Peter Craven

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Mag­gie Smith: A Bi­og­ra­phy By Michael Coveney Ha­chette Aus­tralia, 353pp, $32.99

For 50 years, Mag­gie Smith has been re­garded as one of the great­est ac­tresses. She has won two Os­cars: in 1969 as Muriel Spark’s schoolmistress in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and a decade later in the film of Neil Si­mon’s Cal­i­for­nia Suite. Un­like her con­tem­po­rary Judi Dench — they are rav­ish­ing to­gether in Charles Dance’s Ladies in Laven­der and Franco Zef­firelli’s Tea with Mus­solini — she did not be­come world fa­mous in her 60s, though it is one of the para­doxes of her screen ca­reer that in her 30s she took the world by storm play­ing older or old women.

She says of her ca­reer, which she ab­hors talk­ing about, “The thing was eas­ier then. No­body minded if you were too old for a part. I’m too old for most things now.” She adds dur­ing an in­ter­view with bi­og­ra­pher Michael Coveney that Dench and He­len Mir­ren seem to have “cor­nered the mar­ket for queens. I only get the odd duchess. And a wiz­ard, of course.”

She means Pro­fes­sor Min­erva McGon­a­gall in the Harry Pot­ter films, a role she once de­scribed as Jean Brodie in a witch’s hat. “I liked the first one when she changed into a cat.”

Harry Pot­ter in­tro­duced her to a few mil­lion fans and play­ing the Dowa­ger Count­ess of Gran­tham in the tele­vi­sion se­ries Down­ton Abbey se­cured her that dread­ful fame that fi­nally over­took Alec Guin­ness when he ap­peared in Star Wars.

Smith is man­i­festly an ac­tor of ge­nius, though she dis­dains her celebrity, is full of self­doubt, takes a dim view of most things and told Coveney when he ap­proached her about a bi­og­ra­phy back in the early 90s that she thought it was a bad idea, though she gave him her hus­band’s phone num­ber and said: “I’ll warn him that you’ll be con­tact­ing him.”

She de­clares — with patent sin­cer­ity — “Oh, I am a recluse. I don’t have any friends.” The great­est high co­me­dian since Edith Evans is nonethe­less a scream through­out this su­perb book, even though you don’t for a mo­ment doubt the re­al­ity of her melan­choly.

She came to stage fame at 26 in 1960 in Or­son Welles’s pro­duc­tion of Eu­gene Ionesco’s Rhi­noc­eros, with Lau­rence Olivier, and it be­came the hottest ticket in Lon­don. Later she was Olivier’s Des­de­mona in an Othello that, Coveney says, dwarfs any Othello since.

And this high­lights the un­easy pro­fes­sional re­la­tion­ship be­tween the two of them. Olivier at one point crit­i­cised some de­tail of Smith’s dic­tion, so the next night, be­fore the per­for­mance, as he was cov­er­ing him­self in deep­est chocolate tones (he was the last ac­tor to play the role in black­face), she sat out­side his dress­ing room and enun­ci­ated, “How now, brown cow?”

In Ib­sen’s The Mas­ter Builder they gen­er­ated a stag­ger­ing elec­tric­ity. One critic said she acted him off the stage. To which Olivier at his most Richard III-like said to her, “Oh, by the way, I understand that one of the crit­ics said that you al­most act me off the stage? If I may say so, dar­ling an­gel, heart of my life, in the sec­ond act you al­most bored me off the stage you were so slow.”

Slow she was not. At the next per­for­mance she picked up her cues so quickly, Olivier fluffed his lines and dried and floun­dered. He never worked with her again. In the early 1960s she hit Hol­ly­wood with the Richard Bur­ton-El­iz­a­beth Tay­lor ve­hi­cle The VIPs, play­ing Rod Tay­lor’s sec­re­tary. Bur­ton said she didn’t so much steal her big scene with him as com­mit grand lar­ceny.

She was in Noel Cow­ard’s pro­duc­tion of Hay Fever with the great Evans, who called her “the lit­tle Smith girl” and whom she un­der­stud­ied. Dame Edith de­clared, “I shall not be off.” When she did miss one of the dress re­hearsals and Smith stood in, she mim­icked her so shame­lessly that Cow­ard and Olivier fell about the floor laugh­ing.

In the fa­mous Zef­firelli pro­duc­tion of Much Ado About Noth­ing, Smith played Beatrice to the Benedick of the man she would marry and have two chil­dren with, Robert Stephens, a fine ac­tor but one, as Coveney says, who wanted to be a star in a way she couldn’t care less about. Billy Wilder cast him in The Pri­vate Life of Sher­lock Holmes but it didn’t make him fa­mous and the mar­riage dis­in­te­grated. Smith says he was sleep­ing with the make-up girl when she was try­ing to play Por­tia in a BBC pro­duc­tion of The Merchant of Venice, and this made the qual­ity of mercy very strained in­deed.

She and Stephens did Pri­vate Lives to­gether — mem­o­rably — and there are de­scrip­tions of her do­ing it like Strind­berg, as the tragedy of two peo­ple who could not live with or with­out each other. Coveney says it’s a pity that in later years the two did not do Eu­gene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Jour­ney into Night. Stephens died in 1995.

Smith had a go at Miss Julie and Coveney says she was “less a se­duc­tress than a hyp­no­tised vic­tim”. His de­scrip­tion of her in Ing­mar Bergman’s Hedda Gabler (1970) is riv­et­ing: In­stead of the con­trolled rev­e­la­tion of Hedda’s preg­nancy, Mag­gie ap­peared in a word­less pro­logue, push­ing fran­ti­cally at an un­wanted bulge in her stom­ach, ap­par­ently on the point of vom­it­ing. But there was some­thing elec­tri­fy­ing about this pro­duc­tion, and cer­tainly Mag­gie’s per­for­mance … was rev­e­la­tory, a long re­hearsal for the sui­cide Hedda ex­e­cuted in full view of both her­self and the au­di­ence … Mag­gie’s Hedda turned again and again to the mir­ror, vainly seek­ing to un­lock the puz­zle of her ex­is­tence but con­tem­plat­ing her trou­ble­some phys­i­cal re­al­ity. Fi­nally she peered ac­cus­ingly into the glass for the last time and con­tin­ued peer­ing as she pulled the trig­ger.

Wilder took Jack Lem­mon to see Smith in The Beaux’ Strat­a­gem and he ex­claimed, “Gee, what about that girl’s tim­ing!” Eve­lyn Waugh wrote to Ann Flem­ing: “saw a bril­liant … ac­tress named Mag­gie Smith … she will be­come fa­mous. Per­haps she is al­ready and it is like me say­ing, keep an eye on a clever young Amer­i­can called TS Eliot.”

One of the weird­nesses of Smith’s ca­reer is that she did some of her great­est work in Canada, at Strat­ford-On­tario, the transat­lantic home of clas­si­cal the­atre. She could flash from get­ting a laugh to the deep­est poignancy in a sec­ond. Her Ros­alind in As You Like It, Coveney says, “is per­fectly bal­anced on that ra­zor’s edge be­tween tears and laugh­ter, with the un­der­ly­ing ur­gency of a woman en­er­get­i­cally seiz­ing her last chance for love”.




Smith would be the last per­son to make claims for her­self. When Nick Hyt­ner asked her if she wanted to take her Lady Brack­nell to Broad­way she said, “I wouldn’t take it to Wok­ing.” Would she do Cleopa­tra again? “Ooh, no. I’m glad I had a go.”

Hav­ing a go at Cleopa­tra meant her voice took on a cello qual­ity and, as one critic said, there was “not an in­flec­tion or a ges­ture that was not fresh and per­sonal”. She got a won­der­ful laugh on the line, “Can Ful­via die?” but when she moved to Cleopa­tra’s own death and asked that she be given her crown and sensed her im­mor­tal long­ings, there was an ec­static qual­ity that made them all the more mov­ing.

Coveney has writ­ten a mag­nif­i­cent book that beau­ti­fully il­lu­mi­nates the tal­ent and the ir­re­duc­ible per­son­al­ity of a great artist who can’t be both­ered with putting on any airs about be­ing her­self but is so at ev­ery point any­way.

With the con­fi­dence of a man who knows the power of his judg­ment and the pre­cious­ness of his sub­ject, Coveney says that it was for Time mag­a­zine in Novem­ber 1963 that Smith best ar­tic­u­lated her credo. “I’m never shy on the stage. Al­ways shy off it. You see, the the­atre is a dif­fer­ent world. A much bet­ter world. It’s the real world that’s the il­lu­sion. It’s a world whose timetable is more pre­cise than any­thing else on earth … The the­atre is full of peo­ple look­ing for pre­fab­ri­cated se­cu­rity. They find it there, nowhere else. ”

He writes, “Noth­ing she has said since sum­marised so well the life she had found as an ac­tress in flight from both the pres­sures of the real world and the de­fi­cien­cies, as she saw them, in her own per­son­al­ity.” Yes, but that per­son­al­ity, which has no de­sire to re­veal it­self, has the neg­a­tive ca­pa­bil­ity of the great artist.

This is a very un­usual, the­atri­cal anti-bi­og­ra­phy that is a tes­ta­ment to a great ac­tress’s great­ness and her sense of pri­vacy. If you care about act­ing as an art that is com­pat­i­ble with life as a mystery and com­edy, as a breath away from tears, then read this book.


was found­ing ed­i­tor of Quar­terly

Clock­wise from left, Mag­gie Smith in Down­ton Abbey; Smith in a scene from 1969’s The Prime of Miss Jean

and with Lau­rence Olivier in the film version of

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