Scottish-born writer Muriel Spark, author of more than 20 books including The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, died on April 13, 2006, in Florence, Tuscany. Maggie Smith won a surprising Best Actress Academy Award for her performance as Jean Brodie in the 1969 film version of Spark’s novel.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, in fact, is the novel that made Spark famous following its publication in 1961. The story of a girls school teacher fascinated with Benito Mussolini was initially turned into a play by Jay Presson Allen (Cabaret) in 1966. Vanessa Redgrave played Jean Brodie on the London stage, and two years later Zoe Caldwell starred in the Broadway production, eventually winning a Tony Award.
The British-made, 20th Century Fox-distributed movie version of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was adapted by Jay Presson Allen herself and directed by Ronald Neame, a former David Lean collaborator and later the director of The Poseidon Adventure. Besides Maggie Smith at her very best, the classy The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie cast featured Robert Stephens, Pamela Franklin, Gordon Jackson, Jane Carr, and veteran Celia Johnson – David Lean’s leading lady in Brief Encounter, co-written by Neame. (Now, as great as Maggie Smith is as Jean Brodie, it would have been great to see in some alternate universe Deborah Kerr as the haughty English teacher with fascist and other troubled tendencies.)
A 1978 television miniseries based on The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie starred Geraldine McEwan as Jean Brodie.
Muriel Spark books
Besides The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark’s best-known books include Memento Mori (1959), which was made into a television film starring Maggie Smith, Thora Hird, Michael Hordern, and Zoë Wanamaker; The Driver’s Seat (1970), made into a 1974 movie with Elizabeth Taylor, Ian Bannen, and Andy Warhol in a supporting role; and The Abbess of Crewe (1974), which became Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s 1978 movie Nasty Habits, featuring Glenda Jackson, Melina Mercouri, Anne Jackson, Edith Evans, Sandy Dennis, Geraldine Page, and Anne Meara.
Also: The Mandelbaum Gate (1965); Aiding and Abetting (2000); the Booker Prize-nominated The Public Image (1968) and Loitering with Intent (1981); and her last published book, The Finishing School (2004). Spark also wrote critical studies of Emily Brontë and Mary Shelley.
In 1993, she became Dame Muriel Spark in recognition of her services to British literature.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Maggie Smith’s Oscar
For the record, Maggie Smith’s 1969 Best Actress Oscar competitors were the following: New York Film Critics Circle Best Actress winner Jane Fonda for They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, Geneviève Bujold for Anne of the Thousand Days, Jean Simmons for The Happy Ending, and Liza Minnelli for The Sterile Cuckoo. Nine years after The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Maggie Smith would win a second Academy Award – as Best Supporting Actress – for California Suite.
Maggie Smith The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie photo: 20th Century Fox.