Human imperfection and ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’

I know it’s been a bit since I’ve posted. Life and other writing endeavors have gotten in the way. But, now I’m back to discuss a movie I’ve only just discovered. I recently made a trip home to see my parents and my dad sent me back to my L.A. homestead with some new *old* films to watch. Among them was The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

The only knowledge I had of this film was the casting. I knew that a young Maggie Smith, aka Professor McGonnagall, was the lead and that Pamela Franklin, aka one of the scary children from The Innocents had a part. I had a certain idea of what this film was going to be before I sat down to watch it and it completely subverted all expectations.

If you’re unfamiliar, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie follows Jean Brodie (Maggie Smith), a thirtysomething teacher at a private girls school in 1930s Scotland. Her teaching methods are unorthodox to be sure, but there’s no doubt, she inspires her students. She talks to them about her own life, the choices she’s made, and the fact that she is currently in her prime…apparently. Strangely though, she doesn’t discuss history and literature much, which is what she’s actually being paid to teach. As always, DRAMA ENSUES.

Here are just a few reasons you should put The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie on your watchlist:

The Cast

Before this film, I had only seen Maggie Smith as an older actress. But, she had a long career before she was in Harry Potter or even A Room With a View. At the time she made this film, Smith was virtually unknown. The part of Jean Brodie had been played by Vanessa Redgrave in the stage version.

Smith was around thirty-five when she played Jean Brodie and it’s a completely different Maggie Smith than you’ve seen before. Unlike her professor character in Potter or her chaperon character in Room with a View, Smith is free and wild in this film. She’s sexual and flirtatious and egotistical and charming. Her performance won her a Best Actress Oscar and it was well deserved.

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A bit dramatic, no?

Pamela Franklin, who’ve I talked about before on this blog, is famous really for two performances, her role in The Innocents and for playing Sandy in this film. I was surprised, watching her in this film, at how different she is. The scenes she shares with Robert Stephens I thought were quite scandalous. She’s nude and she looks like such a young girl. However, she was nineteen when she made this film and since this film was made just after the production code ended, this was a specific period where they were trying to see how far they could push the envelope.

Her portrayal is layered and interesting. Sandy is several things, conniving and kind of a bully. She’s curious about her own sexuality. But, she’s the only one of Miss Brodie’s pupils who questions her methods and their validity. It’s a shame Franklin left acting.

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Don’t underestimate a girl who wears glasses. 🙂

The other wonderful surprise in this film was getting to see Celia Johnson, who played one of the leads in my favorite film, Brief Encounter, in an older, much different part. In  a way, it was a reverse of my knowing Maggie Smith only as an older actress. I only knew Celia Johnson as a younger actress, so seeing her in this was fascinating. In this film, Celia plays the headmistress of the school, a tough woman who’s skeptical of Miss Brodie. And, as usual, she kills it.

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She still looks like she’s thinking a lot though, right?

The Script

The screenplay was written by Jay Presson Allen who also had written the play. It was adapted from the novel by Muriel Spark. I talked about how the film subverted my expectations for the genre and that really comes down to story.

I think what really shocked me was the fact that the character of Jean Brodie was so incredibly flawed and kind of bordering on unlikable. As children, we assume that our teachers have their lives together. Actually, we pretty much apply that principle to any adult. Jean Brodie is, to me, still very immature. She thinks of herself as a savior to her students, as a guide and example for how they should live their adult lives.

We see the effect that the charismatic Jean Brodie has on two students in particular – Mary, played by Jane Carr, a shy, impressionable girl who listens to Brodie dutifully and Sandy, played as I already discussed by Pamela Franklin, who is more skeptical and adventurous and ultimately, strong.

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No fear here!

Because it’s a reminder that perfection is unattainable!

Miss Brodie ultimately is quite immature. Her actions are not of a together person and yet, despite her actions, you do feel sympathy for her when she loses everything. That’s what makes this story so compelling – it’s about real people, people who are imperfect and make mistakes, even when they have the best of intentions.

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Aka immaturity. HUMANS ARE IMPERFECT. 

Vintage trailer below:

The Prime of Miss Brodie trailer

Gifs and photos property of 20th Century Fox.

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“13 Reasons Why,” “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter,” and the Agony of Loneliness

A few months back, I was with my dad at a small Los Angeles cafe. My dad suddenly had a wide grin on his face. He recognized someone. I looked over at an older man holding his laptop. My dad said to him, “Excuse me, but are you Chuck McCann?” He smiled and replied, “I used to be.” We had a lovely twenty-minute conversation with him and afterwards I asked my dad, “Who is Chuck McCann?”

As a result of this unexpected interaction, my dad showed me a small, independent sixties film called The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. McCann has a small, but important role in the film. This was one of those times, just like with Caught, where I felt that click when you discover a forgotten film, when you’re genuinely moved and completely absorbed in the story that’s being told.

If you’re unfamiliar, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, based on the novel of the same name by Carson McCullers follows John Singer (Alan Arkin), a deaf and mute silverware engraver. He lives a pretty quiet existence. His only real friend is a mentally challenged man named Spiros (Chuck McCann). When Spiros is put in a mental institution a few towns over, Singer uproots his life and moves into a family’s home where he befriends their sixteen year-old daughter, Mick (Sondra Locke). As usual, drama ensues…but this is slightly quieter drama.

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So polite and nice calligraphy, RIGHT?

Here are just a few reasons why you need to see The Heart is a Lonely Hunter:

The Cast

Alan Arkin carries this film. At the time he made this, he was just starting out, having just made the film which made him: The Russians are Coming, the Russians are coming! He was an interesting choice for the part as we usually think of Arkin in a comic and verbal context…or maybe that’s just cause I know him best from Little Miss Sunshine. Either way, Arkin delivers possibly his greatest performance without uttering one word. He was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his work in the film, but lost to Cliff Robertson.

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His expression is EVERYTHING

Sondra Locke is also a revelation in this film. At 21 years old, Locke gave Mick a vulnerability and toughness that I daresay, most actresses today don’t have. She was the perfect counterpart to Arkin. They complimented each other. Though she didn’t go on to be a movie star, she’s continued to work in the film industry as an actor and producer. Locke was also nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, but lost to Ruth Gordon.

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One of my favorite scenes in the film

Chuck McCann’s screen time may be a short, but he certainly makes his mark in the film. He was known for most of his career as a comic actor, but this film showcases his dramatic range. He is also famous for having a relationship with Stan Laurel. He apparently just found his number in the phone book and called him up. Fascinating…

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All Chuck McCann’s character wants to do this in this film is eat and I totally get it. 

Percy Rodrigues, Cicely Tyson, and Stacy Keach also give great supporting performances.

The Story

I had not read McCullers book when I saw the film, but feel compelled now to do so. Similarly to To Kill a Mockingbird, McCullers book discusses the South as well as racism and other social issues. To me, the film is ultimately about what it feels like to be lonely. It’s less about the plot and more how these significantly different people deal with their loneliness.

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No overacting. Arkin, man. He’s great.

In this way, the film reminds me of Netflix’s recent adaptation of the YA bestseller 13 Reasons Why. Everything Arkin’s Singer does is to bring people closer together. Even though ultimately, he’ll never feel that closeness with the people around him, he tries to help people where he can, even when he’s met with derision and anger. In 13 Reasons Why, the real message to take away is that our actions matter, both in positive and negative ways. We never know what anguish and pain the people around us are going through, but in our small way, we can do our part to make their lives a little brighter.

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“We have to do better.” – Clay

The Direction

In true indie style, you’ve probably never heard of the director of this film. I hadn’t. His name was Robert Ellis Miller and he actually passed away in January of this year. He directed the film very much like a play. He let moments play out organically. You never felt like you were being manipulated. It all felt genuine and real.

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So sweet

Carson McCullers

I think it’s amazing that Carson McCullers got this published at the age of 22. Her life was filled with pain. She attempted suicide, but was not successful. Carson had a tumultuous childhood and a rough adulthood, which was cut short when she died of a brain hemorrhage, just before filming began for The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.

As such, I think there’s a melancholy nature to all her works, but especially this novel. She took her pain and turned it into something meaningful, art that serves as a reminder that we all experience loneliness and that feeling that way is part of the human experience.

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She’s also famous for “The Ballad of the Sad Cafe.”

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is a poignant portrait of what it’s like to feel lonely.

It’s completely forgotten, but I don’t find its themes any less relevant than those expressed in Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why. We all get lonely to different degrees and we truly can all do our part to reach out and connect with the people around us. In this strange age we’re in, I think this film’s message is of the utmost importance.

 

Gifs and photos property of Warner Bros.