All about this star
When considering the Great British Thespians of recent generations, people have a tendency to think Male. There was Olivier, Gielgud, and Richardson, then Paul Schofield, Derek Jacobi and on to new arrivals like Alan Rickman and Ralph Fiennes. Yet, of course, there was a female axis, a series of stage stars that would put the willies up any egocentric male lead. Judi Dench. Vanessa Redgrave. Glenda Jackson, Diana Rigg, Fiona Shaw, all carry the weight and authority to steal the show, anytime, anywhere. And there’s another: a woman so focused on her work she has never, ever courted celebrity: so protective of her private life she has been nominated for Oscars on six separate occasions, winning twice, yet we know next to nothing about her. Stand up Maggie Smith, arguably Britain’s finest living actor. According to Jacobi, who began his career with her at the fledgling National Theatre: “Being onstage with someone like Maggie Smith, who thinks at the speed of lightning. that’s a lesson in itself. Unless you keep up, you are lost”. Praise comes no higher.
She was born Margaret Nathalie Smith on the 28th of December, 1934, in Ilford, making her perhaps the world’s best respected Essex Girl. Her mother, Margaret Hutton Little, was a Scot, her father Nathaniel Smith hailing from Newcastle, maybe explaining why Maggie has been so successful when playing gritty Northern characters. There were also two brothers, twins Ian and Alistair (good Scottish names, both), born six years earlier.
When Maggie was four, in high summer 1939, the family moved to Oxford, a far safer option, what with London being under severe threat from Nazi bombs. Nathaniel would work as a pathologist at Oxford University, and Maggie would attend the Oxford High School For Girls. Despite her father’s profession, though, academic education was not for her, and she left at 16, in 1951 joining the Oxford Playhouse School and immediately beginning an all-round education in theatre. She would act, and would eventually rise to the rank of assistant stage manager.
Maggie’s recognised “serious”stage debut came when she performed in the Oxford University Dramatic Society’s Twelfth Night in 1952, but she had already appeared in the Chegwell Players’ Children In Uniform, and The Pick-Up Girl at the Playhouse. Over the next four years, she’d test herself and widen her scope in all manner of productions. There was He Who Gets Slapped, Rookery Nook, even Cinderella. At the time, much of her effort went into variety revues, and it was in these that she played the Edinburgh Theatre Festival, and made her London stage debut, in Oxford Accents at the New Watergate. It’s proof of Smith’s all-round schooling in entertainment that, when she appeared in the New Faces ’56 Revue at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Broadway (the latest in a series of showcases organised by former actor Leonard Sillman between 1934 and 1968), she was billed as”a singing-comedienne”.
Over the next couple of years, she quickly rose to prominence. Now working regularly in London, she appeared in the Share My Lettuce revue at the Lyric, Hammersmith, and The Stepmother at St Martin’s. Her keen intelligence and already masterful sense of timing earned her a spell at the prestigious Old Vic, performing in Richard II, As You Like It and The Merry Wives Of Windsor. Soon, in Mary, Mary, she made her debut as a lead in the West End, for which she was chosen as the Variety Club’s Actress Of The Year. Her budding brilliance did not go unnoticed and, in 1963, she signed up as a charter member of Laurence Olivier’s new Royal National Theatre Company, taking lead roles in such hefty productions as Othello and Ibsen’s The Master Builder.
Concentrating so heavily on stage-work, Smith’s rise to cinematic prominence was not quite so fast. She’d begun in 1956, appearing as a party guest in the Eric Portman-starring Child In The House. Hardly a storming entry – she was way below even Alfie Bass on the bill. Two years later, there was another small part, in the crime drama Nowhere To Go, for which she received a BAFTA nomination as Most Promising Newcomer. By 1962, she had risen to Lead Man’s Girlfriend status, as spiv Daniel Massey’s young lady Chantal, in the crime comedy Go To Blazes, where three crooks nick a fire engine for their getaway vehicle.
Come 1963, though, having won her place at the National Theatre Company, the parts had got better. She stood out as Miss Mead, Richard Burton’s devoted, love-hungry PA in The VIPs then, the next year, exhibited her sexual charisma as the quirky Philpott in Jack Clayton’s The Pumpkin Eater, befriending Anne Bancroft then sneakily seducing her husband, Peter Finch. Next came Young Cassidy, based on the autiobiographical work of Irish poet Sean O’Casey (Cassidy being the name O’Casey gave himself in his writing). Rod Taylor starred as O’Casey, a manual labourer and revolutionary and, though you’d have expected his scenes with the young Julie Christie to have stolen the show, it was his relationship with prim book-seller Nora (Smith) that stood out. Aside from the two actors’ abilities, there were two possible reasons for this. First, the pair had already acted together, in The VIPs. Second, John Ford, who might well have turned the movie into a more raucous affair, left the picture after three weeks, making way for the less earthy Jack Cardiff.
1965 saw Maggie’s arrival as a lead actor of international renown. As Desdemona to Olivier’s Othello, she was extraordinary, profoundly empathetic yet doomed in the face of the Moor’s spiralling jealousy. It was reported that, after Othello, the notoriously insecure and manipulative Olivier vowed never to work with her again. The troupe’s performance was made into a movie, with Smith nominated for an Oscar. She continued to make movies – The Honeypot in 1967, a comedy based on Moliere’s Volpone, and embezzlement caper Hot Millions in 1968 – but theatre remained her true calling. She remained with the Old Vic, touring occasionally, performing in the likes of Hedda Gabler and Trelawney Of The Wells.
And there was marriage. Throughout the mid-Sixties, Maggie had acted alongside Robert Stephens in, amongst other things, Much Ado About Nothing and Hay Fever, directed by Franco Zeffirelli and Noel Coward respectively. They would marry in 1967, continuing to appear together onstage and on film, Stephens co-starring in Smith’s hits The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie and Travels With My Aunt. They would have two sons, both to be actors. Chris Larkin would appear with his mother in Zeffirelli’s Tea With Mussolini in 1999, while Toby Stephens would show up both in Ralph Fiennes ‘ Onegin, and Clint Eastwood ‘s Space Cowboys.
With two children to care for, Smith now began to lessen her workload. She did not, though, lessen the effect of the work she did. In 1969, she appeared in one of her signature roles, as the lead in Muriel Spark’s The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie. Here, as the way-ahead-of-her-time teacher at an Edinburgh girls’ school, she was stupendous – as ebullient and glamorous as Isadora Duncan, heroic, hilarious and, in her right-wing brainwashing of the kids, eminently dangerous. She waltzed off with her first Oscar. Next, she leapt into the unknown as a classy yet sexually voracious singer in Richard Attenborough’s Oh, What A Lovely War. Then she was Oscar nominated once more for her portrayal of the extravagantly flamboyant Aunt Augusta, leading a dull young banker on a crazy tour of Europe in 1972’s Travels With My Aunt.
It should have been perfect. She had acclaim, respect, two children and a handsome, famous husband. Yet life began to unravel. She’d left the National Theatre in 1971, due to a series of disappointments. Now her marriage began to crumble too. Well, first it crumbled, then it spectacularly exploded. In 1974, Smith and Stephens were to co-star in a Gielgud-directed touring production of Coward’s Private Lives. They played Los Angeles, but the rest of the tour proved a nightmare. Smith was in torment, seen to be “all tics and nervous affectations”. Stephens eventually left the cast, and the marriage was over. Coincidentally, Stephens film career also collapsed. He would not appear again for over a decade, until he showed up, as a picture of shabby Englishness, in the likes of Empire Of The Sun and Bonfire Of The Vanities.
Fortunately, salvation was waiting in the wings. By 1975, Smith had re-found love, this time with old flame Beverley Cross. Cross was a playwright who also provided screenplays for the likes of Jason And The Argonauts, Genghis Khan, Half A Sixpence, and the famed TV production of The Six Wives Of Henry VIII. He’d later write Smith’s own Clash Of The Titans. Sadly, he would die in 1998, after a series of aneurysms.
But, for now, Maggie was re-invigorated. With the support of young artistic director Robin Phillips, she reacted to accusations that she had begun to caricature herself by taking off for the Stratford Festival in Ontario. Here, away from the political infighting of the London stage, she found herself again, appearing between 1976 and 1980 in the likes of Cleopatra, Three Sisters, Macbeth and, courageously, Private Lives. There was also Night And Day, at the Phoenix in New York, for which she picked up a Tony nomination.
She returned to cinema with a bang, too. In 1976, she had appeared as one of the world famous detectives taunted by Truman Capote in Neil Simon’s snappy comedy Murder By Death. Then, in 1978, she returned to Simon, appearing alongside Alan Alda, Michael Caine and Jane Fonda in his star-studded California Suite. This was a clever, sometimes cruel comedy, telling four separate stories from four different rooms in a Beverley Hills hotel. And, in a neat reversal of her role as Diana Barrie, a highly-charged actress who loses out on Oscar night, Maggie won her second Academy Award.
Now Smith was quite evidently at the top of her game, dominating her every production. She was hilarious as Lady Ames, seducing na’ve Michael Palin in The Missionary, then stole his thunder again as the ambitious fish-wife in A Private Function. She nabbed another Oscar nomination, as Charlotte Bartlett, chaperone of Helena Bonham Carter in A Room With A View, then there was a BAFTA for The Lonely Passion Of Judith Hearne where, directed once again by Jack Clayton, she was a picture of “besieged gentility”. She also kicked up a storm in Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads monologues, Bennett saying of her: “The boundary between laughter and tears is where Maggie is poised always”. Smith would perform Bennett’s work again in 1999, in The Lady In The Van at the Queen’s.
And, amazingly, she kept going. Having performed Lettuce And Lovage at London’s Globe in 1987-88, in 1990 she took it to Broadway (actually back to the Ethel Barrymore Theatre where she’d debuted 34 years before), and won a Tony. Then there was Hollywood. She played the old Wendy, dreaming of Peter Pan in Steven Spielberg ‘s Hook. She was the disapproving Mother Superior in Whoopi Goldberg’s smash hit Sister Act (1 and 2), and appeared in The First Wives’ Club.
Being Maggie Smith, of course, it was not all big-budget extravaganzas. She engaged in far more meaningful productions, like Ian McKellan’s punchy update of Richard III and Zeffirelli’s Tea With Mussolini. There were costume dramas like David Copperfield (as Betsey Trotwood she was Emmy-nominated) and Robert Altman’s Gosford Park, where she snapped and preened with abandon as Constance, Countess of Trentham, picking up yet another Oscar nomination. And, naturally, she was chosen to play the prim and proper Professor Minerva McGonagall in Spielberg’s Harry Potter And The Sorceror’s Stone. Along with Robbie Coltrane. she was said to be the only actor requested by author JK Rowling. She’d reprise the role in the sequels, The Chamber Of Secrets, The Prisoner Of Azkaban and The Goblet Of Fire.
Amidst these there’d be Divine Secrets Of The Ya-Ya Sisterhood, where Sandra Bullock was estranged from her former Southern belle mother Ellen Burstyn and Maggie, along with two other lifelong friends of Burstyn’s, attempted to reunite them by kidnapping Bullock and showing her what roister-doisters they and her mum were in the past. The next year, 2003, would bring the successful TV movie My House In Umbria, where Smith played a romance writer caught up in a terrorist bombing and inviting her fellow survivors – a young German fellow, a traumatised girl and Ronnie Barker’s barking colonel – back to her country place to convalesce. Now this lonely old lady, who drinks too much and lives in her own imaginary world, at last has a family, the sweet situation threatened by an investigating police chief and the arrival of the girl’s uncle. It was another classic Smith performance, winning her an Emmy award.
2004 would bring two more hits. First The Prisoner Of Azkaban, then Ladies In Lavender, the directorial debut of Charles Dance. Here, alongside Judi Dench (with whom she’d starred in David Hare’s Breath Of Life at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket between 2002 and 2003) she was one of two sisters in a cottage in Cornwall in the years leading up to WW2. Finding a handsome young foreigner washed up on the beach, their lives are thrown into turmoil as Dench foolishly falls for him and the authorities wonder if he’s a German spy. Come 2005 there’d be more Potter and then Keeping Mum, where Rowan Atkinson played a vicar so obsessed with writing the perfect sermon he doesn’t notice that his kids are off the rails and his wife, Kristin Scott Thomas is having it away with golf coach Patrick Swayze. Then, like a satanic Mary Poppins, Maggie turns up as the new housekeeper, determined to reintroduce order and punish the offenders, even if it means resorting to the foulest means possible.
2007 would see Smith still at the top of her game. As well as appearing in her fifth Harry Potter movie, she’d pop up briefly in Julian Jarrold’s classy Becoming Jane, where Anne Hathaway would play the young Jane Austen, rebelliously conducting a romance with a charming but poor James McAvoy. Smith would add oomph once more as the class-obsessed Lady Gresham, appalled that Austen would turn down her wealthy but arrogant nephew. After this would come a rare return to TV with Stephen Poliakoff’s Capturing Mary, a companion piece to Joe’s Palace, starring Smith’s Potter co-star Michael Gambon. Contemplating the way the past can overtake and destroy us, this saw her as a formerly brilliant writer and critic reflecting on her younger days and, in particular, a charismatic but evil fellow who wrought destruction all around him. There’d also be a stage comeback when she reunited with son Chris Larkin for Edward Albee’s The Lady From Dubuque at the Haymarket. Here Catherine McCormack would disrupt a house party by revealing she is dying, with further confusion caused when a mysterious Maggie shows up claiming to be McCormack’s mother.
Having won a host of awards, Maggie Smith could look back on a job well done. As a Dame Of The British Empire, she’s received plaudits from the very highest levels. But we all know she will never stop. Her fame has been built on brainpower, intuition and bravery, on timing, empathy and an advanced sense of humour. And a very specific type of acting. When in 2005 she was promoting Ladies In Lavender in the US she was asked what she thought of Sanford Meisner’s violently introverted school of performance. She replied “Oh, we have that in England, too. We call it w***ing”. She has dealt in smouldering sexuality, but she has never relied upon her looks, and so, unlike those who do, she has no reason to fear time. As long as she lives, she will be the best.