Dame Maggie On TIFF, Cancer and UFOs
The Right Honourable Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham, glided through the chicly restored lobby of the Savoy Hotel, sat down at a corner table in the Thames Foyer and turned aside an offer of the room’s legendary high tea, requesting instead an icy glass of white wine.
Heads turned; they always do. Because this is Dame Maggie Smith, currently riding a tsunami of popularity due to the success of the PBS superseries Downton Abbey.
She also trails unassumingly behind her a train made up of 60 years in show business that has won her seven BAFTA awards, two Oscars, two Golden Globes, two Emmys, two SAG awards, an Olivier Award and a Tony.
She’s touching down briefly in Toronto over the next few days to launch her latest film at TIFF (Quartet, Dustin Hoffman’s directing debut) but, most importantly, on Monday night she will be honoured as the 2012 recipient of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s Legacy Award during a fundraising evening at the Four Seasons Hotel.
The 77-year-old woman who’s survived everything from quidditch (thanks to her role as Professor Minerva McGonagall in Harry Potter) to chemotherapy (a harrowing battle with cancer) has a wonderful serenity about her except, on this particular afternoon in London, when she worries about the scope of the upcoming Stratford gala.
“Is it very, very, very sort of grand?” she queries.
“I mean, is there time for me not to go if I find it all too intimidating?”
Assured that it’s not too big, that she can’t back out and that everyone there will be celebrating the four glorious years in the 1970s when she sprinkled her particular brand of stardust on Stratford, she gulps some wine and reconciles herself to going.
“But it’s terrifying,” she says in a little-girl whisper. “Why? Because it was such a vivid and clear time in my head and probably the most important years of my whole career.”
That’s no idle boast. Back in 1975, Robin Phillips, the newly appointed artistic director of Stratford, swept Smith away from the Royal Alexandra Theatre, where she was appearing in Private Lives, for a weekend of snow, solitude and creative suggestion on the shores of Lake Huron.
“It was wonderful,” she recalls. “I’d never seen such snow. I’d never known such peace. I didn’t want to leave.”
At that point, Smith was a highly regarded comedienne onstage and screen, but some critics felt she was starting to fall into certain patterns of sameness. She thought so too.
Phillips offered the antidote: classical repertory at Stratford. With comic roles you’d expect her to play, like Millimant in The Way of theWorld, balanced by parts she never thought she’d do in her lifetime, like Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra.
“I thought it was absurd, ridiculous and I told Robin so. But of course, I had said the same thing when Larry (Olivier) asked me to play Desdemona to his Othello. In both cases, I came around.”
And everyone was glad she did. The work was stunning, the world’s critics lined up to pay their respects and the Church Restaurant was packed every night with the likes of Lauren Bacall and Rudolf Nureyev.
“I’m glad all that happened for the festival’s sake, but for me it was the work, always the work, that came first,” insists Smith.
And by those standards, many Stratford-watchers feel 1977 was the finest of the quartet of years Smith spent there (1976, ’77, ’79 and ’80).
Her Virgin Queen Hippolyta paired superbly with her gossamer Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but that only set the stage for her radiant Rosalind in As You Like It, a production still remembered with awe by anyone who saw it.
“I’m not one for souvenirs, but I have on my mantelpiece in the country a little mug and in it are two of the canvas oak leaves from that beautiful tree that hung over the stage,” admits Smith.
One of the lessons of As You Like It is that death is a part of life, but Smith rages against that when recalling her co-star from the show, Domini Blythe, who died of cancer in 2010.
“She was too young to die, too young!” says Smith. Too often, when discussing colleagues from the past, she has to ask, “Are they still with us?”
Thinking of Blythe brings to mind Smith’s own battle with breast cancer, which began in 2007.
“Some people say you have to fight cancer. But it was fighting me. The cure was worse than the disease, and it left me totally exhausted and depressed. I just hid myself away in my daughter-in-law’s flat.
“I couldn’t face anyone or anything. But you get though it, you finally get through it. But you don’t know how bad it is until you actually live through it yourself.”
At that precise moment, the waitress offers Smith another glass of wine, which she cheerfully accepts, saying, “I see no reason why not.”
And then she starts the wheels of comic invention turning again.
“There are advantages to cancer, you know. My chemo cheered up the makeup department on Harry Potter because the wig went on a great deal easier without a single hair on my head.”
Smith bounds back into the past, remembering humourous stories from her Stratford years, like the time when “poor Brian (Bedford) had so many understudies onstage with him in Richard III that he couldn’t tell who was who and finally screamed out, ‘Who’s Surrey now?’”
And one of her happiest tales is told at her own expense regarding the role she can now admit was her least beloved at Stratford: Lady Macbeth.
“Opening night of the Scottish play, my letter was handed to me the wrong way around. The props were always fantastic there and it was written in this kind of medieval mad Germanic writing.
“There wasn’t a prayer you could have read it upside down. Mercifully, I knew it. If I hadn’t, I would have had to turn it right side up, which would have truly brought the house down in quite the wrong way.”
Her journey back to Stratford will include time with her dear friend and former company member Barbara Budd, who is taking Smith to a performance of Hirsch, the biography of a man who directed Smith twice in her Stratford years.
“I liked John Hirsch enormously. He was very gentle and very knowing. One felt he was all the characters in those Chekhov plays he directed.”
Smith pauses and looks around at the changes that have been wrought in The Savoy by its 2010 renovation.
“It looks lovely,” she pronounces. “And I’m sure they treat people better now. I could never get to eat here. When I was doing The Importanceof Being Earnest, I popped by one night for a sandwich in the bar and they said, ‘You can’t come in here wearing denim.’
“Then another time, I was working with Noel Coward across the river at the National and he brought a bunch of us in for dinner, but I was refused service because I was wearing trousers. Noel was living here then, so he just took us all up to his room for bangers and mash.”
Discussion of a world governed by dress codes and rules brings Downton Abbey to the table. This series set on an estate in Yorkshire, starting in 1916, has been enormously popular ever since it debuted on British TV in September 2010.
Both of the first two seasons were aired shortly after on PBS in North America, with equally successful results, and the third outing begins this month in England; in January over here.
Smith tries to analyze the puzzle.
“You know, I think Downton is the reason that everybody thinks I’m suddenly so popular, because I’ve never really done a television series before.
“People think of you differently if you’ve been in their homes. They think they own you because they watched you while they were eating dinner, or they can turn you up or down, or even freeze you.”
“I got in a taxi the other day. The driver recognized me from Downton and asked me when the next season started. Before I could tell him, he said, ‘I always watch it when the football isn’t on,’ and that sure put me in my place.”
The big news about next season is that Shirley MacLaine plays a regular character and Smith allows that, “We had great fun. She was a great shot in the arm for everybody.
“But when she talks about some of her stranger theories, you just listen. She told us in Santa Fe, there were UFOs up in the mountains and the bears were coming down to visit the local Starbucks as a result.
“I asked if they were all drinking green skinny lattes, but she never answered me.”
Smith is more interested in exploring the mysteries of getting old that lie in front of her.
“I’m grateful that I’m still going, after a fashion. I don’t know whether it will go on indefinitely or whether I’ll slide gently into . . . whatever. It’s weird, you know, because you think it’s never going to go away. But it creeps up on you no matter how much you want to ignore it. And it does take a toll.”
Smith looks suspiciously at the iPhones we both have on the table. “With those things now, someone can say, ‘That’s Maggie Smith over there, I wonder how old she is,’ and they can look it up and laugh or gasp or cry.”
But Smith isn’t quite sure what she feels about the issue of a higher power at this point in her existence.
“I know there is something out there and like most people, I tend to believe in it more when things go bad. But I’m not like Shirley MacLaine, who probably believes we were past lovers in another life.”
The wine glass is empty; the reminiscences concluded. But Smith has one more thing to say.
“Sometimes I wish desperately that I really, truly did believe in something. Other than the fact that the No. 11 bus goes to Hammersmith.”
FIVE FAVE ROLES
THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE
“You get to live large, make grand speeches and change people’s lives. Now that’s a part!”
“I got an Oscar for it and I loved working with Michael Caine, but I did make some films because my children needed an education.”
“I knew it was going to be a major commitment when I started, but it turned out to be 10 years. That’s a lot of time with one character!”
“I loved Robert Altman, so gentle yet naughty! And Julian Fellowes writes so beautifully.”
“Thank Julian’s writing again and the matter of telling a bunch of stories that people wanted to hear. Nothing beats that.”
OP: Long, but interesting and insightful. She's very candid about her struggles with cancer and chats about her early theatre career. Love her Violet-worthy shade at Shirley Maclaine's, um, interesting theories and casual references to playing Desdemona for "Larry," and bangers and mash with "Noel."