Sandy Dennis Goes “Up the Down Staircase”

I confess that I have never been a Sandy Dennis fan. Perhaps, it was her choice of roles, but her characters always came across as a contrived combination of exaggerated emotions. But after recently watching Up the Down Staircase (1967), maybe Ms. Dennis deserves a reassessment. Her incredibly natural performance as a dedicated young teacher is the highlight of this slightly more realistic variation of the same year’s more popular To Sir, With Love.

She plays Sylvia Barrett, a fresh out-of-college teacher at Calvin Coolidge High School in an impoverished New York City neighborhood. It’s the kind of school where one of the routine announcements is: “All assaults and attempted assaults suffered by teachers in connection with their employment must be reported at once.”

Sylvia has no illusions about her new job, but she’s still surprised to find limited supplies (one piece of chalk), broken glass on the classroom floor, and a lack of textbooks. Her complaints are ignored, as the head administrator is consumed with disciplining students and ensuring that the school’s myriad forms are completed. Undeterred, Sylvia buys her own supplies, cleans up the broken glass, and sets out to teach literature to her unruly students.

Three students pose particular challenges for the young teacher: a teenage girl who thinks every plot is a love story (even Macbeth) and who has a crush on a handsome male English teacher; a leather-clad young man with a high IQ who is constantly on probation and in danger of being expelled; and Jose Rodriguez, the boy at the back of the class who never says a word.

Based on Bel Kaufman’s autobiographical bestseller, Up the Down Staircase shares many similarities with To Sir, With Love…right down to a feel-good ending. However, its setting — the film’s exterior scenes were shot in East Harlem — does a better job of evoking the socioeconomic conditions faced by the students and their families.

In one of the best scenes, a woman asks if she can stay during a teacher meeting even though she is not a student’s mother. We learn that the youth in question has drifted from family to family after being abandoned by his prostitute mother. He sleeps on a sofa, works in a garage all night, and falls asleep during class. His “mother” wants Sylvia to pass the young man just so he can graduate.

Sandy Dennis captures Sylvia’s determination, frustrations, and love of teaching. When she finally reaches a student — if only momentarily — her face lights up with joy. It’s a quiet, lovely performance and, in my opinion, superior to her Oscar-winning turn in the previous year’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Dennis followed Up the Down Staircase with a handful of leading roles in films like Sweet November (1968) and The Out of Towners (1970). Her film work decreased in the 1970s, leaving her to focus again on the stage where she had her greatest successes as an actress. She won two Tonys in the 1960s, as lead actress in Any Wednesday (1964) and as featured actress in A Thousand Clowns (1963). Sandy Dennis died of ovarian cancer in 1992 at age 54.

Her supporting cast includes a handful of familiar faces, such as future Oscar winner Eileen Heckart (Butterflies Are Free) and Jean Stapleton (All in the Family). The scholarly principal Dr. Bester is played by Sorrell Booke — later famous for playing Boss Hogg on The Dukes of Hazzard TV series. I was surprised to learn that Ellen O’Mara, who gives a very appealing performance as the lovesick Alice, had only three film and TV credits.

Rick29 is a film reference book author and a regular contributor at the Classic Film & TV Café, on Facebook and Twitter. He’s a big fan of MovieFanFare, too, of course!