Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Maggie Smith in her Prime, long before Downton Abbey

Illustration for article titled Maggie Smith in her Prime, long before Downton Abbey

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: The forthcoming release of Ethan Hawke’s Seymour: An Introduction—and the recent release of the excellent Approaching The Elephant—has us thinking back on other movies about teaching.


The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie (1969)

Is there an actor today with more longevity than Maggie Smith? While she may or may not be parting from Downton Abbey, at the age of 80, she still does not appear to be slowing down. Smith is now iconic after such memorable roles as Charlotte in A Room With A View and Professor McGonagall in the Harry Potter movies, to say nothing of The First Wives Club, the Best Exotic Marigold Hotels, an Oscar for California Suite, even Divine Secrets Of The Ya-Ya Sisterhood. But even Maggie Smith had to start somewhere, and the 1969 film The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie was her Oscar-winning breakthrough role.

In 1930s Scotland, Smith’s Miss Brodie is the most outrageous teacher at a stuffy girls’ school, where even her bright dress and scarf liven up the nondescript gray halls. (One of her tsk-ing colleagues comments, “She always looks so extreme.”) Spouting rousing platitudes like “Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life” and, “I am not interested in imperfection, but in beauty, art, and truth!” Miss Brodie inspires instant devotion among her charges. Vibrant future cinematic teachers like Robin Williams’ John Keating in Dead Poets Society owe a lot to Miss Brodie, even as she calls windows opened more than six inches “vulgar,” and uses the annoying word “lover” more times than a Saturday Night Live sketch to describe her romantic escapades. (She has dynamic chemistry here with her then-husband Robert Stephens, who portrays a lecherous and besotted art teacher.)

But unlike the earnest Keating, and despite her devotion to her profession as a “teacher, first, last, and always,” Miss Brodie is far from the ideal role model: She plays favorites with her four “Brodie girls,” taking them on special outings to picnics and art galleries. After an Italian vacation, she finds fascist dictator Mussolini “romantic,” and calls him the “greatest Roman.” She encourages her girls to be “heroines,” with disastrous consequences for one of her students. Brodie even dangles one of her charges in front of the art teacher once her affair with him is over. Miss Brodie’s headstrong and unrealistic ideals create a dark side to her impossible-to-resist charisma. Although she is ultimately betrayed by one of her own students, her dangerous leadership had to have an eventual consequence. By the end of the movie, a beaten Miss Brodie knows that her prime is over. But with this award-winning role, Maggie Smith’s was only beginning.

Availability: The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie is available on DVD from Netflix or possibly from your local video store/library. It’s also currently streaming on YouTube.