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Smith, Maggie (1934-)


Main image of Smith, Maggie (1934-)

The entry on this actress could well be taken up with a recital of the nominations and awards she has received for her work in films alone, let alone her extraordinary stage and TV records. Perhaps the most delectable comedienne of her generation, she went on to exhibit an almost unlimited range.

Educated at Oxford High School for Girls and trained at Oxford Playhouse School, she was first on stage with OUDS in 1952, on Broadway in 1956, and in London from 1957. Said to have played a tiny role in the 1956 film, Child in the House (d. Cy Endfield), she made a vivid impact (and was BAFTA-nominated) as the society-girl heroine who gets caught up in crime in the late Ealing thriller, Nowhere to Go (d. Seth Holt, 1958), at the same time winning critical acclaim on stage for The Stepmother. She had seasons with the Old Vic and the National, in classical roles including Desdemona to Olivier's Othello (1964), winning her first Oscar nomination for repeating the role in the film version (1965), but she triumphed equally in revue and modern comedy, like Lettice and Lovage (1989).

On screen, her versatility encompasses the selfless, devoted secretary in The VIPs (d. Anthony Asquith, 1963), the indolent, mischievous Philpott in The Pumpkin Eater (d. Jack Clayton, 1964), the zealous and misguided teacher in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (d. Ronald Neame, 1968, an Oscar and BAFTA), the music hall star whose song lures young men to the doom of WW1 in Oh! What a Lovely War (d. Richard Attenborough, 1969), Bette Davis's brusque companion who can't stand 'heat and heathens' in Death on the Nile (d. John Guillermin, 1978), bringing individuality to Agatha Christie's cut-outs in this and Evil Under the Sun (d. Guy Hamilton, 1981), the upwardly aspiring wife of Michael Palin's gentle chiropodist in A Private Function (d. Malcolm Mowbray, 1984), the heartrending protagonist of The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (d. Jack Clayton, 1987), tippling her way into unloved middle-age, and the cruelly severe Duchess of York in Richard III (d. Richard Loncraine, 1995).

On TV, she repeated her magical stage Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing (BBC, 1967), was irresistibly malicious as the vicar's dissatisfied wife in an episode of Alan Bennett's Talking Heads (BBC, 1988) and led the star line-up in Jack Clayton's immaculate swansong, Memento Mori (BBC, 1992).

Against this honour-roll, it must be said that some directors have let her indulge mannerisms at the expense of rounding out a character, so that she is unexpectedly tiresome in Washington Square (US, d. Agnieszka Holland, 1997) or the sentimental Tea with Mussolini (UK/Italy, d. Franco Zeffirelli, 1999), a study in one-note hauteur; but such lapses are few compared to the compensating glories. It will be a shame if she becomes known to filmgoers chiefly as Harry Potter's form mistress - "Jean Brodie with a witch's hat" as she said.

She has been very successful in the US, including California Suite (d. Herbert Ross, 1978, a supporting actress Oscar), but remains, somehow, obdurately British, growing only sharper and wryer with age.

She married (1) Robert Stephens (1967-74) and (2) Beverley Cross and is the mother of actors Toby Stephens and Chris Larkin (b.London, 1967), who has appeared in several British films including Jane Eyre (d. Franco Zeffirelli, 1996) and Tea with Mussolini (d. Zeffirelli, 1999).

Brian McFarlane, Encyclopedia of British Film

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)

Second outing for the fantastically popular boy wizard

Thumbnail image of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (2001)Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (2001)

The film that brought J.K. Rowling's boy wizard to the big screen

Thumbnail image of Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, The (1987)Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, The (1987)

Maggie Smith gives an acting masterclass as a lonely Irish spinster

Thumbnail image of Missionary, The (1981)Missionary, The (1981)

Gentle Michael Palin comedy about a missionary amongst 'fallen women'

Thumbnail image of Private Function, A (1984)Private Function, A (1984)

Alan Bennett-scripted Yorkshire comedy about pigs and social climbing

Thumbnail image of Pumpkin Eater, The (1964)Pumpkin Eater, The (1964)

Fascinating, underrated study of a troubled marriage

Thumbnail image of Room with a View, A (1985)Room with a View, A (1985)

Much-loved Merchant Ivory adaptation of the E.M. Forster novel

Thumbnail image of V.I.P.s, The (1963)V.I.P.s, The (1963)

Assorted celebrities are stranded in an airport when fog hits the runway

Thumbnail image of Memento Mori (1992)Memento Mori (1992)

Outstanding adaptation of Muriel Spark's unsettling novel

Thumbnail image of Much Ado About Nothing (1967)Much Ado About Nothing (1967)

Studio adaptation of a lively National Theatre production with Derek Jacobi

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