1964 HAY FEVER MYRA
Daughter of an Essex pathologist, brought up in Oxford, a student at no major drama school, Maggie Smith took her place as a great comic actor 50 years ago and is still the best reason for having a television set. Olivier picked her for his first National Theatre company and miscast her twice, before Noël Coward handed her Myra, his creation who “uses sex like a shrimping-net”. Equipped with a pearl-encrusted bustle, which she scooped into position with a cigarette-holder like a fairy’s wand, she presented a delicious cartoon that exposed the desperation of a tease in a tight corner. In 1972 she returned to Coward as Amanda in “Private Lives”, electrifying the text with sparks of comic insight. Gazing at the Côte d’Azur, she remarked, “Look at the lights of that yacht reflected in the water,” before adding, in the voice of Becky Sharp, “I wonder who owns it.”
1969 THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE TITLE ROLE
Her first Oscar. The crème de la crème of Smith’s screen turns came to her via Muriel Spark’s novel about an elegant young Edinburgh schoolmistress in the 1930s who, as a romantic devotee of Fascism, exerts undue influence on her female charges. Smith’s flaming crop semaphored a fiery disposition, barely contained by those clipped Morningside vowels (later reprised for Professor Minerva McGonagall, of Hogwarts). Her dreamboat lover was played by her then husband, Robert Stephens. Spark’s fiction was to give Smith another fine role about fear of death in “Memento Mori “(1992).
1970 THE BEAUX’ STRATAGEM MRS SULLEN
This National Theatre production by William Gaskill was Restoration comedy without fans, and with serious things to say about the fetters of marriage. Smith’s unhappily married heroine was a tight-laced and spiritless beanpole who developed thrillingly as the shell of decorum was smashed by the hungry woman within. In this performance, George Farquhar shook hands with George Bernard Shaw.
1970 HEDDA GABLER TITLE ROLE
Tom Stoppard once said that Maggie Smith’s genius was to inhabit a character while commenting on it from outside. You could see this happening on Ingmar Bergman’s bisected stage at the Cambridge Theatre in London, as she played Ibsen’s text in one area, and Hedda’s inner demons in the other. On one side, she delivered biting irony; on the other, poisonous ingrown frustration and unmasterable destructiveness. It was Mrs Sullen projected into the age of Freud.
1978 CALIFORNIA SUITE DIANA BARRIE
Like much of Smith’s screen work, Neil Simon’s script started life on stage. Diana is a neurotic Oscar-nominated star in a loving lavender marriage to Michael Caine. “It’s bizarre,” says Diana on the flight to Los Angeles. “Eight years with the National Theatre, two Pinters, nine Shakespeares, three Shaws, and I finally get nominated for a nauseating little comedy.” Hollywood couldn’t resist the way Smith humanised Simon’s sentimental satire, and gave her another Oscar for real.
1987 LETTICE AND LOVAGE LETTICE DOUFFET
Peter Shaffer’s comedy, written for Smith, has her as the descendant of a roving theatre troupe who lands the job of tour guide at the dullest stately home in England. To cheer up the visitors, she swaps history for improvisation and passes Fustian House off as being as action-packed as the Tower of London. In a role with echoes of Jean Brodie, Smith’s high point came at the moment when Lettice realises she can throw the script away and let her imagination take over. It was as close as we shall ever get to how she feels when the comic spirit spreads its wings.
1988 TALKING HEADS: BED AMONG THE LENTILS SUSAN
“At the stroke of 50, I was all set to turn into a wonderful woman.” It took Smith a long time to establish herself as a tragedienne, especially on television. Alan Bennett’s monologue featured the confessions of a vicar’s alcoholic wife, faithless in both senses, who takes a young Indian shopkeeper as a lover. Smith, directed by Bennett, drained all the high-jumping drama out of her voice to paint a remorseless portrait of midlife disappointment. At the same time, she served up more finely etched romantic misery in “The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne”.
2001 GOSFORD PARK THE COUNTESS OF TRENTHAM
In Robert Altman’s whodunnit, scripted by Julian Fellowes, Dame Maggie is an essay in galumphing snobbery. “Bought marmalade”, she sniffs as she breakfasts in bed, perhaps forgetting that she is sponging off her brother. “I call that very feeble.” In a cast top-heavy with big names, it’s Smith you remember. This role led to the whiplash quips of the dowager countess in “Downton Abbey”, where Smith seems condemned for ever to channel the ghost of her old vaudeville sparring partner Kenneth Williams.
Maggie Smith season British Film Institute, London, Dec 2nd-16th