Maggie Smith

One of today's most gifted and venerable actresses, she can turn the tiniest role into the most memorable corner of a movie.

By Steve Vineberg

Published June 6, 2000 7:11PM (EDT)

The etchings of style in a Maggie Smith performance are unmistakable. First observe the face, with its sharp, art-deco angles, which she tends to stretch into a long rectangle to chart psychic damage, the lines creased as if with a palette knife, the lips pressed taut, elongating the skin between her lips and her nose and lending it a moneyed air. She can alter the shape of her luminous nut-brown eyes to italicize a word or a phrase. Her string-bean figure is Modigliani-like in some settings, meager and scarecrowlike in others. In comic roles, her wire-drawn body becomes a mannequin for wondrous costumes, especially hats. Her arms paint the air in broad waves of expressive color, and as she swivels her frame around, usually in counterpoint to her line readings, she does so many witty things with her rubbery wrists that they're almost always the first thing you focus on when she walks onstage or appears on-screen. (Pauline Kael once dubbed her "Our Lady of the Wrists.")

But Smith's chief glory is her vocal prowess. She turns nasality into a virtue, whipping it up into a kind of mock-aristocratic fog, and her buzzing sibilance leaves a silvery trail through her lines -- sometimes suggesting a man in expert drag working a sly parody on femininity. Her voice can be plush or glassy, or break up into little glittering pebbles; she can pull hard on the syllables as if they were taffy or fold her voice into paper-thin layers or fly into a startlingly high, catfight shriek or an abandoned whine. She takes pauses at odd times and then sprints through the punctuation to collapse over the finish line in a kind of neurotic exhaustion. She can convert a line into a trademark stutter without actually changing the words.

To American audiences she is best known for her Oscar-winning performances in the 1969 "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" -- which made her a star on this side of the Atlantic -- and in the 1978 film of Neil Simon's "California Suite," as well as for a series of character parts in both British and Hollywood pictures. Your first encounter with Smith may have been in one of the all-star, lushly dressed mysteries she flits through, "Death on the Nile" and "Evil Under the Sun," where she elevates Agatha Christie to the high-comedy plane. Or it may have been as Charlotte Bartlett, the fussy cousin invited to chaperone Helena Bonham Carter on an Italian vacation in the film of E.M. Forster's "A Room With a View." She has appeared in movies as disparate as "Sister Act," "The First Wives Club," "Hook" (as Robin Williams' foster grandmother, providing the only spark of genuine magic in this deflated fairy tale), "Tea With Mussolini" and the Ian McKellen "Richard III." Within the last half-year she has shown up in two BBC productions on Masterpiece Theatre -- as the Queen of England in "All the King's Men" and as Aunt Betsey Trotwood, a little marvel of a performance, in the most recent "David Copperfield."

Smith first appeared onstage as Viola in "Twelfth Night" in 1952, but her professional career began with a Broadway revue called "New Faces of 1956," and she appeared in her first movie, a forgotten noir called "Nowhere to Go," in 1958. She joined the Young Vic Company the following year and won acclaim for playing in Shakespeare and James Barrie, Eugene Ionesco and Peter Shaffer, but it was the title role in the Jean Kerr comedy "Mary, Mary" that made her a London stage star. In 1963 she was invited to join the National Theatre, where she remained until the early '70s and where her acting began to acquire legendary status. You'd read about Maggie Smith as Beatrice or Masha or Miss Julie; in Ingmar Bergman's black-and-scarlet-toned "Hedda Gabler" ("There is a dry bitterness, a kind of ad humor, to her portrayal that ... is both sardonic and pathetic," wrote the New York Times' anonymous London correspondent); in Henrik Ibsen and Noel Coward; and especially in Restoration comedy, which is where she won her warmest reviews and evolved her magically eccentric style.

Walter Kerr, writing in 1970, tried to particularize her unconventional stage presence: "She looks like a pair of scissors ... a closed pair that cuts even when closed. She must be, I think, the narrowest creature ever to come through a stage door ... The range comes in part from her hands, which occasionally seem larger and more mobile than she does ... The velocity comes in part from her speech, which seems to have been recorded at 3-3/4 and played at 7-1/2 without the least loss of intelligibility." Harold Clurman wrote of her later (marvelous) performance in Tom Stoppard's "Night and Day," "Easy and always on target, she is above all endowed with a capacity to think funny," and that accurate description glances back at her training in the high comedies of George Farquhar and William Wycherley. And Benedict Nightingale said of her in "The Way of the World" that "everything about her, from her eyebrows to her larynx to her slightly flouncing torso, seems mocking or self-mocking or both."

None of those Restoration productions was ever committed to film, but Stuart Burge's unadorned 1965 movie of the famous "Othello" in which John Dexter directed her and Laurence Olivier during her first season provides a glimpse of what it must have been like to watch Smith at the National Theatre. She's the only Desdemona I've ever seen who could possibly hold the stage opposite Olivier's Othello. She finds the hushed power in Desdemona's sweetness and eroticism and lifts the role out of the supporting category of other Shakespearean tragic heroines like Ophelia and Cordelia. Here is the English theater critic Kenneth Tynan's assessment of her Desdemona's response when Othello publicly slaps her across the face: "Her reaction ... is not the usual collapse into sobs; it is one of deep shame and embarrassment, for Othello's sake as well as her own ... After the blow, she holds herself rigidly upright and expressionless, fighting back her tears. 'I have not deserved this' is not an appeal for sympathy, but a protest quietly and firmly lodged."

Most of the movies she acted in during the '60s gave little indication of the sort of range she was displaying in London's West End. She had a memorable two-scene role in "The Pumpkin Eater" as Philpott, who tempts a married writer (Peter Finch) into bed while befriending his fragile wife (Anne Bancroft). Sitting on top of a compact fridge, her legs half-folded underneath her, biting her nails and touching her neck sensuously and talking in a cuddly, insinuating Cockney twang, she must be as quirky a seductress as anyone in the history of movies. But though she's pretty good in films like "The V.I.P.s," "Young Cassidy" and "The Honey Pot," the intelligence she brings to bear on these colorless inginue roles seems wasted. Moviegoers seeing her again as Muriel Spark's nonconformist Edinburgh schoolmistress in "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" would have registered her name and not recalled where they knew it from.

Coming at the end of the decade, "Jean Brodie" made Smith as famous as she deserved to be. Looking luminous in slightly absurd, too-colorful ensembles, with glamorously marcelled blond hair and scarves thrown recklessly over her shoulder, Isadora Duncan style, Smith brings all her classical training to bear on Jay Presson Allen's clever dialogue and turns in a miracle of a performance -- both hilariously mannered and somehow heroic. The movie goes out of its way to humiliate Brodie in its final half-hour, bringing all her dreams and schemes crashing to the ground; it moves awkwardly from high comedy to melodrama -- rarely a smart direction. But Smith is so vivifying and so funny that the callousness of this woman's manipulations doesn't outweigh the value of the show she puts on for her lucky pupils, day after day, and finally we don't believe in her as a villain, whatever the script may tell us. I doubt audiences ever did. I saw the movie several times when it came out (I was a college student) and remember falling in love with Brodie; returning to it after three decades, I was astonished to find that you're supposed to walk away thinking she's bad news and -- to quote the student who brings her down -- that "children shouldn't be exposed" to her.

Smith left the famously political National Theatre in 1971 after several disappointments and embarked on a series of projects -- leading roles in movies ("Travels With My Aunt," "Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing"), British TV dramas ("The Merchant of Venice," Shaw's "The Millionairess") and a highly successful tour of Coward's "Private Lives," directed by John Gielgud, in which she costarred with her husband, Robert Stephens, who had also been her leading man in "Miss Jean Brodie." But the marriage fell apart during the long run of the show, and Stephens left the cast. Canadian critic Martin Knelman is not alone in his assessment that what remained of Smith's performance was "a nightclub comic's Maggie Smith impression -- all tics and nervous affectations."

Knelman, who chronicles the history of the Canadian Stratford Shakespeare Festival in his book "A Stratford Tempest," sees the beginning of Smith's collaboration with the festival's brilliant young artistic director, Robin Phillips, as the salvation of her career. She performed at Stratford in 1976, 1977, 1978 and 1980, often under Phillips' direction and often opposite Brian Bedford. By this time she was remarried, to playwright Beverley Cross, who was an old, pre-Stephens flame. (He helped to raise her two sons by Stephens, Chris and Toby, both of whom became actors.) I was in my 20s then, teaching high school in Montreal, and I used to make the seven-hour drive to Stratford in a state of joyfully prolonged delirium once or twice a summer to see those productions, conscious that I was watching a pair of theatrical legends and a company in a golden age. I saw her Rosalind and Lady Macbeth and Beatrice, her Queen Elizabeth in "Richard III," "The Sea Gull" and "The Guardsman," Edna O'Brien's "Virginia" and a completely reconceived "Private Lives" -- all magical, unforgettable.

She was imperious as Irina Arkadina in "The Sea Gull," treating her sensitive son with superficial concern and dismissing him with chilly impatience. She survived a fumbling "Macbeth" by providing a portrait of the Scots lady as psychically frail from the outset. These were daring choices. Her Virginia Woolf, in an exquisite production of a major, neglected play, had a knife's-point lucidity. Knelman's report that "the audience was caught in a kind of spell" certainly confirms my own experience. Mel Gussow, writing in the New York Times, praised her performance as "an act of intuition and of acting alchemy. She has merged her own vivid personality with that of her charismatic subject." Her Amanda in "Private Lives," all tinkling ice cubes and devastating one-liners on the surface, got at the heartbreak beneath, at what Alan Strachan called "the underlying sadness of these glib and over-articulate people who twist their lives into distorted shapes because they cannot help themselves." There was the moment in "Much Ado About Nothing" when her Beatrice and Bedford's Benedick discovered for themselves what their friends had known all along -- that they were in love. I remember it because it was the first time in my life I'd ever seen two actors on a stage look at each other with true erotic amazement.

Those years with Phillips seemed to put paid to her early-'70s habit -- most evident in "Travels With My Aunt" -- of caricaturing herself. She hasn't done it since, not even in stinkers like "The Missionary" or this year's "The Last September," in which the precision of her take on the unassailable snobbishness of British aristocrats is the only thing that makes the picture worth seeing. She can sketch wonderful caricatures -- check out the New York divorcie chic and the repressed grimace of social disdain in her cameo in "The First Wives Club" and the way she attacks the role of the smeary-lipped blackmailer in the TV dramatization of Muriel Spark's "Memento Mori" -- but they're the kind that show off her talents rather than eating away at them.

Sometimes she brings a little more to the table than she has been allowed room for: There's a plaintive note in her last scene in "A Room With a View" -- an inkling of Charlotte Bartlett's lonely spinster's life -- that catches you unawares, and she keeps trying to mix tones, comedy and pathos in the underwritten role of the housekeeper in "The Secret Garden." It's not her fault that the experiment fails; it succeeds so well in "David Copperfield," where she has a part deserving of her talents, that every time she and Ian McNiece (as Aunt Betsey's kite-flying companion, Mr. Dick) pop up in a scene, you may find yourself laughing and crying. When a Smith performance fails to take wing, it's generally because of the limitations of the material -- she can't overcome the meanness of her role's conception in "Tea With Mussolini" or in Agniezska Holland's clumsily reworked "Washington Square," and as ingenious as her work is in "California Suite," the masochism in this Simon script makes you wince.

Smith is notoriously shy; she has given few interviews. (A People magazine interviewer once quipped, "Smith swats at questions like bothersome gnats.") And she dislikes talking about acting, so there's little on record to assist us in determining how she gets her effects except the occasional perceptive comment by a colleague. Playwright Alan Bennett, for example, once observed, "The boundary between laughter and tears is ... where Maggie is poised always." In a great performance like the one she gave for Jack Clayton in 1987 in "The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne," or the ones she gave on TV in Bennett's monologue "Bed Among the Lentils" (also 1987) and in Richard Eyre's superlative mounting of the Tennessee Williams one-act "Suddenly Last Summer" (1993), there's so much going on that it's hard to know where to start to analyze. The first two are linked: portrayals of alcoholics for whom drink -- and, for Susan the vicar's wife in "Bed Among the Lentils," an unlikely romance with an Indian grocer -- provides the only bulwark against total sensory deprivation. But that's their only common ground. Susan is hyperconscious and piercingly ironic, like most of Bennett's heroes. Judith Hearne (invented by novelist Brian Moore) is an Irish spinster who has always looked to the Roman Catholic Church for the comfort she's denied in her life, first as a dutiful daughter caring for a cruel, unloving aunt and then as a wilting maiden struggling to make a living off a waning list of piano students. Her emotional commitment to Judith's collapse as she finds her final romantic hopes dashed, her neighbors mean-spirited and her church unyielding can only be called extreme. She does the kind of acting that first puts you in the character's shoes and then begins to strip away layers of her skin.

In "Suddenly Last Summer, playing the dilapidated matriarch who fights tooth and nail to protect the myth of her dead poet son's purity from his truth-shouting cousin (Natasha Richardson), the companion of his final days, Smith lays her Southern accent on a crushed voice. You think you're listening to a ghost, a desiccated figure smothered in gardenias, and the odor of poison oozes out from behind her white face, waved hair and cool silk. Smith has never looked so diminutive, so the amazing death's-head power of her Mrs. Venable is all that more remarkable. This is undoubtedly the least known of her great (nontheatrical) performances, and it's not like anything else she has ever attempted.

Both "Bed Among the Lentils" and "Judith Hearne," on the other hand, belong to a genre that she has made her own. She specializes in illuminating a kind of besieged gentility -- in "Judith Hearne" it's lace-curtain Irish, in "Lentils" it's Church of England (and Susan abhors it and rebels against it). It's the source of the humor in both "Memento Mori" and the uproarious 1985 comedy "A Private Function" (written by Bennett), set in the brutal rationing days after the war, where Smith plays a provincial Lady Macbeth who beats up on her befuddled chiropodist husband (Michael Palin) until he agrees to secure an unlicensed pig. (Smith's Joyce isn't hungry so much as status hungry; she wants to eat like a somebody.)

The central joke in Bennett's latest play, "The Lady in the Van," which Smith's enormously entertaining performance has made a West End hit, is the tension between her character's circumstances -- she's homeless -- and her grandiloquence. And you can find elements of this scraping for hauteur in "The Secret Garden," "Washington Square" and especially "A Room With a View," one of the most enchanting of her comic performances, where Charlotte's eyes are wary and wide and, though she's only a poor cousin, her tone almost always conveys distressed bourgeois taste. Smith gets at this subject matter -- the ragged efforts of the disenfranchised to maintain not just dignity but some vestige of style -- from both ends of the tonal spectrum, high comic and tragic. It's rich territory.

We're fortunate that Smith works so much, turning out at least a picture a year, returning regularly to the West End stage (in productions that often make the voyage to New York) and surfacing on television. Her only serious competition as the most gifted English-speaking actress alive today is Vanessa Redgrave, who shares her knack for turning a tiny role into the most memorable corner of a movie, but who has been less lucky -- or less wise -- in her choice of starring vehicles. At 65, Smith shows no indication of slowing down, and she still possesses the quality Kerr seized on 30 years ago when he wrote, "Miss Smith is what is meant by an alternating current."

Steve Vineberg

Steve Vineberg teaches theater and film at Holy Cross College and writes regularly about both for the Threepenny Review.

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