Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Dame Maggie Smith

A fleeting look at the English-born grand dame of Hollywood for Overlooked Films, Audio & Video at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom.

Minerva McGonagall has all but erased my memory of Maggie Smith’s earlier films, some of which I have seen though I don't remember much. Close your eyes, think of Maggie Smith, and up pops her image as the stern but kindly transfiguration professor and head of Gryffindor house at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

I recall her, rather vaguely, in Death on the Nile (1978) and A Room with a View (1985), almost entirely in the Sister Act duet (1992 & 1993) and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011), and absolutely everything about her place in Harry Potter’s Voldemortised life. I’m scratching my head over Gosford Park (2001), though.

Dame Maggie Smith was already 67 when the first Harry Potter movie came out in 2001 and a decade older when the two-part film of the seventh in the series was released. Richard Harris, who was slightly older than Smith, died after playing Dumbledore in Harry Potter 1 & 2, making way for another Irish-born actor Michael Gambon, ten years his junior. Maggie Smith, however, continued to lend her distinguished, albeit underrated, presence to the popular franchise till the end. She was overshadowed by the others and most especially by Alan Rickman who played Severus Snape, arguably the best character in the entire series.

Today, Maggie Smith is 79 years old and in spite of health issues is still going strong, delivering fine performances as ever. She is set to appear in a film called My Old Lady (2014) with Kevin Kline and Kristin Scott Thomas. She is also expected to reprise her role in the as-yet unannounced The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel 2 along with Judi Dench, Billy Nighy, and Richard Gere. The first part, set in India, was a very nice film and I recommend it to those who haven't seen it.

The earliest Maggie Smith movie I can recall is The V.I.P.’s because I remember liking it as much for the story as for the multicast. Smith plays Miss Mead, a young secretary to Les Mangrum (Rod Taylor), a cash-strapped businessman from Australia who urgently needs funds to prevent a hostile takeover of his tractor company. They are stuck at London airport, en route to New York, along with an assorted group of rich travellers with their own seemingly intractable problems.

There is Paul Andros (Richard Burton), a brooding tycoon desperately trying to prevent his wife Frances Andros (Elizabeth Taylor) from running away with Marc Champselle (Louis Jourdan), a casanova equally desperate to whisk her away; wealthy filmmaker Max Buda (Orson Welles), who is vexed by tax problems, and Miriam Marshall (Linda Christian), his actress and muse; and the Duchess of Brighton (Dame Margaret Rutherford) who has her own reasons for leaving the London fog behind.

Rod Taylor and Maggie Smith 
Miss Mead doesn't say much in the film but her actions as a loyal secretary speak louder than her words would have. She approaches Paul Andros, rather tentatively, with a financial proposal and is taken aback when the distraught tycoon, after realising why she is doing it, signs his chequebook and hands it over without a word. His generosity is guided by a simple philosophy: of what use is his wealth when he is about to lose his love, at least it can help the devoted secretary win something for her charming boss. Miss Mead is clearly besotted by Les Mangrum, the gentleman-employer.

What I liked about The V.I.P.’s were Maggie Smith's separate scenes and dialogues with Rod Taylor and Richard Burton. They lent a nice touch to a story largely characterised by human foibles. I also found Maggie Smith's character more appealing than Elizabeth Taylor's. 


Note: Yvette Banek has written an excellent review of The V.I.P.’s over at her equally excellent blog In so many words… Click on the link to read the review.

20 comments:

  1. She has never given a bad or even mediocre performance but she will always be Miss Jean Brodie for me. Amazing.

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    1. Patti, I haven't seen THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE or read the book by Muriel Spark novel. I'm going to have to do both. Thank you for mentioning it.

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  2. I've noticed her in quite a few films. She's always a solid actress

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    1. Charles, same here. I don't remember many of her films, hence this sketchy post on her life and career. Like Patti says, Maggie Smith is an amazing actress.

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  3. Well, like Patti I close my eyes and I see Jean Brodie and also Augusta Bertram in Travels with my Aunt. SISTER ACT was on last night over here and Joe and I watched it again. I loved the way she lent such gravitas to what amounts to an absurd but utterly enjoyable plot.

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    1. John, I left out THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE or TRAVELS WITH MY AUNT since I haven't seen either of the films. I enjoyed SISTER ACT too though not so much part two. There is a quiet dignity about Maggie Smith which reflects in her roles.

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  4. I've been a Maggie Smith fan for decades. Never a bad performance, never a diva attitude. She's one of the best.

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    1. George, that was well said. I'm very keen to see some of Maggie Smith's earlier films. She also seems to have appeared in some television series.

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  5. I have enjoyed many of Maggie Smith's performances. One of my favorite movies is Gosford Park, and there she plays a role similar to the one in Downton Abbey. I had no idea she was in Sister Act. Obviously, I have never seen that one. And The V.I.P.s sounds good. Great overview.

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    1. Tracy, thank you. I've merely scratched the surface. I felt like writing something about Maggie Smith, at least to the extent I know about her. I hope to see GOSFORD PARK again and refresh my memory. She plays Mother Superior in both the SISTER ACT films, a family entertainer with catchy music and dance. Whoopi Goldberg is astounding. Harvey Keitel (in first part) and Kathy Najimy are some of the other standouts in these movies. And I'm sure you'll enjoy THE V.I.P.'S too.

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  6. Thanks for the plug, Prashant! Loved reading about Maggie Smith but you left out the latest of her milestones: The Dowager Countess of Grantham on Downton Abbey, the BBC miniseries. That's the part that a lot of people (younger than I) will probably remember her for - that and Harry Potter.

    I love her too, Prashant. She never gave a bad performance far as I'm concerned.

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    1. Yvette, you're most welcome! I recalled your review even as I thought of writing something about Maggie Smith. I left out a lot about her distinguished film and television career including DOWAGER COUNTESS OF GRANTHAM that I haven't seen yet. Aside from films, she seems well suited for a TV series, like Margaret Rutherford and Angela Lansbury. She was really good in HARRY POTTER and I'm glad she was around until the end.

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  7. Great tribute Prashanrt -Smith is a true immortal. Not being much of an HP aficionado, I remember her more for her Oscar-winning performances in THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE and CALIFORNIA SUITE and also in that other very amusing Christie adaptation opposite Ustionov's Poirot, EVIL UNDER THE SUN.

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    1. Sergio, thank you. It's great to see that Maggie Smith is so well liked. She is an icon, no doubt. Now that you mention it, I think I may have seen CALIFORNIA SUITE, though the only way to find out is to watch it when I get an opportunity. Ditto with the adaptation of the Christie novel. In the Harry Potter movies, Smith has an even and steady role unlike others like Alan Rickman, Jason Isaacs, Gary Oldman, and Helena Bonham Carter, who see plenty of action.

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  8. She's a National Treasure! Great actress - I enjoyed Hotel Marigold more than I thought I would when I saw it earlier this year. I was unaware there was a second in the pipeline. Something to look forward to.

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    1. Col, she is, isn't she? We have some national treasures in India but not in films now, at least I can't think of anyone deserving of that honour. I liked THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL in which Maggie Smith stars alongside Judi Dench and Tom Wilkinson and I'm looking forward to the second part too.

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  9. You scared me. I thought something had happened. I love Maggie Smith. She's a stapple of the period drama. I first saw her in The Secret Garden (1993) and of course the Harry Potter films and others. Like Patti said she is a solid actress.

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    1. Keishon, I guess I did convey that impression, unintended as it was. Maggie Smith is one of the all-time great actresses. She got me thinking of other renowned living actresses from the United Kingdom, like Angela Lansbury, Judi Dench, Vanessa Redgrave, Julie Andrews, Helen Mirren, and Julie Christie—quite a lineup.

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  10. Nice tribute to a wonderful actress. I'm afraid I can remember as far back as THE PUMPKIN EATER and THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODY (still a favorite). I first saw her on the stage of the Old Vic in 1964 in a production with Michael Redgrave of THE MASTER BUILDER. From the house, her red hair was like a live flame.

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    1. Ron, thank you. It'd be interesting to trace her career from the beginning until now. She is still busy making films. I didn't know about THE PUMPKIN EATER which I'll add to my mental list of some of her unseen movies along with THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODY, a clear favorite. It must be nice to see actors performing live on stage. I haven't been to a theatrical production in years.

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