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A Dame in a Hot Room

Entertainment Weekly 3/2002

She's stolen scenes from half of Hollywood. Now we steal an afternoon with Gosford Park's Maggie Smith--and come out unscathed. by Jeff Gordinier

'It's tropical in here,' she says. 'Tropical!' Dame Maggie Smith is peering out from a corner table in the Conservatory, a restaurant in London's Lanesborough hotel. It looks like a place where you'd expect to find a plumed colonial viceroy sipping quinine and gin. The walls are pink and green. The roof is glass. The decor is a riot of potted palms and Chinese figurines. And for some reason, the room feels as if it's being pumped full of steam.

'Ridiculous, isn't it?' she says, exhaling through her famous pursed lips. 'Mad dogs and Englishmen. One feels as if one's in Rangoon.' She pronounces the word ''Rangoon'' with about seven descending o's.

You can ask Maggie Smith questions -- about her roots in English theater, about her six Oscar nominations and her two wins, about the snooty grande dame she plays in Robert Altman's Gosford Park, about her participation in the global juggernaut of Harry Potter (as the young wizard's professor Minerva McGonagall). She'll answer you, too, sort of, even though she considers interviews to be 'nerve-racking and daft.'

Frankly, though, it's more fun just to listen to her talk. About anything. About the proximity of a tape recorder to her face: 'Oh, do not hold it out to me, please. Can't you write anything down? I don't want it just staring at me.'

About the frenzy she encountered at the Golden Globes: 'That was luuudicrous! Miles and miles and miles of red carpet!'

About the thespian advice she has given to her sons, actors Toby Stephens, 32, and Chris Larkin, 34, both the products of Smith's temptestuous first marriage, to actor Robert Stephens: 'None,' she says. 'They've been with me long enough to know that it's hell.' (That hasn't stopped them, though. Toby is shooting the new James Bond movie, and Chris has signed on for a film with Russell Crowe.)

About her age, which is only 67, although everyone assumes she's older: 'Anthony Powell was doing the costumes on Hook, and Steven Spielberg said to him, 'How old is Maggie Smith?' And Anthony, without pausing, said, 'Ninety-two.' I think I've been 92 ever since. The rot set in.'

About how this very building, now this very posh hotel, used to house London's St. George's Hospital: 'This is creepy. It will always be a hospital to me. I'd hate to stay here. Can you imagine thinking: Am I in the operating theater...? Horrible.' She laughs -- a laugh that goes from raspy to flutey to conspiratorial. Listening, you get caught up in the sheer pungency of her phraseology -- in her loving fondness for words like dreadful and hideous and horrid and ghastly and grim -- and then, out of the blue, she'll say something that stops you cold. 'But,' she says, 'I do know a few people who died here.'' It's just this kind of commentary -- swanning and cutting and sporadically sad -- that Smith dishes out in the languid parlors of Gosford Park.

Almost four decades ago Richard Burton, her costar in The V.I.P.'s, accused her of 'grand larceny,' and she's still at it. As Gosford's Lady Constance of Trentham, she nearly embezzles a whole movie; her twitches, quips, and dismissals repeatedly bring down the house. To direct her, 'you just turn the camera on and sit back and enjoy yourself,' says Altman. 'I don't think you'd ever catch Maggie Smith phoning anything in.'

(Meanwhile, here in the Conservatory, a piano player is scampering through warhorses like 'As Time Goes By.' If you've seen the way she treats Jeremy Northam in the movie, you can't help but fear for this guy.)

It's been that way for years; she may plead innocence, but she remains the Lucky Luciano of scene-stealers. Hold a private Maggie Smith Film Festival and you'll wonder whether writers--even William Shakespeare--always had her in mind when they stuffed certain lines with ammonium nitrate. In the 1995 version of Richard III, she howls at Ian McKellen, stretching the epithet "You toad!" into about 11 syllables.

During a scarlet harangue in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, for which she won the 1969 Best Actress Oscar, she stuns Celia Johnson with verbal spitballs like "fetid frustration" and "slllime." "When you write a normal screenplay and the lines come out of Maggie Smith's mouth, processed through her brain, the lines themselves are just underscored," says Altman. Barely a film goes by in which her character doesn't lacerate somebody with language.

"Yes, it's true," she says, sighing. "I'm always playing this sort of formidable woman, I suppose. It is funny, how you get sort of stuck with that. It's a bit boring."

Boring, no. Intimidating, yes--especially when you're sharing tea and lemon with her, and the room is hot. In person, though, there is something remarkably vulnerable about Maggie Smith.

In 1988 she came down with Graves' disease, the hyperthyroid condition that causes a person's eyes to ache, swell, and protrude. "It was horrible, because this is the most important part of your face, as an actor," she says, her hands hovering in front of her blue orbs. "If ever my eyes feel sore, I panic dreadfully."

There are other things that make her shudder. She recalls a TV interview to promote 1987's The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne--in which she played a Dublin spinster grappling with booze, poverty, and romantic delusions--and the memory seems to salt an old wound. "Oh, God, I remember doing an awful thing with, is he called Tremble?" From one of the morning shows. Bryant Gumbel? "Yeah," she says.

Her hands go to her temples again; she shuts her eyes. "I was in a studio here, and he was talking to me from New York, and he said...oh, it was just, I get all hot thinking about it again...he said something like, 'Who do you think wants to watch this depressing film?' It was so awful, I can't say. It was terrible." If she sees Gumbel's face now, she switches off the TV. "Because he makes my nerves so bad," she says. "It all comes back to me. The horror. The horror and the humiliation."

She's often described as reclusive; she doesn't take issue with that. "I probably am," she says. "But that's all right. I mean, the opposite is what? Whirling around and going to all these things?" It's telling that the first time she went to the Oscars, in 1978, she didn't go as Maggie Smith; she went as Diana Barrie, the Oscar-losing diva in California Suite, so that director Herbert Ross could shoot real red-carpet scenes for the movie. She did go again the year after--and won Best Supporting Actress for California Suite--but she can recall only a blur. "I was there for a good evening, but it didn't happen. Well, it did. But I mean, I didn't get to sit there very long," she says. "You're kind of whirled away into total hysteria."

All the other times she was nominated? She just didn't go--there was always a play opening in London, or a conflict of some sort. Which is not to paint her as a kind of Academy refusenik. Out of her bag she pulls a paperback--Adam Gopnik's Paris to the Moon--and the bookmark is an envelope. "How's this for affectation?" she laughs. "It's my vote." Inside the envelope is her official Oscar ballot, all ready for PricewaterhouseCoopers. "It's sealed," she says. "It's got to be sent."

And whom did she vote for? "I'm not going to say," she snaps teasingly. "You get a little note saying 'Do not tell anybody how you voted.'" Surely, though, she always votes for herself.

"No," she says. "Not every year.”



( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 12th, 2012 04:04 pm (UTC)
"It's a bit boring." Note to interviewer: I suspect she meant boring for her.

I do love: "No," she says. "Not every year."
Apr. 12th, 2012 07:22 pm (UTC)
Love that last line, too. A fascinating read.
Apr. 12th, 2012 09:20 pm (UTC)
My favourite line is.
Frankly, though, it's more fun just to listen to her talk. About anything. :-)

Edited at 2012-04-12 09:21 pm (UTC)
Apr. 12th, 2012 09:13 pm (UTC)
Great article! I've never read this before. I feel so bad about her eyes. :(

I loved the last line as well. "Not every year." :)
Apr. 12th, 2012 09:23 pm (UTC)
Isn't the story about this NY morning show guy just shocking?? How could he be so rude !?!
Apr. 13th, 2012 04:08 am (UTC)
I think it's sad that Bryant Gumble upset Maggie so much. He's not an intimidating person. He was just doing his job by asking the tough questions. 'Judith Hearne' IS a depressing film.

Edited at 2012-04-13 04:28 am (UTC)
Apr. 13th, 2012 10:59 pm (UTC)
ps: I want to read that book now - Paris to the Moon
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )


jean brodie
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