Educating Rita (1983): Oscar Nominated Comedy Starring Michael Caine and Julie Walters

Columbia release

UK Serio-Comedy

Inspired by “Pygmalion” and other mentor-pupil works, “Educating Rita” is mildly charming, sporadically involving serio comedy about the relationship between an alcoholic tutor and a working-class hairdresser seeking education.
This theatrical movie is elevated considerably by the performances of the leads, Michael Caine and particularly newcomer Julie Walters, both of whom received Oscar nominations for their roles. So did the screenplay by Willy Russell, based on his own play, which ran in London’s West End and was translated into many languages.

A variation of a play seen and done many times before, the film is about Rita (Julie Walters), a 26-year-old lower-class woman, who wants to make something better of herself and her life. Task is not made easy for her due to various burdens and obstacles from husband, family, and friends, all trying to dissuade her from her upward mobility ambition.

Dissatisfied with her station in life, and seeking to complete her education, Rita signs up for an English literature course taught by the world-weary and dissolute Frank Bryant (Caine), a drunken professor who has little respect for his students, for his jobor for himself, for that matter.

At first, Dr. Frank is simply amused by his uncharacteristically driven student, whose real name is Susan, but then he becomes fascinated by her. As one of her assignments, Frank gives Rita Forsters popular novel “Howard Ends,” which the simplistic, slightly vulgar but charming Rita interprets literallywhy should she read about “Howard and his bleeding end”

Ritas layabout husband trash talks her, and the rest of her family thinks shes wasting her time. But with courage and stamina, she slowly overcomes her inferiority complex, manifest in fear of the other, brighter students and self-conscious shame of her own ignorance.

Soon, Rita’s eagerness to learn and her zestful personality rejuvenate Dr. Frank, who has all but forgotten the joy and rewards of teaching feels like. In other words, the interaction is not one-sided; it’s mutually beneficial.

Fortunately, the filmmakers resist the temptation of turning the increasingly intimate relationship into a romantic affair. For one thing, both protags are married. Rita meets Franks wife, when he invites her to a cocktail party at his home. In a fake scene, Rita gets insecure, and watches the party through the window.

The script is full of stage turning points, sort of signals or stops in Rita’s progression. A crucial scene occurs when Rita observes her overworked, downtrodden mother crying as she’s surrounded by drunken men singing silly pub song. Rita’s mom, a negative role model by now, tells her daughter there must be better songs to sing.

A stage and TV actress, Julie Walters, recreating her stage role for which she won a Tony Award, gives such an effervescent performance that she became a household name after this picture–and the Oscar nod. I particularly like a funny scene in which Rita decides to forget Shakespeare and company, and gives her mentor a much-needed haircut and shampoo.

Vet Michael Caine is equally good, and he delivers some of his witty lines with panache, as when he observes: “Life is such a rich and frantic form that I need the drink to help me step delicately through it.” The dialogue and debates are fun to watch, even if the result of the “matches” is predictable.

Plodding direction of Lewis Gilbert is another story. Taking a two-handler play from stage to screen, he tries to open the story but to no avail. Despite the occasionally bright and sparkling dialogue, it’s still essentially a play. There’s no particular reason to see the film on the big screen, because there’s nothing to look at but actors acting.

Oscar Alert

Oscar Nominations: 3

Screenplay (Adapted): Willy Russell
Actor: Michael Caine
Actress: Julie Walters

Oscar Awards: None

In 1983, vet Shirley MacLaine won the Best Actress Oscar for “Terms of Endearment,” which also won Screenplay for its director, James L. Brooks. Robert Duvall won the Best Actor for “Tender Mercies,” in which, like Caine, he played a recovering alcoholic.