Maggie Smith has been playing old ladies for a long time. It’s not that she was never young. Go back to what was really her movie arrival, a curiosity called Nowhere to Go, from 1958. She was twenty-four then and looked it, playing opposite a forgotten actor named George Nader in a good small thriller, directed by Seth Holt and co-written by a novice screenwriter named Kenneth Tynan. Yes, that Kenneth Tynan. She looked foxy, sexy, smart, and attractive, without ever having the facial voluptuousness that speaks of contented mirror-gazing. Quite quickly it became apparent that Smith was a comedienne, more interested in wit than romantic glory. It’s true, she was Desdemona in Laurence Olivier’s famous Othello on the stage in 1964. But she admitted that she was afraid of him, uneasy with Shakespeare, and not entirely attuned to the passion thing. So she read her lines and waited to be smothered with a pillow. Decades later, one longs to hear old lady Smith’s tart account of looking up at Larry and a descending pillow and hoping he didn’t get carried away.
She was ironic, sarcastic, and she had the natural timing of Groucho Marx. In 1969, in the theater, she was as fully sexy as she would ever be as Marjorie Pinchwife in The Country Wife, though the most erotic thing about her was her timing of the jokes. In the same year she won the Oscar doing a movie of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. She was thirty- five, but her Brodie felt older. She relished the drawled Edinburgh voice, the rather gingery hair and the schoolmistress fascism in Brodie, always going on about the great Mussolini.
Jean Brodie was a farewell to youth and youthful emotion. Maggie Smith had brief moments of erotic alertness to come on stage in Hedda Gabler and Miss Julie—but those two women are very hesitant over sex and Smith seemed willing to be past her prime and into the acerbic retrospect of middle age. The closest she got to deep feeling was as someone beyond trusting in Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing (directed by Alan Pakula) and The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (from a Brian Moore novel). She had two marriages (to the actor Robert Stephens and the playwright Beverley Cross) and two sons, both of whom are actors. She was terrific pals with Kenneth Williams, an insecure but inspired comic; they played together in the review Share My Lettuce and in a famous Peter Shaffer double bill of two one-acts, The Public Ear and The Private Eye. Williams once said they were alike because they were both suppressed hysterics. I can believe Smith is a decent, warm woman. But she has been reluctant to let that show in her work and quite edgy or suppressed with unfettered feelings.
A key moment in her career came in 1972 with the movie Travels with My Aunt, taken from one of Graham Greene’s best novels. George Cukor was set to direct, and his old friend Katharine Hepburn was eager enough to play the part to work on the script. Aunt Augusta is said to be upward of seventy in the book, but Hepburn, at sixty-five, decided finally that she was too old for it. So Smith, twenty- seven years younger than Hepburn, was brought in, and was then quite happy to play the part older. (Smith was still only thirty-eight.)
The masquerade goes on. Dame Maggie Smith will be eighty later this year, but in My Old Lady she is playing ninety-two. I shudder to tell you the film’s clunky story; it brings back such wretched memories. Still, duty calls: Kevin Kline comes to Paris, a bummed- out failure in his late fifties, to claim the very attractive house his father has left him. But there is a problem. The father had a mistress and he left lifetime occupation of the house to her, and she is ninety-two now. This woman was married to another man, and she lives with her daughter from that marriage (Kristin Scott Thomas). Everyone has good reason for being unhappy, until they are happy. The film is written and directed by Israel Horowitz and it comes from a play of his own. You would guess this if I had said nothing, for the action is broken up in tidy stage sections. You can feel the curtain rise and fall and hear the hushed, crushed emotion in the talk. It’s dreadful. But it got me thinking about Maggie Smith.
It’s hard these days to lead any kind of social life without bumping into the conversation stopper, “Oh, Maggie Smith—isn’t she wonderful!” Well, I’m sorry, but this has to cease. She isn’t always wonderful; sometimes she’s a wicked old fraud. So, yes, she has been a mainstay of the Harry Potter franchise as Professor Minerva McGonagall (who is really Jean Brodie as an aarp witch), and yes, she is Violet Crawley, Dowager Duchess of Grantham in Downton Abbey (which is sort of Lady Bracknell cut with Mrs. Thatcher). I suspect that she looks on both projects with the raised eyebrows and disdainful wit that waited for Othello’s pillow. Not that she will be extinguished so long as mileage remains in either venture. It goes without saying that she is just as much a resident at the Exotic Marigold Hotel, and the next seven veterans relief movies that come along. After all, Maggie Smith has two Oscars (for Jean Brodie and California Suite) and another four nominations. She has three Golden Globes, three Emmys, and seven BAFTA. It goes on and on, and no one seems to notice that she’s on automatic.
The truth is that, despite every lamentation over how the picture business has too few good parts for women, and far too few for older women, the mature sisters of cinema are doing quite well. Smith will be eighty later this year. Judi Dench is seventy-nine. Vanessa Redgrave is seventy-seven. Eileen Atkins is eighty. What a generation—and it has one notable retired member, Glenda Jackson, who is seventy-eight and still a member of Parliament.
The ladies should remember the competition. In My Old Lady, Maggie Smith stays seated most of the time. She has a fainting fit at a crucial juncture. But she doesn’t do too much in its overloaded and none-too-plausible emotional situation. This restfulness is the more apparent because Kristin Scott Thomas (a mere fifty-four) has elected to play the daughter’s plight for real, with moments of unmarred anguish. Don’t be alarmed, or encouraged. Don’t underestimate the possibility that Maggie Smith was prepared to give so much heartfelt dialogue the shaft, rather like Carol Burnett re- doing Gone With the Wind. Smith is much more comfortable making fun of herself and her world. I saw her once on stage in a play called The Interpreters. I can recall nothing about the play, but I know I was laughing at her slow burns, her double- takes, her scene-stealing gestures, for most of the performance.
What that means is that Maggie Smith is a phenomenal actress who seldom moves us. You have only to make a quick comparison with Judi Dench and Vanessa Redgrave to feel the difference. Redgrave has taken many wayward decisions in her career, and Dench is not above being a grand lady, but either one of them can admit us into the human heart. As Joan Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking and as Iris Murdoch in Iris, Redgrave and Dench left us no way out. Does Maggie Smith keep that terrain out of bounds? Not quite. Several years ago Alan Bennett wrote a series of dramatic monologues for television under the title Talking Heads. There was one episode, “A Bed Among the Lentils,” in which Smith appeared as the repressed and ill-treated wife to a vicar who at last finds some romantic consolation with an Indian grocer. Her telling is not without humor. Smith needs that as much as full stops and breathing. But there is heartbreak, too, and a full character with a true sense of physical need.
I mention that because of a film still to come. For about fifteen years, a derelict woman, Miss Shepherd, parked a yellow van outside Alan Bennett’s London home—and lived there, using his front garden as a bathroom. Bennett tolerated this intrusion, out of kindness, helplessness, and even curiosity. He started writing about it as “The Lady in the Van.” This appeared as a diary entry in the London Review of Books, then as a memoir, a radio play, and a stage play—in which Smith took the role of Miss Shepherd. Now there is to be a movie, directed by Nicholas Hytner. It will be a portrait of an eccentric, who can easily be played for laughs. But I suspect it will work as a film only if we discover the wounded humanity in the old woman. That could be a special test for Maggie Smith, but well in advance it looms like another shot at Oscar.
David Thomson is the film critic for The New Republic and the author, most recently, of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film (sixth edition) (Knopf).