According to Inside Oscar, Maggie Smith’s win as Best Actress for her performance as the free-spirited, eccentric, fascinating but ultimately dangerous title character in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was considered the biggest upset in this category since Loretta Young’s win over 20 years ago. But in some ways, the nomination itself must have been more surprising than the win – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie came and go and while Maggie Smith received excellent reviews, her film must have been largely forgotten around Oscar time and new, apparently more exciting actresses appeared on the scene. Jane Fonda stepped out of the her father’s shadow and amazed critics with her turn as a desperate dance contestant in They Shoot Horses, don’t they?, Liza Minnelli stepped out of her mother’s shadow and amazed critics with her performance as a free-spirited but sad girl in The Sterile Cuckoo and Genevieve Bujold hold her own against Richard Burton and took home the Golden Globe for her performance as the ill-fated Anne Boleyn in the historical drama Anne of the Thousand Days. And also along for the ride was Jean Simmons, like Maggie Smith a respected British actress in a little seen movie but Jean Simmons had the advantage of having been around longer, having starred in such classics as Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet or Elmer Gantry with Burt Lancaster. But somehow Academy members remembered Maggie Smith and nominated her along these four other actresses – and the actual win may have been a huge surprise but looking back, it shouldn’t have been. Enthusiasm for the other nominees was obviously not very high and Maggie Smith gave the kind of domineering performance that, in an open field like this, can easily receive the necessary amount of votes – if enough Academy members actually bothered to watch the movie. Which they thankfully did.
In The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Maggie Smith constantly walks a very thin line between authentic and implausible, between larger-than-life and exaggerated, between domineering and oppressive – and she succeeded in never crossing this line but always going as closely to the edge as humanly possible and that way created one of the most spell-binding and memorable movie characters in screen history. The part of Jean Brodie is a gift – but a double-edged one. It’s the kind of role that offers endless opportunity for an actress to show all her talents but at the same time demands such careful consideration and attention that it could turn into a disaster very easily. ‘She always looks so...extreme’ are the words of another teacher at the school, unable to come up with any other adjective. And it seems that there is actually is no other word. Some parts could be played by a lot of talented actresses because they present a clear picture of how to bring them to life – Blanche DuBois, Sophie Zawistowska or Martha make it very hard to fail as long as an actress brings the necessary talents. But Jean Brodie is such a complex character, colourful but also very dark, over-the-top but also down-to-earth and a collection of so many theatrical eccentricities and mannerisms that many of the greatest could have failed badly. Calculating actresses like Meryl Streep or Geraldine Page would probably have exaggerated the one side while more natural actresses like Susan Sarandon or Sissy Spacek would have been lost with the other aspects. But Maggie Smith is an actress who brings just the right combination of both – she is an actress who was born to play these kinds of characters. Her own rather eccentric screen presence and acting style is always combined with a very believable, warm and honest side – this way she could create characters that are three-dimensional and realistic, no matter how exceptional or unique they may be. Jean Brodie is one of the great ‘over-the-top without being over-the-top’-characters – like Norma Desmond, Jean Brodie is an artificial creation but unlike Norma Desmon, Jean Brodie fits into a non-artificial environment: a movie character like Norma Desmond could only successfully exist in a surrounding like Sunset Boulevard but Jean Brodie never feels limited to the frames of her own movie – instead, she is always a person, a bit unusual, maybe even bizarre but always real.
Does this mean that only Maggie Smith could play Jean Brodie? Probably not. The part was originally created on the stage by Vanessa Redgrave and later Zoe Caldwell won a Tony Award for playing her on Broadway – but it still means that the part fit her like a glove, or maybe better like a glass slipper: a lot of other actresses might have worn that slipper but they would have needed to cut off their toes to put it on. Maggie Smith took the part and made it look effortless. Jean Brodie never appears to be a result of Maggie Smith’s personality and acting but rather a logical creation that stands firmly on its own two feet.
Who is Jean Brodie? The easy answer would be to say she is a teacher but actually, she is so much more. She may say to Miss McKay, the headmistress of Marcia Blaine and Miss Brodie’s arch enemy, that she considers teaching as a process of letting the pupils develop their own ideas and thoughts instead of feeding them with information but at the same time she proudly declares that her girls are hers for life and tries to influence and to form them according to her own ideas and believes. Everybody at the school knows that Miss Brodie’s girls are different – they are the marchers behind their leader. They are consumed by Miss Brodie’s charm, difference and her unorthodox character just as easily as the viewer. Because besides being eccentric and unique, Maggie Smith displayed another quality of Jean Brodie – fascination. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is essentially a one-woman-show and Jean Brodie needs to be played with the right amount of honesty to believably show her downfall in the end and fascination to explain her role and status at the Marcia Blaine School for girls. It’s the same difficult combination as being larger-than-life and down-to-earth and again, Maggie Smith’s natural talents for these kinds of roles helped her to achieve the highest results.
But right from the beginning, there are certain aspects of Jean Brodie that should actually be visible much sooner but constantly seem to disappear behind Maggie Smith’s and Jean Brodie’s presence. Her own captivation with Benito Mussolini, her obvious favouring of pupils, her inability to separate her own opinion from universal truth – all this should make it easy to see what Miss McKay sees right from the beginning but Maggie Smith displays such a combination of kindness and interest in the first parts of her movie that these aspects are constantly overlooked. When she tells one of her pupils that she is not interested in her activities as girl scout and later tells another one that this should be an activity for boys, Maggie Smith already shows how deep Jean Brodie is buried in her own ideas and unable to look beyond. When she asks her pupils about the greatest Italian painter and one of the girl answers Leonardo da Vinci, Jean Brodie simply says that's incorrect and that the answer is Giotto because ‘he is my favourite.’ As a teacher, she is unwilling to learn anymore because she considers herself in her prime – the best time of her life in which she has reached a kind of perfection in which she glorifies herself. She says that her pupils benefit from this but the movie shows how dangerous this fascinating woman actually is.
The biggest success of Maggie Smith’s performance is the fact that she does not show any change in the character of Jean Brodie – but instead slowly, step by step, widens and changes her interpretation and that way allows the audience to finally see the dark truth behind this woman just at the same time as her pupil Sandy and one of her lovers, Teddy Lloyd, see it, too. It slowly becomes apparent that, at the bottom, Jean Brodie is not as extraordinary as she likes to present herself. Angela in American Beauty cannot think of anything worse than being ordinary – Jean Brodie had the same thoughts many years before her. Because of this, she build a shell for herself with a high-pitched voice and colourful outfits which easily allow her to become the centre of attention wherever she goes and she also prefers to surround herself with her pupils since it’s so much more easy to manipulate them – the others teachers at her school, at least the female ones, don’t seem to care for her and so she uses her qualities where they are the most helpful, with children and men. But this fascination does not go on forever and the change of the political landscape in Europe slowly unmasks her true identity. At the end, Jean Brodie thinks that she is past her prime – but actually she simply went too far and lost the loyalty she was always so sure of because others were finally able to uncover Jean Brodie as a character. When she says ‘Arrivederci’ to Teddy Lloyd, she unknowingly also says goodbye to her old life. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a movie that presents a central character and during the run of the movie completely changes the view in which this character is seen – without actually changing the character itself. This is a true challenge for every actor and actress and Maggie Smith fulfilled her tasks marvellously. When Maggie Smith's Jean Brodie praises Mussolini for saving some birds in Italy, it can be accepted as a mere eccentricity - but when she gathers her pupils under a tree and slowly encourages them to join the war in Spain without seeing anything wrong with that, Maggie Smith beings to peel the layers of Jean Brodie to present something shockingly appaling in a woman that used to be so appealing that even the fact that she tries to organise a love affair between Teddy Lloyd and one of her students could be forgiven. But now it becomes obvious how far her love for dictators and conquerors really goes and how she is willing to use the power she has over 'her girls' even though she herself would never think of doing any harm to them by this. In her interpretation, Maggie Smith never tells the audience what to feel – should they love, pity or hate Jean Brodie? Maggie Smith leaves it open for everyone to decide for him- or herself.
Maggie Smith also shows that, no matter what her political, personal and other believes are, Jean Brodie is a dedicated teacher – she is not a perfect teacher, not even a good one but, unable to see this herself, she still lives for her profession. The scene in which Jean Brodie defies Miss McKay and tells her that she is a teacher ‘first, last, always’ is among the finest acting moments ever put on the screen and Maggie Smith perfectly fills Jean Brodie with fire and energy, making her a force to be reckoned with despite her so often jocular appearance.
As mentioned before, Maggie Smith is able to show both sides of Jean Brodie – the eccentric one and the honest, more open one. She did this by delivering a performance that is obviously very calculated and prepared but projects all these aspects away from her own work and to her character, this way showing that all this is part of Miss Brodie’s personality and not Maggie Smith’s acting. Only sometimes, when Jean Brodie has no other choice anymore, she drops that masque. When she is showing her pictures to her class and slowly suffers a break-down at the same time, Maggie Smith finds almost a poetic core in this scene while slowly paving the way for her later moments. And especially in those final scenes, Maggie Smith shows, for a short moment, the real woman when she stands before the ruins of her whole life and says with a broken, desperate voice ‘I don’t know…” just seconds before she catches herself and begins again to speak in that theatrical manner. Miss Brodie realized that her prime is over but she still holds on to it.
Maggie Smith’s experience as a stage actress is clearly visible in her performance – and ‘that’s how it should be’, as Jean Brodie would say it herself. From her way of walking through the halls of Marcia Blaine like a conqueror supervising his lands to her ability to raise her voice without losing her dignity, Maggie Smith is in full control of every single aspect of her character and her performance while losing herself in the role at the same time. When she sits outside with her girls and quotes a poem with the most serious dedication, Maggie Smith becomes the ray of light that an actress in this role must be – she attracts and fascinates but very soon she will lose her spark and face the consequences of her own doings. Maggie Smith creates this woman by combining realism with a satire-like quality and by letting her be as theatrical as possible without letting it dominate her performance. Her Jean Brodie is everything one would expect from her based on the screenplay and even more.
There are many performances that deserve to be mentioned as being among the greatest one-woman shows in movie history – and Maggie Smith’s work as Jean Brodie is clearly one of them. She handles comedy and drama with equal ease, she is a leader, a victim, a lover, a manipulator, she's entertaining and provoking at the same time and she commands the screen with so many outstanding scenes that the end result is quite simply one of the most fascinating tour-de-forces ever put on the screen and for this she easily receives