…In relentless pursuit of all performances nominated and won!
The charming Julie Walters made her film debut by reprising her West End/London stage role as Rita in Educating Rita, based upon the play by Willy Russell. It is a performance that is truly like a breath of fresh air, earning Walters her first Oscar nomination as Best Actress. She earned another Oscar nod for her supporting turn in Billy Elliot, and is perhaps best known today as Mrs. (Molly) Weasley in the Harry Potter films.
In Educating Rita, Walters is teamed up against another formidable Brit of the screen – Michael Caine – and she matches him scene by scene. It is interesting to note that the original play only involved the two main characters; the film drops in additional characters only talked about in the stage script. Caine plays Dr. Frank Bryant, a university professor of literature in Liverpool who tutors Rita through an Open University program. No stranger to the bottle, Frank seems doomed to becoming excessively jaded and morosely alcoholic – until Rita’s passion for learning reawakens his interest in the very subject he teaches. Rita arrives on the scene with somewhat punked 80’s bleach blonde hair streaked with pink, dressed in a short skirt and high heels – and full of determination to discover something new within herself; something different than the life she has made (currently employed as a hairdresser) in her 26 years. Her family does not understand her desire to learn, and she is married to a man who refuses to think his wife is good for anything other than breeding his children – a role Rita does not feel she is ready to fulfill.
One point that I found interesting and very accurate when I looked up the film on Wikipedia (for I always do a little research online into these films as I watch them), is that, according to the article’s author, “the film focuses on how Rita struggles to still interact with her peers from her own working class background, but similarly struggles to fit into the educated middle class. Rita’s original preconceptions of the educated classes having better lives and being happier people are brought into question throughout the film through Frank’s failing social life and alcoholism and Trish’s [Rita’s artistic, bohemian flatmate] attempted suicide.”
Walters is brilliant at depicting Rita’s spunk and enthusiasm, and as viewers, we cannot help but root for her in every scene – even when Frank attempts to drag her down into his own self-pitying moments. Caine is excellent as well, scoring a Best Actor nomination in the bargain. While we see that Frank, as the more educated of the two characters, has the upper hand at the beginning of the film, Rita completely turns the tables on him as the film goes on. This progression is lovely to behold – and Rita’s maturity is evident as she dresses more smartly, quits smoking, lets her hair go back to its natural color and style, and takes back her true birth name of Susan (she adopted the name of Rita after a favorite author). All facades are stripped away as Rita’s confidence grows. She doesn’t feel the need for them anymore. In some ways, the story almost harkens to a modern-day Pygmalion or My Fair Lady. In this particular case, however, we do not see Rita as matching the strength of her mentor, but rather, teaching him a good deal about himself; in essence, humbling him as she becomes more educated and sure of what she wants in life (perhaps something you only catch a mere glimpse of with Henry Higgins, who pretty staunchly maintains his authority).
The dialogue is crisply-written, at times quite funny, and very human. The conversation feels natural – and I confess to falling in love with Walters’ accent. This is a film not to be missed, and it will tickle you as a fun snapshot of the styles and trends of the early 80s. The synthesized music is a hoot, a few of Walters’ costumes are quite, well, interesting, and one scene actually involves a discotheque. I kid you not! Don’t let these very dated references spoil the total enjoyment you will surely receive in watching this film, however. It’s a treasure and the teaming of Walters and Caine makes every moment worth the while.
Walters lost the 1983 Oscar to Shirley MacLaine in Terms of Endearment.