Sunday, September 13, 2015

1969: Maggie Smith for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Maggie Smith plays the title character, a private school teacher who refuses to follow the curriculum, preferring to express her rather odd and extremely controversial views to her impressionable young students, particularly a small group of chosen girls whom she deems special. She spends her spare time trifling with the male members of the faculty.

This movie was nothing like I expected it to be. I thought it was going to be one of those uplifting stories about an unconventional teacher that the more traditional faculty members hate but the students really benefit from. Instead it's a disturbing story about an unconventional teacher who thinks she's doing good but actually has a terrible influence on her students and ends up totally ruining their lives. Yes, the headmistress seems to have a personal vendetta against her, but she is also an awful teacher who deserves to be fired. The movie sort of sets you up to be on her side and then switches it so you can't be. I'm sure this is on purpose, but it makes for an uncomfortable viewing experience, which didn't make me like the movie very much.

So this definitely hasn't been my favorite Best Actress winner so far. I'm not saying it was a bad performance. I mean, it's Maggie Smith; I'm pretty sure she's incapable of giving a bad performance (unless she's trying to do a Louisiana accent, but let's just pretend that never happened). It just seemed like she wasn't sure whether to be likable or not. Her character was very confusing, and I never really understood her motives or objectives. I think she was intentionally ambiguous, especially at the beginning, but I would have liked to get a better feel for who she was, or at least what she was trying to do. As it was, she didn't seem like a real person, or even like a fully formed character. I didn't find her believable, and I can't tell if that's more the fault of the story or the performance, but either way I didn't particularly like it. Honestly, I thought that if anyone deserved an Oscar for this movie it was Pamela Franklin, who played the one special student who ultimately saw through Miss Brodie. She was only 19 at the time and still managed to hold her own against intimidating veteran adult actors, including Maggie Smith. She should have at least been nominated for Best Supporting Actress, but she wasn't, although she was nominated for a BAFTA and won a National Board of Review award. I think Franklin outshines Smith in this movie, which in my mind makes Smith's Oscar less deserved.

I think another part of my problem is that I'm watching this 46 years after it was made, so my view of Smith is much different from that of people who saw the movie back then. When I think of Maggie Smith, I usually think of "Downton Abbey," Sister Act, or the Harry Potter movies. The earliest of those was made in 1992, 23 years after this movie. So it was very funny to me when she kept talking about being in her prime, especially when she was finally forced to conclude that she was past it. While that was certainly true for Jean Brodie, it was far from true for Maggie Smith. I don't even think she had hit her prime when she made this movie. I've seen so many spectacular performances from her that I found this one rather disappointing. But they pretty much all came later, so Academy voters couldn't know what they had to look forward to during the prime of Dame Maggie Smith.

Smith tends to get nominated more for supporting roles than leading roles. That seems to be more her skill set, since she's brilliant at delivering one-liners and sweeping in to steal scenes from the leading characters who think they're so important, taking them down a notch or two. That was another reason it was weird to see her in this movie, since she was playing a conceited leading character who had scenes stolen from her, only it seemed to take her down more than a couple of notches. She isn't nearly as good at recovering from stolen scenes as she is at stealing them. Anyway, this was her first of only two Best Actress nominations, the second being for 1972's Travels with My Aunt, but she's been nominated for four Best Supporting Actress Oscars, winning for 1978's California Suite. She's now 80 years old, and as far as I can tell she hasn't passed her prime yet. Now that she's finished filming the final season of "Downton Abbey" - for which she's been nominated for four Emmys (winning two) and two Golden Globes (winning one) - she might have time to make more movies than she has been. Will she perhaps someday win another Oscar? I doubt it will be for Best Actress in a Leading Role, but maybe Best Supporting Actress? Only time will tell.

Next up: Glenda Jackson

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