(Dame) Maggie Smith - Actors and Actresses

Nationality: British. Born: Ilford, Essex, 28 December 1934. Education: Attended the Oxford School for Girls; studied at the Oxford Playhouse School. Family: Married 1) the actor Robert Stephens, 1967, (divorced 1975), sons: Christopher and Toby; 2) the writer Beverley Cross, 1975. Career: Played in revues in Oxford and London. 1956—New York stage debut in New Faces of 1956 ; 1958—film debut in Nowhere to Go ; 1959–60—season at the Old Vic, London; 1963–68—member of the National Theatre, London; also acted at the Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario; later work includes The Way of the World , 1984, and Lettice and Lovage , 1987; 1987—in TV mini-series Talking Heads , the "Bed among the Lentils" episode. Awards: Best Actress Academy Award, and Best Actress, British Academy, for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie , 1969; Best Supporting Actress Academy Award, for California Suite , 1978; Best Actress, British Academy, for A Private Function , 1985, A Room with a View , 1986, and The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne , 1987. Dame Commander, Order of the British Empire, 1990. Agent: ICM, 388 Oxford Street, London W1N 9HE, England.

Films as Actress:


Nowhere to Go (Holt) (as Bridget Howard)


Go to Blazes (Truman) (as Chantal)


The V.I.P.s (Asquith) (as Miss Mead)


The Pumpkin Eater (Clayton) (as Philpot)


Young Cassidy (Cardiff and Ford) (as Nora)


Othello (Burge) (as Desdemona)


The Honey Pot (Joseph L. Mankiewicz) (as Sarah Watkins)


Hot Millions (Till) (as Patty Terwilliger)


The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Neame) (title role); Oh! What a Lovely War (Attenborough) (as music hall star)


Travels with My Aunt (Cukor) (as Aunt Augusta); Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing (Pakula) (as Lola Fisher)


Murder by Death (Moore) (as Dora Charleston)


California Suite (Ross) (as Diana Barrie); Death on the Nile (Guillermin) (as Miss Bowers)


Evil under the Sun (Hamilton) (as Daphne Castle); Clash of the Titans (Desmond Davis) (as Thetis); Quartet (Ivory) (as Lois Heidler)


The Missionary (Loncraine) (as Lady Ames); Better Late than Never ( Whose Little Girl Are You? ) (Forbes) (as Miss Anderson)


A Private Function (Mowbray) (as Joyce Chilvers); Lily in Love ( Jatszani Kell ) (Makk) (title role)


A Room with a View (Ivory) (as Charlotte Bartlett)


The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (Clayton) (title role)


Romeo-Juliet (Acosta) (as voice of Rozaline)


Hook (Spielberg) (as Granny Wendy Darling)

Maggie Smith (center), with Laurence Olivier and Joyce Redman, in Othello
Maggie Smith (center), with Laurence Olivier and Joyce Redman, in Othello


Sister Act (Ardolino) (as Mother Superior); Memento Mori (Clayton and Hubbard—for TV) (as Mrs. Mabel Pettigrew)


The Secret Garden (Holland) (as Mrs. Medlock); Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit (Duke) (as Mother Superior); Suddenly Last Summer (Eyre—for TV) (as Violet Venable)


Richard III (Loncraine) (as the Duchess of York); The First Wives Club (Hogan)


Washington Square (Holland) (as Aunt Lavinia Penniman)


The Last September (Warner) (as Lady Myra); David Copperfield ; Curtain Call (Yates) (as Lily Marlowe); Tea With Mussolini (Zeffirelli) (as Hester); All the King's Men (Jarrold—for TV) (as Queen Alexandra)


By SMITH: articles—

Interview with Clive Goodwin, in Acting in the Sixties , edited by Hal Burton, London, 1970.

Interview in Show (Hollywood), November 1972.

Interview with Mary Harron, in the Observer (London), 18 November 1982.

Interview with Sheridan Morley, in the Times (London), 14 July 1990.

On SMITH: book—

Coveney, Michael, Maggie Smith: A Bright Particular Star , London, 1992.

On SMITH: articles—

Current Biography 1970 , New York, 1970.

New York Times , 7 January 1989.

Wolf, Matt, "There Is Nothing Like This Dame," in New York Times Magazine , 18 March 1990.

Radio Times (London), 26 September 1992.

* * *

As a younger dramatic actress making a splash in Othello , Maggie Smith seemed as proficient as other English stage contemporaries but unremarkable on-screen. It was as a flustered comedienne, England's daffiest export since Kay Kendall, that Smith truly emerged as a star. What makes Smith so funny is that she is often the sole cast member diligently trying to remain the voice of reason; the loss of her dignity to chaos can be overwhelmingly hilarious, whether it is her Oscar-nominee in California Suite , who drowns her desire for her gay hubby in booze; her mousy nurse uncovering a rapscallion's murder scheme in The Honey Pot ; or her Dora Charleston trying to keep her wits about her while the world's most famous detectives lose their cool in Murder by Death . Often cast as a low-level professional (e.g., the enterprising secretary in Hot Millions , the paid companion in Death on the Nile ), who is sometimes a spinster, Smith specializes in playing underappreciated ugly ducklings who often save the day for their love objects as Patty Terwilliger does in Hot Millions by wisely investing her spouse's embezzled funds.

When Smith seamlessly combines the frustration of the unmarried woman with her trademark frazzled composure in melodramas, the comedy technique heightens her characters' predicaments. In her Oscar-winning performance as the disciplinarian molder of little girls in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie , she is both pathetic and laughable as she misinterprets the range of her influence. What is so heartbreaking about Smith's roles that play tears off laughter is that her insular characters have no sense of their own ridiculousness; when the self-image is shattered by the perception of the outside world as in Jean Brodie , the effect on the spectator is devastating. In the transmuting tragicomedy Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing , the slapstick sequences brilliantly reverse audience expectations; Smith's dazzling physical comedy shtick becomes a slap in the audience's face once it is revealed that Smith's character is terminally ill. We are so conditioned to draw enjoyment from Smith's lively self-deprecation, that this knowledge of Lola Fisher's mortality is shocking. Daringly, both A Room with a View and The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne employ ludicrous aspects of the characters' deportment to underscore their fragility. Not since Katharine Hepburn cornered the market on the unloved ( The African Queen , Summertime , Rainmaker ), has a star brought so much poignancy to bear on the plight of the spinster.

A comparison between these two great eccentrics is telling even if Hepburn was a great beauty who relied on mannerisms to emphasize her characters' uniqueness, whereas Smith is a plain woman who sometimes falls back on mannerisms to undercut her characters' despair. But when Smith colors her unloved women with humor not for sugarcoating but for ironic counterpoint, her artistry is profoundly moving, as with her moral watchdog chaperon in Room with a View and her tippling neurasthenic, Judith Hearne , one of cinema's incontrovertibly great performances. Foolishly pinning her old maid hope on an obvious con man, Hearne is driven round the bend by this final rejection as if it were a personal affront from a God she has come to question. Superb in British television productions such as Memento Mori and a remake of Hepburn's chilling Suddenly Last Summer , Smith is admittedly something of a one-woman band as an actress. If her performance gimmickry is not as well-suited to the all-star bitchery of Evil under the Sun as it is to the inspired satire of A Private Function or The Missionary , she can never be accused of tasteful dullness; her bag of tricks is unmistakably hers, not the generic posturing of female clowns such as Goldie Hawn and Meg Ryan.

Lately, somewhat toned-down in supporting roles as the stern Mrs. Medlock in the stylish children's film The Secret Garden or as the disgusted mother of a political monster in the revisionist Richard III , Smith is restrained but still impactful. In the tepid box-office-smash the Sister Act films, Smith provides a welcome soupçon of class, but she is much too distinctive a funnywoman to play straight lady to other comediennes. Her only dreadful performance in a brilliant career forms the centerpiece of Travels with My Aunt , a crippled project she inherited from Katharine Hepburn after a power play between that actress and MGM. Encouraged in an interpretation owing more to Auntie Mame than Graham Greene's beloved book, Smith offers a circus clown rendition of The Madwoman of Chaillot . For the only time in her career, those much written-about star mannerisms strangle her authority. One misstep in a body of work this bright and singular only throws the other magnificent achievements into sharper relief. Whereas other versatile stars manage to give superb comic and searing dramatic acting displays in different films, Smith magically combines comic and tragic masks inside the spirit of the same character. How she creates these breathtaking histrionic effects may be the province of sorcery.

—Robert Pardi

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