Has Maggie Smith Been Playing Herself All This Time?

From Jean Brodie to Downton’s dowager, her history repeats.

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Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey (Photo: BBC)

“… But she’s a very, you know, complicated and quite, in some ways, quite a defensive person. She protects herself a lot, and she needs to, because what’s going on inside her, her talent, is such an absolutely remarkable thing that it could be very easily coarsened or cheapened or diluted in some way.

“And as her devotion to the talent that she’s been born with, and indeed, of course, worked on subsequently, but her guardianship of that talent is a fantastic thing. That’s something I’ve rarely met in actors either. She is protecting herself all the time, and nothing that comes between her and her work can be tolerated.”

That’s esteemed English actor and stage director Simon Callow pontificating on being in the presence of Dame Maggie Smith, the acting deity and the subject of a biographical documentary I just finished watching on YouTube. (She and Callow costarred in the 1985 Merchant Ivory film A Room with a View.)

As I listened to him and others talk about Smith, I sensed a recurring theme: She’s fiercely intelligent, and she doesn’t suffer fools gladly.

Were they talking about the great Dame or most of the characters she’s played onstage and onscreen?

I haven’t had the honor of watching Smith in her current definitive role as Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham, on Downton Abbey (I know, I know — sacrilege!), a part she recently relocated from TV to the big-screen after collecting three Emmys for it. But even without ever having seen a single episode, in my head, I already know what to expect.

After all, I’ve been watching her pull off lovably testy women for the last three decades, in The First Wives Club, in Washington Square, in Tea with Mussolini, in Gosford Park, in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, in pretty much everything I’ve seen her in since she entered her senior years.

I have been watching Smith pull off lovably testy women for the last three decades, in The First Wives Club, in Washington Square, in Tea with Mussolini, in Gosford Park, in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

Compare her work over the past few decades to that of her contemporary, Dame Judi Dench, who never seems to play the same kind of woman twice — unless it’s in a sequel (The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Victoria & Abdul, the 007 series from GoldenEye to Spectre). The occasional costars who were born exactly three weeks apart in December of 1934 may have at least four movies in common, but their filmographies and taste in roles differ wildly.

But getting back to Maggie Smith and not just the characters she plays, I understand the perfectionist and workaholic streaks all too well. I have them, too, but I always say — okay, I’m saying it now for the first time — it’s the human streak that makes great artists. You’ve got to embrace messy living and have full access to your emotions, the latter of which is more of a challenge when you spend your life encased in a hard protective shell.

Maybe off the clock or in the solitude of a lonely room Smith is nothing like that. Maybe her colleagues like Callow have mistaken her for one of the characters she plays because she’s secretly Method, always in character.

Anyone who has experienced her onstage (I was fortunate enough to see her in The Lady in the Van and Three Tall Women on London’s West End in the ’90s) or watched The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, the 1969 film for which she won the Best Actress Oscar, knows that accessing her humanity is hardly an insurmountable hurdle for her.

Perhaps Smith is simply a product of her working environment. If your colleagues and your audience are going to place your pedestal on such hallowed ground, is it any wonder that you might subconsciously strive to live up to their impression? (Give them what they want — or expect.) Maybe that’s why actors and actresses, more than any other brand of entertainer, take themselves so damn seriously.

There’s a scene in the 2004 film Being Julia in which Annette Bening, as stage actress Julia Lambert, has a disagreement with her son, and he accuses her of not knowing where her fictional characters end and his mother begins. I bet a lot of actors erase that line, consciously and subconsciously. It’s must be hard to be real when you spend most of your life faking it.

Actors and Other Entertainers

A friend and fellow journalist recently interviewed a fairly established, though solidly B-list, TV and film actress, and she was in something of a state of panic because several hours of interviews had yielded no revelations. The thespian was simply no fun. She was nice enough but maddeningly guarded. She’d offer a morsel of juicy information, then pull it back. “I don’t want to get into it.” So Hollywood.

As much as I love and admire actors and actresses (especially actresses), I’m glad I don’t have to work with them. Thankfully, I’ve spent the bulk of my career interviewing musicians, who, as a whole, are far more quotable. It’s easier to establish an easy rapport with them.

My journalist friend says it’s because “they sing their life.” That makes a lot of sense. Actors and actresses spend an inordinate amount of time pretending to be someone else, so perhaps it’s more difficult for them to get a firm grip on who they really are. And if they get that grip, why not hide behind someone else anyway? It’s something they already do so well.

Actors and actresses spend most of their time pretending to be other people, so perhaps it’s more difficult for them to get a firm grip on who they really are.

On the other hand, musicians, particularly ones who write their own material, lead lives that are something of an open book. As my friend said, they sing their lives. Yes, they can be given to cliched observations and revelations and pretentiousness, too, but even when they talk about their “craft” — or when others do the talking for them — there’s less intellectual posturing.

It’s why Fiona Apple can be almost comically opaque and still bleed profusely on the pages of any magazine in which she’s featured. I’ll never forget interviewing her for People in the ’90s when she was a teenager and having her open up about being raped in her Manhattan apartment building when she was younger.

Such candor, which is not uncommon coming from the musically gifted, is why David Bowie was my all-time favorite interview. The late chameleonic rocker was one of the most creative men on earth, with a talent as worthy of protecting as Maggie Smith’s or that of any B-list Hollywood actress afraid of being too real with a journalist. Yet he was able to relax and have a laugh while being interrogated by a complete stranger in the recording studio.

Of course, while musicians only have to produce songs that move you (in your heart, in your mind, on the dance floor, in the gym, between the sheets, wherever), actors and actresses face a challenge that is different and, in some ways, more daunting. They have to create alternate realities, convince audiences they are who they’re not. If we know too much, we might not buy them as different characters. They can kiss their bankability bye bye!

Less of an actress?

But I wonder if, in revealing the real Maggie Smith (or who they perceive her to be), her colleagues weren’t inadvertently underestimating the actress. If who she is so informs what she does, if, to a certain extent, she is who she pretends to be, does that authenticity make her performances less of an acting feat?

Maybe that’s why so many actors who aren’t Dame Maggie have gravitated toward biopics and/or played way against type in pursuit of both Oscars and respect. George Clooney won his for playing a chubby guy — in 2005’s Syriana — but when he stars as men who look and act too much like the man audiences perceive him to be (as in Michael Clayton, or Up in the Air), the Academy may still nominate him, but critics shrug.

“That’s not acting. He’s being George Clooney.”

Last year, three of the four winners of acting Oscars won for playing actual historical figures. This year, the two Best Actress frontrunners so far (Renee Zellweger in Judy and Charlize Theron in Bombshell) both play real women. Although early Best Actor frontrunner Joaquin Phoenix plays a fictional character in Joker, I can’t imagine anyone accusing him of playing himself in the box-office smash, unless the three-time Oscar nominee became a murderous psychopath when no-one was looking.

But then, I can think of a number of actors who probably could have pulled off Megyn Kelly. And a number of them can and have done both Judy Garland and The Joker with award-winning skill. I cannot, however, imagine any thespian other than Dame Maggie Smith walking in Jean Brodie’s shoes.

Whether she’s been playing herself for decades, one thing is for sure: Smith’s touch cannot be duplicated. The next Maggie Smith? We’ve never heard that one before — and we likely never will.

Written by

Brother Son Husband Friend Loner Minimalist World Traveler. Author of “Is It True What They Say About Black Men?” and “Storms in Africa” https://rb.gy/3mthoj

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