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.
MAGGIE SMITH IS A SCREAM THROUGHOUT THIS SUPERB 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