There was a Miss Jean Brodie in her prime…

Standard

By Scott Ross

When asked to name my favorite novel, I never know how to answer. Do I choose The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for its sparkling vernacular, its unerring narrative voice, its rich humor (and equally rich horror) and the masterly fashion in which it confronts, head on, the essential hypocrisy of American racism? Perhaps The Great Gatsby for its crystalline prose and absolute evocation of its era? Or Bleak House, for its panoramic narrative, satirical brilliance and aching humanity? Maybe Ragtime for its astonishing style and sweeping vision? Or Beloved for the stunning poetry of its prose and its unblinking fantasia on the profoundest issue facing a nation willing to build itself on one person’s right to own another? Possibly To Kill a Mockingbird for its unsentimental view of childhood, its unflinching portrait of bigotry, its correspondingly glowing depiction (and defense) of decency and its unique position as the only novel of a born writer? Perhaps The Eighth Day or The Magnificent Ambersons or East of Eden for their respective depictions of American families in flux, their understated irony and their expansiveness of heart? Or, if we stretch the word to embrace a collection of related stories, might I not suggest Goodbye to Berlin for the way its lepidopterist author pins its squirming, restive characters firmly to an irrevocable delineation of time and place?

No. I can’t decide. Ask me instead which novels I’ve read most often —  that’s a much easier one. MASH probably heads the list, for reasons I’m not entirely sure of. But I’ve read it at least a half-dozen times since the age of 14, and always with great joy. Still, the pseudonymous Richard Hooker’s episodic collection of dark comic sketches from Korea, whatever its pleasures, pales next to Muriel Spark’s magnificent mainstay The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Know its characters, and its slight, impressionistic plot as well as you might from a previous reading, or from either the play or the famous movie (or indeed the seven-part British miniseries) made from it and this slim, slightly autobiographical tapestry continues to delight from inauspicious beginning to unforgettable end, each successive reading over time revealing more of its perfectly pitched tone, its striking manipulation of the temporal, its ironic (but never bitter) detachment, and the mellifluous, biting (but never savage) dialogue of which Spark was long a past-mistress. Brodie, perhaps appropriately for a novel whose center is not so much eccentricity but sexual jealousy, is in a curious way represented by two sets of women: One literary, the other histrionic.

jeanbrodie

This is Brodie as I first knew her, in a flea-market purchase from around 1973: A 1969 Penguin movie tie-in whose stern back-cover warning (“For copyright reasons this edition is not for sale in the U.S.A.”) made this 12-year-old tremble slightly and wonder if, in buying it, I was transgressing international law. I was drawn to it, not for its relation to a movie I had still to see (or a television series that was yet to air) but because a favorite local director had mounted a splendid high school production of the play that season.

First of course, Muriel Spark, who bequeathed Miss Brodie to the world (and who based her to a large degree on a certain Miss Kay, her own teacher at, as Jean Brodie would note, “an impressionable age.”) Next, Jay Presson Allen, who adapted the book for the stage and who would later transmogrify her own adaptation into film. The other set consists of the four women who variously brought Miss Brodie to life: Vanessa Redgrave (in London), Zoe Caldwell (Broadway), Maggie Smith (film) and Geraldine McEwan (television.) Not to mention the countless amateur actors who have breathed life and fire into Spark’s unconventional, admirable, maddening, foolish, and ultimately dangerous pedagogue on more stages separately than even the redoubtable Misses Redgrave, Caldwell, Smith and McEwan have together.

Muriel-Spark-001

A Miss Muriel Spark in her prime.

Jay Presson Allen ft138nb0zm_00000

Jay Presson Allen, Brodie’s dramatic amanuensis.

I cannot speak for the McEwan series, as I still have not seen it, but for all the acting pyrotechnics and the juicy roles for its cast, Allen’s play (as indeed her subsequent screenplay) is, perhaps inevitably, a diminution of the novel. I don’t claim for Brodie the same greatness one confers on the finest prose — it isn’t a patch on, say, Doctorow’s or Morrison’s or Fitzgerald’s — but if it isn’t first-tier, it’s nonetheless an entrancingly high second. Although Allen retained a bit of the book’s framing device (involving a nun reluctantly famous for her surprise best-seller), trenchant dialogue and spicy observations she had, perforce, to jettison Spark’s loose temporal structure in favor of a more linear approach. Had she been a more daring, or in any case a different sort of playwright, Allen might not have matched Spark but she could have at least maintained pace with the novelist theatrically. But as she was essentially a boulevard comedian (or, at best, an adherent of comédie d’intrigue) and not an ironist, Allen built her narrative toward dramatic show-down where Spark embraced a witty dying fall tinctured with ironic paradox.

Redgrave - Brodie

Vanessa Redgrave, the statuesque Brodie of the London stage.

Jean Brodie - Caldwell 1000x1000

Zoe Caldwell, Brodie in New York.

The_Prime_of_Miss_Jean_Brodie_4430_Medium

Maggie Smith, immortalizing Brodie on film. (With Jane Carr as Mary Macgregor, bovine in brain and body.)

G McEwen jeanbrodiecrop

Gerladine McEwen, the Brodie of British television.

In Spark’s Brodie, the self-deluding pedagogic iconoclast has no idea who has “betrayed” her to the authorities for her dangerous — indeed ultimately, if unintentionally, murderous — extolling of Fascism, refusing to accept the evidence directly before her in the person of Sandy, the single “Brodie girl” she has most severely, and disastrously, underestimated. Allen climaxes her adaptation with a recriminatory confrontation between the two, which, it must be admitted, ends spectacularly, with Brodie memorably shouting, “Assassin!” at Sandy’s departing back.* I once saw the Brodie movie in tandem with Paul Newman’s Rachel, Rachel, a pointed double-bill. My companion noted, afterward, that while the latter was deeply felt, and exceptionally moving, the former was more a showcase for its scenery-chewing star. I suspect it was largely that very concluding encounter that led him to prefer Rachel, itself — despite being one of the most deeply affecting portraits of loneliness ever committed to film — slightly hysterical.

Brodie 102708635-e1377865974202

“Victim” and “assassin”: Brodie and Sandy (Pamela Franklin) in the movie’s climactic engagement.

Certainly, in Maggie Smith’s deliciously ravenous hands, Jean Brodie is a veritable acting feast. Although her passions are all too real, her affect more than borders on self-conscious camp; one can easily imagine Charles Busch assaying Brodie and, with very little exaggeration, giving a nearly identical performance. I don’t say that as a criticism; as Allen (and the director, Ronald Neame) imagined her, this Jean Brodie virtually demands a comic technician willing to be as ridiculous yet oddly pitiable as Smith. That she occasionally seems, in 1930s Edinburgh, like a deliberately pretentious modern drag-queen avant la lettre merely adds, in a funny way, to her overall potency. On film Smith has been better (as in Ian McKellan’s Richard III and, especially, the flawed but almost agonizingly effective The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne), more quietly plangent (Hot Millions, A Room with a View), wittier (A Private Function) and far funnier (Murder by Death, California Suite.) But she has almost never, aside from Alan Bennett’s magnificent “Talking Heads” television monologue “Bed Among the Lentils,” had a leading movie or television role as plummy as Miss Jean, or one that has called upon her to pull together everything she does so well in a single performance.

Maggiebrodie

Maggie in her, and Brodie’s, prime.

More notably Sparkian, in the movie, are Smith’s coevals: Pamela Franklin, blankly astute as Sandy; Gordon Jackson, whose Mr. Lowther somehow makes cowardice seem endearing; and, supremely, Celia Johnson as Brodie’s bête noire Miss Mackay. It’s a vast tribute to Johnson’s gifts that she embodies the head of the conservative Marcia Blaine School with such outward reasonableness — even a certain inflexible charm — never allowing the character’s dogged fixation on Brodie to lapse into simple churlishness or stock villainy. You feel that she is, despite Jean’s underestimation of her, every bit as formidable, and cunning, a foe as Brodie herself, and with far greater (and, inevitably, deadlier) patience. That Mackay is small-minded in her attitudes and, as such, a much greater, because institutionalized, danger to her young charges than Brodie could ever be, does not mitigate her belief in the essential order of things, a tenet as unalterable as Brodie’s more flamboyant devotion to, as an insidious phrase of hers insinuates, molding her girls in her own implacable image.

Brodie vlcsnap-313643

The great Celia Johnson as Miss Mackay.

Surely the sharply observational ironist in Spark, who famously converted to Roman Catholicism, knew what she was about when Brodie says, repeatedly, “Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life.” Substitute “child” for “girl” and you have the very essence of Catholic (indeed, every religion’s) indoctrinal teaching. The insidious corresponding Jesuit maxim (“Give me the child for the first seven years and I’ll give you the man”) may have originated with Aristotle and not, as has been attributed, Loyola, but in any case it is difficult to imagine that Spark was unaware of it. Yet Spark is able to see Brodie plain — as a deliberate spellbinder, a foolish monster sacré, and, as Sandy says, “a ridiculous woman” who, in her self-contradictory embrace of Fascism, is directly responsible for sending one such impressionable girl (Joyce Hammond in the novel, Mary McGregor in the play and movie) to her violent death. She may also, as the art teacher Teddy Lloyd (two-armed in Allen where Spark imagined him with one) accuses her in the play and the picture, be afraid of her own impassioned sexuality, all too eager to procure a substitute lover from among her girls. (Rose in the novel, Jenny in Allen’s versions.) Yet she is no phony. Whatever her motives, Brodie’s devotion to teaching, in her own, wildly original fashion, is true enough. And she does manage, for better or worse, to remain in the minds of her students, as all great (or simply unusual) teachers do, long after their former pupils have forgotten the mediocre run of the overwhelming mill.

The-Prime-of-Miss-Jean-Brodie-6553_2

Brodie, uncharacteristically up against it, in one of the movie’s forceful encounters with Teddy Lloyd (Robert Stephens.)

This may be what I mean when I maintain that The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, in common with those novels we return to again and again at irregular intervals as our lives progress, yields greater pleasures and pithier insights with each new reading. It is easy, as an adolescent, to ridicule Brodie herself, and to see in her a preening ridiculousness merely. Later, we may feel that she has indeed been wronged; still later, to find we can embrace both her sterling lack of academic orthodoxy (her approach to education, based on the Latin verb educere, is “a leading out”) and Sandy’s self-justification when she maintains, “It’s only possible to betray where loyalty is due.” Seeing people whole demands of us a rejection of childish side-taking, that very egocentrism of which Jean Brodie is rightly accused yet which gives her such a disarmingly original hold, not merely on those special girls called — often with barely contained jealousy — The Brodie Set, nor even on the reader, but on life itself. Without it, Brodie withers. With it, she soars. Vaingloriously, yes, even recklessly. But Jean Brodie is, however dangerously, alive in a way few fictions ever are.

“For those who like that sort of thing,” Miss Brodie sniffs at a girl whose avocations reveal, to her, a smallness of vision, “that is the sort of thing they like.” It may not be my favorite novel, but The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is the sort of thing I like very much indeed.


*On the DVD commentary, Brodie’s director Ronald Neame avers that Smith wanted to say the word “Assassin” quietly, to herself, but was vetoed by himself and Robert Fryer, the movie’s producer. He adds that, seeing the film again so many years later, he thinks Smith was right and that they were wrong.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

the-prime-of-miss-jean-brodie-movie-poster

My Five Favorite Movies

Standard

By Scott Ross

I hope to write at length about each of these titles, but for the moment this set of capsules will have to suffice.

5. Jaws (1975) On the basis of this item alone, Steven Spielberg must be regarded as one of the most talented people to ever stand behind a movie camera. The source was pure potboiler, the shooting went on and on and on, the crew’s activities were stymied by a mechanical shark that couldn’t work. And out of this chaos, Spielberg delivered a masterpiece — in what was only his second theatrical feature. The time spent waiting for the shark to function added to the movie’s special quality of life observed: the co-scenarist, Carl Gottlieb (Peter Benchley did the first draft) was on hand to add punch to the script, and the actors spent so much time together that their relationships (and improvisations) made for an especially rich character palette. And, since a working shark was largely absent, Spielberg made a virtue from a deficit by not showing the monster fully until well into the picture — the unseen menace is much more terrifying. Side-note: Roy Scheider improvised the famous “You’re gonna need a bigger boat” line on the set. With Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw, Murray Hamilton, Lorraine Gary and John Williams’ spectacularly effective orchestral score.

4. Pinocchio (1940) Bar none the greatest animated movie ever made in this country, and the finest work of Walt Disney’s long career. Its failure, along with that of Fantasia, caused Disney to retreat from conscious art to conscious kitsch — one of the great tragedies in popular American art. Pinocchio has never been as popular in its various reissues as more comforting fare such as Cinderella, and it’s a dark movie, no question. The Pleasure Isle transformation of Pinocchio’s truant pal Lampwick into a donkey ranks among the most terrifying animated sequences ever created, and there’s a truly disturbing image of an ax hurled at a smiling, immobile marionette that’s the stuff of childhood nightmares. But it’s an enchanting picture overall, from its great Leigh Harline-Paul Smith score to the inspired voice work of Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards as Jiminy Cricket. The movie has a deep, detailed look unparalleled in animated features and, in the whale chase, one of the most excitingly executed cartoon sequences ever put on film. I can’t hear Cliff Edwards’ pure, ethereal falsetto on the high notes at the end of “When You Wish Upon a Star” without chills running up my back.

3. Cabaret (1972) In another post I said Singin’ in the Rain was the best musical ever made, and I meant it: Bob Fosse’s transliteration of the Broadway hit Cabaret is less a musical than a drama with musical numbers. Only one of them occurs outside the context of the creepily seductive Berlin nightclub where Liza Minnelli’s Sally Bowles performs, and that isn’t a production number (the movie doesn’t really have any) but an impromptu anthem by an angelic-looking Aryan Youth that builds into a terrifyingly musical mob statement of National Socialistic fealty. Based rather loosely by Jay Presson Allen on the show and on its source, Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin StoriesCabaret goes much further into the original’s slightly veiled sexuality than any other version of this material prior to the recent Broadway revival of the stage musical. (Isherwood famously described Michael York’s homosexuality in the movie as something undesirable and uncontrollable, “like bed-wetting” and was heard to say, after a screening, “It’s a goddamn lie! I never slept with a woman in my life!”) Is it condescending? I don’t think so. Fosse and Allen (and “consultant” Hugh Wheeler) never condemn York’s bisexual adventures, and you have to take their version of Isherwood as merely a single variation on the original material. (Although Minnelli’s using it as a pretext against marrying York is a bit much; would the real Sally Bowles have cared?) In any case, the look of the movie is overwhelming — it’s how we now think the Berlin of 1929 must have felt — and Fosse’s editing style dazzles no matter how often you’ve seen the movie. York is sumptuous to look at and, with his slightly shy smile and Isherwood-like haircut, perfectly cast. Minnelli was never better, or more controlled, and Joel Grey’s Emcee becomes a truly Mephistophelean figure, commenting on the action and winking lewdly. With Helmut Griem as the sexy bisexual count who woos both Minnelli and York, and, memorably, Fritz Wepper and Marisa Berenson as the ill-met lovers. The faux-Kurt Weill songs by John Kander and Fred Ebb are about as good as you can get.

2. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) The most entrancing movie I’ve ever seen. I can vividly remember sitting in a crowded theatre in 1977, with almost no foreknowledge of the story, and feeling this great, empathic fantasy wash over me like annealing waters. Steven Spielberg may have greater audience popularity with Jaws, E.T. and Jurassic Park and won his Oscars for Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, but Close Encounters is his true masterwork. It’s the most benign alien-invasion movie ever made, and full of wonders. (The special effects look so natural in large part because Spielberg shot them in standard ratio and then had the images blown up to widescreen.) Richard Dreyfuss makes a perfect Everyman, Francois Truffault’s face shines with gentle passion, and little Cary Guffey is an absolute amazement. The perfectly integrated score is, of course, by John Williams.

1. Some Like it Hot (1959) My favorite movie, and arguably the funniest comedy made after the advent of sound. Billy Wilder and co-scenarist I.A.L. Diamond took an episode from a forgotten German comedy and expanded it into a breakneck farce that took in gangland massacres, sexual duplicity, homosexual implication and transvestitism, turning it into one of the cheeriest comedies in movie history. Marilyn Monroe, famously unreliable, is luminous — when she’s onscreen you can’t take your eyes off her. The only fault I can finds in Tony Curtis’ defining performance as an unrepentant heel is that, in the persona of “Josephine,” his falsetto was provided by Paul Frees. But it is Jack Lemmon, whooping it up as “Geraldine,” who gives the movie’s greatest performance. It’s so inspired it seems to have come (as Lemmon always claimed the character was anyway) from the moon. Lemmon was, and is, my favorite actor, and for all his fine work (in The Apartment, Irma La Douce, Days of Wine and Roses, The Great Race, “Save the Tiger,” The China Syndrome, Missing and Glengarry Glen Ross) I don’t think he was ever better than he is here. This is Billy Wilder’s ultimate masterpiece, the movie that summed up everything he could do without breaking a sweat. The great Joe E. Brown has the classic final line — which Wilder always claimed was written by Diamond, and vice-versa.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross