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It's a rare thing to watch a movie that's actually superior to the original novel, but Robert Mulligan's 1967 film of Bel Kaufman's contemporary classic UP THE DOWN STAIRCASE is one of those rare instances. Make no mistake, Kaufman's novel is still wonderful, but Mulligan's film, amazingly, manages to capture all of the qualities that made Kaufman's book such a compulsive read, and another strength is in the casting of the film itself. Everyone seems perfectly suited to his/her role. Sandy Dennis, one of the '60's most original and exciting performers, was the ideal choice to play the flighty heroine Miss Sylvia Barrett, the naive, but determined young New York City schoolteacher who finds herself constantly at odds with not only her pupils, but the faculty members as well. I have always had a great admiration for Sandy Dennis' work, but this is the movie that made me a genuine fan. She's absolutely breathtaking to watch. She has this stunning, captivating, and truly unique beauty, and most importantly, she is one of the most extraordinarily gifted actresses to grace the Hollywood screen. In fact, I would say that she was THE most talented actress of the late '60's, early '70's era without peer or rival. Her Oscar-winning supporting role in the previous year's WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? was indeed a magnificent triumph, but UP THE DOWN STAIRCASE was the film that proved she was even more capable at handling a leading role and I think, ultimately, this is the film that made her a star.
What can I say? I read the book and enjoyed it. I saw the film and absolutely fell in love with it. I loved Sandy Dennis and her unique method of acting-- yes, I know she sometimes stammered, but don't we all in "real life?" I give high marks for Mulligan's directing because the movie had so many wonderful facets: it could be funny, it could be disturbing, and it could be so moving. The penultimate scene with Jose in the auditorium was so touching, so meaningful, and yet so simple. But exceedingly powerful. I found myself relating to Dennis in every way. Her bewilderment at The System, her deep desire to reach her students, her frustration, her idealism, her disappointment. And, when she finally experiences a victory, her sincere gratification. One reviewer called the film "slick." I don't at all agree. It was subtle, meaningful, and true. And the other actors did such a superb job of acting that it all seemed unscripted. There was no sex, nudity, swearing-- none of the things that today's movies are so laden with. I have a theory that these gimmicks are used for shock value, as filler, or to cover up the inadequacies of the film makers. You can tell that those who made this film were classically educated because the movie's foundation was strong and true. There wasn't a wasted line nor a meaningless exchange. Just full, rich film making at its finest!! Make no mistake: a film needn't be an action thriller or sexy to be compelling. I'm disappointed by today's movies because they lack something: heart, soul, meaning-- I'm not sure-- but I liken them to "cinematic junk food." So if you like pure cinema, see this film. (I don't think there's any comparison to "To Sir With Love," by the way. The latter was entertaining, but that was about it.)
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
And there are many levels....
The late Sandy Dennis gave a tour de force performance as the rookie teacher who not only enters where angels fear to tread- New York's inner city Calvin Coolidge High School- but also has the guts to retain her compassion against overwhelming odds and even fight a system that would crush her students into urban oblivion. Her Sylvia Barrett is portrayed with nuance and grace that is a real pleasure to see.
The large supporting cast is equally fine: Jeff Howard, as the tragically wasted Joe Ferone; Sorrell Booke, as the wryly humorous school principal, Dr. Bester; Jose Rodriguez, as Jose Rodriguez, the shy boy who quietly soaks in the value his new teacher has to offer. Patrick Bedford, as the frustrated writer, who breaks free of the trap he finds himself in. And there are many, many more.
Tad Mosel's script, based on the best-selling novel by Bel Kaufman, touches a wide range of human situations, dramatic, romantic, humorous. One of my favorite lines: Pupil: (As Miss Barrett instructs her class on taking mid-term exams.) "If you're standing at the back of the room, how do we know who you're watching?" Miss Barrett: (Correcting his grammar.) "Whom. '....Whom I'm watching.'"
Robert Mulligan is a very underrated director with a long string of wonderful films, including To Kill A Mockingbird and The Stalking Moon, but Up The Down Staircase may be his best achievement. He brings together a microcosm of society- people, processes, authority, and the struggle against ignorance- all embodied in one small New York City neighborhood, and offers it up with wisdom and love.
Fred Karlin's highly original musical score provides whimsical counterpoint to the stark realism of the settings (all filmed on location) and reinforces the optimistic theme of the story, and yet retains a funky edginess to underscore the more serious moments of the film. I catch myself humming his tunes now and then.
Sylvia Barrett is just a woman, an individual swept up- and nearly swept away- by the complexities of modern city life. But more than anything else, this movie is about courage- hers and that of her students.
I first saw Up The Down Staircase in '67, when I was in high school, and it's stayed with me ever since. If only I had had a teacher like Syl Barrett! For all its realism, adversity, bureaucracy, and pessimism- and while not epic in scale- Up The Down Staircase remains one of the most inspiring, uplifting shows I know of. A triumph of the human spirit. Very highest rating.
If you ever stopped to think about it, what is life really about?
Making a difference!!! Who likes adversity? On the other hand,
adversity makes you aware of the fact that you are alive... For
teachers, there are thousands and thousands of students out there who
have a subconscious reliance on them!! Students bring on a bevy of
inhibitions, fears, and acute human inadequacies which teachers have
thrust upon them and become burdened with!! Kids have problems, as do
adults, teenage problems are just different from adult problems,
nonetheless, we all have problems, problems are what make us human!!
Without challenges, we lack a rudimentary purpose!! This is what the
movie "Up the Down Staircase" is all about!!
Sandy Dennis plays the brand new teacher who is emotionally barraged by a bunch of reprobates (students) from the Bronx!! Who would want such a job? Evaluating Miss Barrett's aggregate circumstances, back in 1967, teachers made so little money! In compounding this utterly deplorable situation, now descends the grief, the lack of funding for basic materials, the violence, the faculty/student apathy, and the overall administrative despondence!! Such an obstacle course makes the job of teaching in the inner city a living nightmare!!When does all of it end? Why doesn't everyone who is teaching in this inner city rat trap just get the hell out of there, and focus on preserving their sanity!!! Miss Barrett (Sandy Dennis) quickly becomes an advocate of throwing in the towel!! Now strikes the proverbial and humanistic nerve cord which enlightens her, and makes her realize that at some level she has made a difference.. If you can communicate with one student at some time, and be told that you made a difference in their lives, you have been rewarded.. If you are able to conceptualize that a quality in a student is not ordinary because it is extraordinary, then you have attained a metamorphosis in human behavior that sparks a coveted gratification!!!Such a fate affected Sandy Dennis, and such a movie "Up the Down Staircase" articulated the importance of such an accomplishment!!! The director, Robert Mulligan ("To Kill A Mockingbird") is one of the greatest directors in Hollywood!! The movie, "Up the Down Staircase" is very powerful in it's ideological premise!! Sandy Dennis is remarkable in this film, of course, how can she top her performance in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf"? Nevertheless, Sandy Dennis was superb in this movie!! The supporting actors and actresses in the film "Up the Down Staircase" did an excellent job as well!!! I very much endorse the idea of seeing this movie, definitely!!! The underlying realization of necessary challenges has a very intellectual cohesiveness in this film!! A must for educators!!! Without a doubt, one of the better efforts of the cinema!!
Similar to "To Sir With Love", but well worth watching, a veritable symphony of characters. Each character is rather pathetic, but all of them together make something beautiful. What I particularly liked was its not wanting to prove anything, just telling a story about real people. And Sandy Dennis is her usual humane self. This intimate film has more glamor than flashier ones. It's the glamor of grittiness and real life.
I only saw about 3/4 of this on a boring Saturday afternoon on Channel 5 (not famed for the quality of the films it shows - more usually soft porn). As it was the only thing on telly worth watching (out of 144 channels - that figures) I decided to stick with it. I'm glad I did. It turned out to be quite entertaining. "Dangerous Minds" with Michelle Pfeiffer was on ITV the night before, and I don't mind telling you that I thought UtDS was the superior movie. The acting was good all round, and though some of the lines were a little bit cliched and very 60's, I thought it was OK.
It's hard to compare this movie with other films of the genre. "The
Principal", "Dangerous Minds", "Lean on Me", and "Stand and Deliver" really
don't have much in common with UtDS. Nevertheless, this film is very good
and Sandy Dennis is outstanding as the young teacher who is starting out in
a tough New York City high school.
What makes UtDS unique is that there's no focus on gang fights, or ghetto culture, or the teachers' private lives. Instead, the story focuses almost entirely on the classroom. More specifically, it focuses on an English teacher (Dennis) and her students. That may seem boring, but this movie is anything but. The student characters are well developed and their relationships with each other, their parents, their teachers, and the school administrators are extremely realistic.
Anyone who is tired of the mindless, inhuman **** being shown in multiplexes all over America should give this film a look. It'll be a breath of fresh air. It's a positive, intelligent, engrossing story.
Unfortunately, it's not likely to be in your local video store. But if you should have the rare opportunity of seeing UtDS - perhaps on premium cable or on a VHS tape from a public library - you will not be disappointed!
Reminds me of the wonderful movie "To Sir, with Love" starring Sidney Poitier, which came out one year earlier in 1966. Both have an academic setting and emphasize reaching difficult young adults through intellect and respect. The direction and the script on this one is somewhat darker, and scenes are allowed to build up suspense with realistic danger that comes very close to the edge. The film explores the spectrum of student characters and the delicate balance a teacher has with both students and faculty. A very hard to find film, I've seen it only once just after midnight and commercial free on a highly rated classic movie channel, Turner Classic Movies. I highly recommend at least one viewing of this great drama.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Sandy Dennis was realistic as the young idealistic teacher trying to
cope in a traditional urban setting in "Up the Down Staircase," based
on Bel Kaufman's best seller.
You really have to be a teacher or at least know one to have any idea of what is going on in our public schools.
Jean Stapleton's Sadie Finch was perfect. As the school secretary, she thought she ran the place. She literally did being constantly on the intercom stating to ignore the continuously ringing fire alarms.
To this very day, sadly, there is no solution to the problems of urban education. We try this program, this initiative, this idea-but nothing really works, when you have groups of students dedicated to the belief that nobody learns when they're around in school. Having taught in the NYC school system for 32 years before my retirement, I have to say that the film offers an extremely realistic view of what is occurring. We have an assistant principal here who treats the teachers in the same way that the students are to be treated. He lashes out at them. Besides being highly unprofessional, how do these supervisors expect a teacher to command respect when they are spoken down to in front of students? My first principal of cherished memory often said that a teacher has succeeded if they can reach at least 5 pupils in the class. In that context, this film certainly succeeds. Of course, it's unrealistic when we see this class of mostly losers catch on to Miss Barrett's methods so quickly. We see a principal who seems to go through the motions when addressing a student assembly. Yet, Sorrell Booke, is very touching in that role when he explains to Sylvia Barrett (the late Sandy Dennis) that she is a good teacher and that there are better schools. The librarian and guidance counselor brought back memories to me. Frances Sternhagen, as the former, showed how uninvolved many school librarians are in the education process. The fact is that they are exempt from teaching classes and are in a world of their own. Ditto for guidance counselors who treat to their small offices with their files and psychological jargon. Florence Stanley was so appealing in that latter role. Patrick Bedford epitomized the cool teacher who was guilty of a serious infraction. When you're free period 1, you still belong in the building as anything can happen as depicted. In New York City, our current school officials should see this excellent, endearing film.
Rivals "To Sir, With Love" (released around the same time) as the best
teacher film of all time. The difference: Sandy Dennis.
Dennis was one of those actors they don't make anymore (or at least don't showcase in Hollywood in 2007). She was strange, quirky, not conventionally pretty and she had that quality a lot of new female teachers have-that deer in the headlights look that makes the viewer root for her to make it "work" with those tough students.
The story is strong with some good subplots with the troubled students. It is dated but I would say the same issues facing Dennis here face contemporary teachers.
I take Dennis to Robin Williams in "Dead Poets Society" anyday.
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