gives a great performance. She definitely deserved a nomination and was better than the actual winner (Goldie Hawn). But I always sympathized with her. Perhaps because she was a teenager and I saw the film as a teenager, perhaps because I thought she was attractive (and she has the nude scene - one of the first I ever remember seeing on film). Or perhaps because I saw the inherent danger (and joy) of a teacher as influential as Miss Brodie in her cooing over fascism.

If we have any sympathy for Miss Brodie, it hinges on three factors - one that Maggie Smith does such a wonderful job, two - that many of us have had a teacher like that who we so looked up to and was swept away by, and three - that we don't find out until the end that poor Mary McGregor died looking for the wrong side.

whistlingypsy said...

A fascinating bit of synchronicity; I have this title in my "scout" feature waiting for it to air again on the Fox Channel. I first saw this film as a young girl. I was watching the film with my mother, and she was very patient in answering my many questions. Although I might not have understood all of the complicated interpersonal relations, I was haunted enough to revisit the film many times in my life. I've discovered, in much the same way as you have, that the film speaks to me and touches me in different ways as a grow older. Thanks for a wonderful reminder of why I first became a fan of Maggie Smith.

DorianTB said...

Flick Chick, I loved your review of THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE; it was as thoughtful, colorful, and complex as the characters themselves! Admittedly I was primed (ha! :-)) to like Maggie Smith's richly-deserved Oscar-winning performance because my dear late mom and I adored Smith in all her roles! Although it's been years since I've seen the film, Jean Brodie and her girls are still vivid in my imagination, and I appreciated the characterizations all the more as I got older and realized how much damage she caused her "gels," whether she meant to or not. I've known a number of people like that. For better or worse, they make life interesting, to put it mildly! :-) Anyway, FlickChick, BRAVA to you for your exceptionally fine post!

FlickChick said...

@ Erik - all the boys of a certain age loved Pamela Franklin (for exactly the reason you describe, I'm afraid!). As for Miss Brodie - I guess we've all known people like that and our own reactions to them are complicated.

FlickChick said...

@ Gypsy - sometimes things are just out there in the universe! I am also waiting to see it again!

FlickChick said...

Thank you so much, Dorian. Maggie Smith was just amazing in this film. It is one of my top 10 favorite female performances. She is an awesome and fearless actress.

DorianTB said...

FlickChick, I couldn't agree more!That's another great thing about Maggie Smith, which I meant to mention before. While she's been likable in many roles, she's also one of those actresses who isn't afraid to play difficult, prickly personalities like Jean Brodie. Some star actors are reluctant to play characters who aren't huggable and lovable but our Maggie has the talent and fortitude to do it all! :-)

FlickChick said...

@ Dorian - that's because she knows she is just freakin' fabulous!

Fritz said...

I love this movie and Maggie Smith is perfection!

FlickChick said...

@ Erik- i think that is something about Miss Brodie that everyone can agree upon - she was played to perfection by Maggie Smith.

Classicfilmboy said...

The fact that you keep coming back to this movie and altering your opinion of Miss Brodie is a testament to the complexity of the character and the success of Maggie Smith's performance. Excellent post.

FlickChick said...

@ ClassicFilmBoy - you are so right - it's those movies that we are never quite over that are so much fun.

Freder said...

I so agree, and the same is true with the book. It reads light as a feather, but goes deep as a coal mine. Muriel Spark is a fantastic and under-rated writer.

ClassicBecky said...

FlickChick, you have reminded me eloquently that I need to watch this movie again, and soon. Like you, I was young enough when I first saw it that I saw Miss Brodie's charm and sparkle, and didn't realize her danger. You described the magnetic part of her personality beautifully: "Miss Brodie loves to flaunt convention, to tickle the nose of authority, to push the boundaries and to be a resplendent peacock in a flock of peahens." I now have my mission to accomplish -- watch it again at this stage of my life and see things I didn't see at other ages. Excellent, excellent post!

FlickChick said...

@ Freder - agreed - Muriel Spark is a great writer. It's hard to translate a great novel to film and this took many liberties, but I think it made for a fabulous work on its own merit.

FlickChick said...

Oh Becky, thank you so much for your glowing comment. I am so pleased when I please you! I tend to catch this film when it is showing, but I think I need to get over to Amazon and just buy the darn thing!