INDELIBLE

Maggie Smith was not the first choice for the movie version of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Vanessa Redgrave, who did the role on stage in London, was tabbed but conflicts with the scheduling of other projects interfered. For Smith, it was both luck and trap: going full throttle on the tics and tricks, she won the Oscar, but she has paid the price for it through the lingering death of typecasting. In just about every role thereafter, Smith has done variations of her Jean, and often times so shockingly a rip-off—as in Travels with My Aunt—that you’re close to saying “I’ve had it.” (Having seen her on the London stage doing Private Lives, I left the theatre mumbling those very words.) While most of her subsequent performances are marred by association, one can’t say she’s anything but an indelible impression; she gives Jean everything she’s got—a tour de force of artificiality. You don’t buy for a minute the character as she plays it, but she’s so certifiably acting that she’s undeniably captivating on a grand scale. She’s tutoring herself and us on voice control, articulation, mannerism, expressive emotionality. She’s helped by, one, our own softened remembrances of school days past (we all think we had a teacher like her), and two, a supporting cast that doesn’t give this ostentatious bitch one inch. Then-husband to Smith Robert Stephens has his best movie role ever as the adulterous artist; Pamela Franklin, in suspicious specs, does the assassin very convincingly; and Celia Johnson, also in eyeglasses suggesting less than good motives, most striking in her last movie role.

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