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    Maggie in Her Prime

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    In Jay Presson Allen’s theatrical adaptation of Muriel Spark’s novel, first there was Vanessa Redgrave, succeeded by Anna Massey, on the London stage, then Tony® winner Zoe Caldwell on the Broadway boards. The studio that grabbed up the screen rights were reportedly eager to cast Deborah Kerr. But when director Roland Neame’s film of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969) debuted in the U.S. 48 years ago today, the lady embodying the title role was producer Robert Fryer’s determined choice: Maggie Smith. Critic Michael Coveney declared in his 2015 Maggie Smith: A Biography: “As Jean Brodie, the Edinburgh schoolmistress of the 1930s whose pupils were the ‘crème de la crème,’ she had a much wider audience and a proportionately larger camp following. For the first time, her stardom was totally secure. She had, as Peter Wood describes it, ‘a telepathic ray’ with an audience in the theatre; on screen, the same thing happened. Maggie won her first Oscar® and entered the international arena on her own terms. As Cecil Wilson said in the Daily Mail, ‘After repeatedly stealing other people’s pictures, she now becomes a star in her own right.’” Per Coveney’s chronicle of the multiple Academy Award®, Tony® and Emmy®-winning actress, there might have life elements that factored into her portrayal. “It is tempting to see Maggie’s creation as a subtle revenge on her Scottish puritanical mother and indeed on the Oxford High School, which had, as Maggie admitted in an interview, more than a touch of Marcia Blaine [School for Girls, Brodie’s workplace]….Maggie plays a Brodie who lives immune to the world and even her own beliefs. But she also presents a chilling portrait of bottled-up sexuality and dazzling irony.” The character was rich in theatricality, and dangerously deluded in ideology, thereby enthralling to watch as her life precipitously unravels. For a 2004 profile in The Guardian, during the actress’s resurgence in global popularity as Professor Minerva McGonagall in the eight-film Harry Potter series and years before her six-season stint as Downton Abbey’s indomitable Dowager Countess of Grantham, writer Susan Mackenzie began her piece: “There is a story that, at the end of his life, when Sir John Gielgud was 96 and pretty reclusive, a friend asked him if there was anything he could do for him, anything at all that he wanted. There was something, Sir John replied. He longed for one last glimpse of Maggie Smith,” a tip of the hat from one acting legend to another. Coveney concludes: “Maggie’s Miss Brodie, far more severely and accurately Scottish than Vanessa Redgrave’s admirable stage performance, would enter a pantheon of flawed, inflamed schoolteachers on celluloid: Robert Donat in Goodbye Mr. Chips, Bette Davis in The Corn Is Green, Michael Redgrave in The Browning Version, Sidney Poitier in To Sir, with Love [a Twilight Time favorite], Sandy Dennis in Up the Down Staircase, and Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society.” What a fascinating faculty that would make! Smith’s Marcia Blaine associates (Celia Johnson, [her then-husband] Robert Stephens andGordon Jackson) and students (Pamela Franklin, Diane Grayson, Shirley Steedman and the tragically impressionable Jane Carr) are quite formidable indeed, and their academic and extracurricular intrigues prove devastatingly unforgettable in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie on TT hi-def Blu-ray.