Maggie Smith at 80: 'a walking, talking flame'
Jean Brodie, Hedda Gabler, Downton’s Dowager … Maggie Smith has been a luminous and witty presence in film and theatre for six decades. Tessa Hadley writes about her astonishing career
Friday 23 January 2015 / http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2015/jan/23/maggie-smith-six-decades-actor-stage-screen
If you’re an actor then the physical creature you are – your given physique and face and voice and range of gesture – is your fate, with which your talent must negotiate. No, it’s probably closer even than a negotiation: I suspect your talent arises, as with a dancer, from out of the body you have, and is inseparable from it (so different from the relatively bodiless act of writing). You may have the gift of transforming yourself, but that transformation too can only come out of your bodily repertoire; you have to have it in you. Maggie Smith the actor is all in those dragged-down enormous eyes with their Watteau irony and melancholy, and in the fine-boned long face with its visible play of nerves, so that it seems to change and move even when she’s striking a pose, putting on a look. Her nostrils actually do flare. And when she was younger it was in the lean long body and the angular, clowning wrists and elbows and knees (Watteau again). The whole story of Jean Brodie (1969) is expressed in her nervous long ankles as she kicks away from the pavement on her bicycle in the opening title sequence. Once launched, she sits ludicrously upright on her bike, signalling with a so-straight arm. Smith’s body is wittily intelligent in itself, and all the absurdity and appeal and vulnerability of Jean’s character is expressed before she’s even opened her mouth to speak.
Although, when she did speak, how much she enjoyed the crisp delivery, facial tension and rhetorical flourish of Jean Brodie’s
brogue – so much so that it can often be detected in her subsequent roles. (She
isn’t always a gifted mimic: her Tennessee Williams sounds shaky in the filmed
version of Suddenly Last Summer, 1993, as does her Anglo-Irish in The Last
September, 1999.) And you can hear in her voice a twang that might be Edinburgh London and might be :
the Smiths moved there from Ilford in 1939, when she wasn’t quite five – her
father, a hospital lab technician, was posted to work in the Oxford School of
Pathology. At any rate, it isn’t quite a toff’s accent, however many toffs she
has played across the decades. She plays them like a petite bourgeois
interloper in a toff’s world, performing the upper-class performance. The role,
however perfectly felt, doesn’t quite fit skin-tight, it’s always something
assumed – like Watteau’s Gilles dressed up in a Pierrot costume. Oxford
Park (2001) worked so well because
Robert Altman saw that upper-class universe from outside, through American
eyes, making it strange, so Smith’s toffs (in
she is Constance, Countess of Trentham) work because she isn’t a natural, she’s
always putting it on. She acts these women performing themselves as women.
Because she wears their costumes like dressing-up clothes, she wants to fiddle
with them, sometimes to great effect – adjusting her scarf against a white
chiffon evening dress, she’s the most stylish thing in a tedious film of Neil
Simon’s Murder By Death (1976). Sometimes she fiddles to excess, flipping and
flouncing her grey fur boa like mad, for instance, in the opening minutes of
Shaw’s The Millionairess ( Gosford Park 1972,
a BBC Play of the Month). There’s always a little
hysterical distance – of comedy, of desperation – between the actor and the
role. When she plays working-class women I don’t think she’s ever quite as
good, her scrutiny doesn’t have the same ruthlessness. Laurence Olivier
apparently thought Smith was “common” as Desdemona in his more or less
unwatchable Othello (1965). But what makes us wince now (along with the makeup,
needless to say) is that he is absurdly grand, lost inside his idea of himself
in a noble role. Smith’s Desdemona, by comparison, seems luminously truthful.
Smith’s whole life has been her career. Her 80th birthday – and the completion of her sixth decade working as an actor – is celebrated this month by a retrospective at the BFI. She went straight from
high school for
girls, which she didn’t like much, to the Oxford Playhouse School of Theatre,
and was singled out by excited critics from the beginning. “Miss Smith is a
walking, talking flame,” wrote Bernard Levin. “And I swear she never puts foot
to ground throughout, but floats a yard above the stage.” In the stories that
come down about her frugal, Presbyterian childhood, there’s a whiff of
something bleak, with hints of violence – the children were punished hard. He
unsympathetic mother didn’t think her daughter had much chance of succeeding as
an actor, “with a face like that”. Her father Nat, who later devotedly kept
albums of his daughter’s cuttings and memorabilia, seems to have been painfully
unfulfilled, and had his own thwarted theatricality. He is supposed, when he
retired, to have offered the jottings and pamphlets of his medical researches
to the Bodleian, and then, when they were rejected, made a bonfire of them in
the garden. Oxford
As a little girl, Smith was entranced by a series of children’s books about the theatre, The Swish of the Curtain. The idea of acting fused, at some crucial point in her development, with intimations of possibilities beyond the limited life she knew. She entered into a larger self through acting it out, and then her work became the whole world for her. “A much better world,” she said once to Nancy Banks-Smith. “I’m never shy on stage. Always shy off it … It’s the real world that’s the illusion.
It is notable how many talents in theatre, film and literature, at that moment of exceptional social mobility in the mid-20th-century, came out of the same pinched lower middle-class. A generation reacted against everything meagre, respectable and inhibited in their Victorian- or Edwardian-born parents’ lives, in an explosion of free possibility, opportunity and new politics. And sex, of course. Smith’s private life has had the requisite tormented love story at the heart of it, in the shape of Robert Stephens, who played Teddy Lloyd to her Jean Brodie, Vershinin to her Masha, and Benedick to her Beatrice, and was father to her two sons – Chris Larkin and Toby Stephens, both actors. Stephens was charismatic, irresistible and impossible. It may have been a problem that, although he was a seriously good actor, his success was never quite on the scale of hers. In a happy ending that belongs in a film script, Smith got together then with screenwriter Beverley Cross, who had always been devoted and was still waiting in hope. They were married until his death in 1998.
From the beginning, Smith has worked in both theatre and film, and seems to transfer easily between them. The tension in the sexy, witty physicality of her stage performance carries over into closeups of the expressivity in her face. These two aspects of an acting career are carried forward lopsidedly into posterity: only the film performances are captured and kept, and for the live theatre we have to rely on hearsay and description.
“I like the ephemeral thing about theatre,” she has said, “every performance is like a ghost – it’s there and then it’s gone.” (There are some films of her in theatre, such as the Othello, or TV films-of-a-play such as Tennessee Williams’s Suddenly Last Summer, where she’s a not unpredictably neurotic and smothering mother.) Although they famously didn’t get on, Olivier invited Smith to become part of his new National Theatre soon after he formed it in 1962, where she appeared, among other things, in Chekhov, Strindberg and Much Ado. She is supposed to have been wonderful as Rosalind and Beatrice, Shakespeare’s boyish-girls, which isn’t surprising, considering her leggy androgyny. Peter Hall said she resided “on the cusp of camp”, and she is fairly often tipped the whole way over into it. Kenneth Williams was a lifelong close friend, and he and Smith have the same stiff shoulders, the same yawing slippage up and down the vocal range. She seems to camp up Coward sometimes – it’s difficult perhaps to do much else. And there’s certainly nothing much else to do with Downton.
But at her best Smith is a sharp, smart comedian – it’s not hard to imagine how good she was in the Restoration comedies that were so fashionable in the 60s and 70s, and in Wilde and Shaw. No doubt she brought the cool of a comedian, too, to roles not always imagined as comedy – apparently she made a wonderfully disenchanted Masha in Chekhov’s Three Sisters. And what wouldn’t one give to have seen her in the 1970
of Hedda Gabler, directed by Ingmar Bergman, Smith’s own favourite performance.
In the photo stills it looks like heady stuff, everything just right for
Ibsen’s stark angst – the skinny wrists and gesturing cigarette and tight black
dress; the stiff, unhappy bent back; the Munch-scream-shaped white face.
There’s not much in film that captures this aspect of her range; interesting to
wonder how different Smith’s career might have been if British film of the last
50 years had been less cheerful and parochial and middle-brow – if it had taken
itself with anything like the seriousness of Swedish film, with a Bergman
exerting his magnetic pull. London
When British cinema tries for angst it ends up all too often with empathetic and mawkish – like The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. And empathy isn’t really how Smith’s acting works: it’s cooler and crisper than, say, the more heartfelt warmth of her contemporary and friend Judi Dench. Dench can usually find something to feel with in the least promising part, whereas Smith is always at her best when the words are good. She was wasted as Lady Naylor in The Last September because the adaptation wasn’t true to the great talk in Elizabeth Bowen’s original novel. She’s good as Lady Trentham because the writing is funny and clever (the script is by Julian Fellowes who writes Downton, but he’s delivering something different for Altman’s film). She’s good with Shaw’s words and Muriel Spark’s, and in A Room With a View, because Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s rendering of Edwardian oddity and otherness is so note-perfect. Her best performances don’t ask us to identify with what’s most familiar in people, they show us what’s most strange.