A real drama queen

Dame Maggie Smith will be 70 this month. Michael Coveney looks at the career of an actress who can be prickly in private but is always mesmerising in performance
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The Independent Culture

After Miss Bountiful, Miss Bleak. Almost three weeks after her great friend Dame Judi Dench hit three score years and 10, amid scenes of great rejoicing, Dame Maggie Smith will achieve the same age, on 28 December. She would be the first to say: let joy be totally confined; let's not roll out that barrel; we'll have no barrel of fun, no barrel of laughs. For Smith is a different animal entirely from Dench. She is the introvert, gathering the world within her critical sphere to recycle its vagaries and misdemeanours in her comic personality. Dench, the extrovert, pushes outward to meet boundaries and casts a beam of joy and sadness on the intervening terrain.

In some ways they are, respectively, the Edith Evans and Sybil Thorndike of their generation: Smith prickly, private, diffident and a high-comedy stylist; Dench generous, visible, enthusiastic and emotionally fulsome. Of course there are overlaps. Dench can kill you with a glance of disapproval at ten paces and Smith is considerate in all sorts of unexpected ways. And both can flip between comedy and pathos with the slightest look or intonation.

But what about this: Dench is the patron of 180 charities, while Smith is, as far as I know, a patron only of the Oxford Playhouse, where she appeared at the start of her brilliant career in 1951.

The two have worked together only once on stage since they were both in the Old Vic company of the late 1950s. They played the wife (Dench) and mistress (Smith) of the dead man in David Hare's The Breath of Life a couple of years ago. The piece seemed deficient in its own title, but the two women ensured packed houses at the Haymarket for the entire run.

They repeat this sister act in the latest of their several shared screen credits, Ladies in Lavender, this year's royal film premiere, in which they play, both in grey wigs, a widow (Smith) and her spinster sister (Dench), whose tranquil life on the Cornish coast in 1936 is transformed when a shipwrecked Polish violinist is washed up in the cove.

Smith privately refers to the film as "Lavender Bags", a label that defines her own temperament, which is one of recoiling fastidiously from the fray at every opportunity. She doesn't just see the funny side of things, she sees the unfunny side, and registers that satirical aghastness in a stiffening of her sinews, a basilisk stare, a murmur of disapproval. In the film, this takes the form of overseeing her sister's enchantment by the violinist with an almost chaste severity. The contrast in style is as marked physically as it is emotionally. Smith is willowy and slender, Dench blockish and four-square. With Dench, you drain the honest draught of a performance; with Smith, the cocktail comes with an acidulous twist of lemon.

Smith has two of the rarest gifts as a screen actress: perfect timing, and perfect pitch. These attributes are rare on stage, too, but to have translated her matchless technical bravura from the live medium to the celluloid has been one of the signal triumphs of a career that came into international focus when she won the best performance Oscar for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in 1969.

That glacial study in bottled-up sexuality and dazzling irony was typical of Smith's ability to flourish in a sort of sealed-off isolation, like a rare bird in an empty aviary. Everyone else bounces off her, as she charges ahead in her Marcel-waved wig and no-nonsense, shoulder-shuffling walk, with her exhortations to the "gels" and fanatical dedication to the cause.

That cause was politically suspect. You could now view Smith's unbending ideologue as a premonition of a real-life Maggie (Thatcher) 10 years later. There was an element, too, of Smith's own rather dour, puritanical Glaswegian mother in a performance that was struck through with gleeful revenge. And of course it was funny and camp. Where had all this come from? Smith's father, Nat, was a laboratory technician from Newcastle upon Tyne, who had moved south for work and settled in Ilford, Essex, where Smith and her twin older brothers (they both became architects) were born. At the outbreak of war, Nat's work took him to Oxford and the Dunn School of Pathology, where he was engaged in research work on penicillin.

After attending the Oxford High School for Girls, the young Maggie decided she wanted to be an actress and joined the new Playhouse school. Undergraduate revue led to a West End debut with her friend and mentor Kenneth Williams in Bamber Gascoigne's Share My Lettuce in 1957 and, eventually, the National Theatre with Laurence Olivier.

She fell in love with Robert Stephens - they had two sons, Chris Larkin and Toby Stephens, both actors - and embarked on a series of performances that established her as the outstanding new star in the firmament. It is hard for those of us who saw Olivier's company at the Old Vic - I used to pay three shillings to sit in the "slips" at the side of the upper circle, or two shillings to stand at the back of the stalls -- to describe the heady excitement of seeing Olivier, Smith, Stephens, Colin Blakeley, Geraldine McEwan, Albert Finney and the rest, in play after play over seven or eight years.

Smith was enchanting in Shakespeare as Desdemona and Beatrice. But nothing better demonstrated her range and full potential than the 1965 double-bill of August Strindberg's suicidal Miss Julie and Peter Shaffer's hilarious Black Comedy. When rehearsals went through a rocky stage, the ever pessimistic Smith suggested that, as she had slit her wrists in the first play, why didn't she cut her throat in the second? In the end, she scored a double triumph. Miss Julie became the template for her later, great tragic performances culminating in the film of The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1988), the tale of a secret alcoholic battling with guilt against her sensuality, and her wonderful, similarly conflicted Susan in Alan Bennett's "Bed Among the Lentils" in his television Talking Heads series.

In Black Comedy - the funniest play since the war, until Michael Frayn's Noises Off came along - scenes of confusion in complete darkness after a power cut were played in full light, Smith turning up to queer her camp ex-boyfriend's new romantic pitch (Derek Jacobi was an outrageous antiques dealer). She gave a superb display of mischievous outrage, dressed only in a borrowed pyjama top, even impersonating an ancient Cockney char: "It's as black as Newgate's knocker up 'ere. Are you playing one of your saucy games, Mr Miller?"

In the middle of this riot, Smith still tempered her revenge on her former lover with pathos and the threat of impending loneliness. This became a trademark of her comedy. In Arthur Pinero's heart-warming backstage classic Trelawny of the Wells, she played Avonia Bunn not only in a fetching pair of fishnet tights but also, said John Higgins, as "a fourth-rate trouper with a heart as high as the Post Office Tower and a turmoil of emotions that runs from jubilation to despair in a matter of seconds".

So it has continued, with Smith defying us with every performance to think of her merely as a genius of comedy. Even her Lady Bracknell in Nicholas Hytner's 1993 production of The Importance of Being Earnest - the one which, when asked if she would take it to New York, she said she wouldn't take to Woking - was less an imperious whirlwind than an exercise in a comic veneer that was crumbling into girlish vulnerability.

One of her most underrated performances is in the recent film My House in Umbria (2003), adapted by Hugh Whitemore from a novella by William Trevor, in which she plays - again, a lonesome soul - a romantic novelist who blossoms as a caring hostess after a bomb blast on a train to Milan. She forms a particular affection for an American girl who lost her parents, and, when a cold-fish uncle comes to collect her, she moves into another dimension of concern and, indeed, desperation. Since Smith lost her second husband, the writer Beverley Cross (who died in 1998), she has, like Judi Dench (whose husband, Michael Williams, died in 2001), deferred sorrow by keeping busy. I don't think it too fanciful to see in both these great dames a renewed valour in their work, and in Maggie Smith I see new notes of charm and wisdom all the time.

And then there are her costumes. She is quite magnificently attired in My House in Umbria in a succession of Italian haute couture summer dresses, suits and hats. She even makes a floral house-coat seem elegant in Ladies in Lavender. Dench tends to pay less attention to these things; she is in danger of resembling a sulky Native American in that unruly long grey wig.

Smith steams on, ever wary of how she might appear, staring back at us with her head teasingly cocked and her lovely long neck straining slightly in disbelief. Anxiety is the spice of her life and the fuel to her talent. And in hearing us wish her a happy birthday she would surely start sniffing around for an ulterior motive.

PRIME CUTS: THE WIT OF MAGGIE SMITH

Dame Maggie Smith's brilliantly precise voice, with its nasal twang, can lend even the most unpromising lines a devastating wit. It's one of the reasons why her famous witticisms and insults are so cherished and so often impersonated in the theatre world.

During her celebrated 1965 National Theatre appearance as Desdemona in Othello, Laurence Olivier, playing the Moor in dark make-up, complained about her accent. "How now, brown cow?" she returned. Her scene-stealing made Olivier vow never to work with her again.

She was unhappy with Nicholas Hytner's production of The Importance of Being Earnest in 1993. When she was asked whether she would be taking it to Broadway, she replied: "Broadway? I wouldn't take it to Woking."

On another occasion, the playwright Ronald Harwood stuck his nose nervously into her dressing-room when she was appearing, to only lukewarm applause, in his mediocre Interpreters, in 1985. He told her he was going home to work, as he was "struggling with a new play". The actress fixed him with her basilisk stare and replied: "Aren't we all!"

An interviewer recently told her how great she looked. "Oh please," she said. "Please. I did look greater."

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