With The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (just reviewed) garnering big audiences in limited release, Dames Judi and Maggie have been on the mind. Last week, I remembered my favorite scene from Judi Dench's best performance in Notes on a Scandal (2006), so this week a look back at Maggie Smith's Oscar winning signature role The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969) for a companion piece...
What follows from the 1969 film The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is not technically a monologue. This progressive middle school teacher in a conservative girls school invites interjections into her speeches, if not actual participation or dialogue. I was tempted to publish this a day early and call it for a Sunday Soliloquy but it's not really that either. For Miss Brodie isn't speaking directly to herself.
What I like best about Maggie Smith's Oscar winning performance -- aside from the fact that it belongs to my favorite subgenre of drama: 'women who lie to themselves' -- is that you aren't really sure who her speeches are directed at. Are they for the students as she claims? Are her eccentric teaching methods aimed at her enemies? Or are are lessons merely building blocks for her own personal edification? She considers herself successful if her girls reflect her own ideals back at her; she wants mirrors rather than free thinkers. Any non reflective surface will not become part of the Brodie set, her favored students.
After a few minutes of opening credits Miss Brodie is in her classroom, greeting the new students. The film itself is also laying groundwork, introducing the three key sycophant students: Mary, Sandy and Jenny.
Little girls. I am in the business of putting old heads on young shoulders and all my pupils are the crème de la crème. Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life. You girls are my vocation. If I am to receive a proposal of marriage tomorrow from the Lord Lyons King of Arms, I would decline it. I am dedicated to you in my prime --and my summer in Italy has convinced me that I am truly in my prime.
Mary McGregor, you are new to this institution. It is possible you will hear my teaching methods decried in certain quarters as being unsuitable for a conservative school like Marcia Blaine, that is to say a school dedicated to the status quo. Can anyone define status quo? …Sandy?
Sandy, who will become Brodie's confidante, answers "Does it mean staying the same Miss Brodie?"
Precisely. Staying the same to the point of petrification. p-e-t-r-i-f-i-c-a-t-i-o-n, petrification. I do not intend to devote my prime to petrification. Prop up your books in case of intruders. If there are intruders we are doing our history. But we will not do our history. Can anyone tell me who is the greatest Italian painter?
Jenny, the teachers pet, responds quickly "Leonardo daVinci, Miss Brodie" Her answer is hilariously swatted away. For "greatest" must equal the opinion of the dominating classroom personality.
That is incorrect Jenny. The answer is Giotto. He is my favorite.
Here Miss Brodie spots a photo on the wall that she doesn't like and will now cover with a print of Giotto's work, a more properly reflective surface.
Observe, little girls: Stanley Baldwin who got in as prime minister and got out again ere long. Our headmistress Miss Mackay retains him on the walls because she believes in the slogan "safety first" Safety does not come first. Goodness, truth and beauty come first. One's prime brings one insight into these things. One's prime is the moment one is born for. You little girls must be on the alert to recognize your prime at whatever time it may occur and live it to the full.
"Season of mist and mellow fruitfulness."
I wanted to tell you of a moment in my life when I was very young… younger even then the man himself. His name was Hugh. I fell deeply in love with Hugh in the last year of the war but he fell on Flanders field…
By this point Miss Brodie is deep in her own thrall, her students a captive but enraptured audience. At first introduction I thought Maggie Smith was playing Miss Brodie too arch and forceful, the voice is constantly soaring and undulating for dramatic effect. Maggie Smith is painting an aggressively hard portrait. But by the time the credits rolled, the purpose of her impenetrably stiff manner is clear: for who is more petrified, more devoted to staying the same, than Miss Brodie herself? Surely she gave the same speech last semester and demanded the same answers. She has always been convinced that she's in her prime.