Maggie Smith: A Bright Particular Star by Michael Coveney. London, Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1992.
It has been a Maggie Smith Worship kind of August at Casa DtO. Yes, La Smith does not technically belong in the world of opera, but her magnificence is of operatic proportions.
In actual fact (*this is one of MS’s recurring phrases), my August had been overtaken by a George Bernard Shaw obsession until I stumbled upon a DVD of his Millionairess with Epifania Fitzfossenden played—sung is also apt—by Maggie Smith. That same DVD contained an extra piece, one of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads series, A Bed Among the Lentils with Maggie Smith as a vicar’s wife with a drinking problem. Periodically one forgets about the genius of Maggie Smith. Distractions of life make this being-of-a-thousand-beings temporarily removed to the backup memory, until another lucky encounter revives the rivers of enthusiasm. Last time I received lessons in human nature from La Smith was around 2005-ish, when I first saw The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, the most devastatingly devastating devastation that can befall a film-viewer. After that I sought her Jean Brodie, where her spectacular camp carries the (otherwise unremarkable) film, but then a series of blink-and-you’ll-miss-them roles in period films came my way and I got easily swept away by Jennifer Saunders’ Vivienne Vyle and pictures of Helen Mirren appearing in a bikini in all her 60-year-old glory.
The Millionairess and A Bed therefore smacked me hard the other week. I immediately had to read The Lady in the Van, the Alan Bennett play about a homeless woman who lived in a van in his back yard for 15 years that was originally played by Maggie Smith, then Lettice and Lovage, which Peter Shaffer wrote for Maggie Smith. Naturally, another must is Edna O’Brien’s play Virginia which premiered with Maggie as Virginia Woolf. The films My House in Umbria (another incredibly brave performance in a meh film) and California Suite were quickly found. There’s still much to be seen—A Private Function I have to find, and several other items in her filmography with mostly independent labels and small distributors—but book-wise, only one biography managed to see light of day, Michael Coveney’s 1992 book. Many have tried, only this theatre critic has succeeded. “Oh how absolutely ghastly, how absolutely awful. I can’t think of anything worse,” was the reaction he too received when he first broached the idea to her.
The book’s foremost usefulness is in its archival diligence: all of Maggie Smith’s theatre and film performances up until the publication date, how they came about and what reviews they received, are covered. This is especially handy as theatre doesn’t have its IMDB. So in addition to what many people know—that she was grand in Noel Coward and Restoration Comedy—we get the details on her Ibsen (Masterbuilder, in which her style allegedly terrified Laurence Olivier so much that he decided never to act with her again; or Ingmar Bergman-directed Hedda Gabler which was set in Gabler’s psyche, not her living room); dramatic (Desdemona, Cleopatra) and comedic (Much Ado, As You) Shakespeare; Chekhov; and a range of contemporary plays (Stoppard, Hare, Harwood, Shaffer, Bennett among others).
Then it’s the fact that so many of her friends and colleagues were happy to talk about her and provide exquisite quotables. Like these words by Robin Phillips who directed her many times: “She is in tune with Shakespeare, as she is with both sexes. Which is why I think of her as a creature. There are things which she hasn’t learned, but which she simply knows. She knows about the Elizabethans, and she knows how to speak Congreve… She has senses that are more than human. In humour certainly. She can respond to something that perhaps only squirrel would sense in the air. And I think that comedy, travelling around in the atmosphere, finds out her. Absolutely finds out her. “ (pp 179 & 183)
Then there’s the exhilarating fact that Maggie Smith performed in rep for four seasons at the Ontario’s Stratford Festival between ’75-80. There was time when just a couple of hours trip away from where I’m sitting you could see her Millamant, Rosalind, Cleopatra, Arkadina, Lady Macbeth and Virginia Woolf pining after Vita Sackville West before anybody else in the world. Those who were around to see the plays will forever be reminiscing wistfully (see this nifty Salon paean by Steve Vineberg).
There’s some interesting personal stuff about the two different kinds of romance she developed with her two husbands (Beverley Cross, her life partner, passed away in1998). We also take a peek at Smith’s library and reading habits, or at least what they were like in 1992. Mad for Virginia Woolf, but also an eager reader of Jean Rhys, E.F. Benson, Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, and as Coveney puts it, all those “women writers that Virago publishes in their Modern Classics series”. Brian Moore, the author of The Lonely Passion of JH, and William Trevor are also among the favourites.
Though mildly prissy throughout, the book embraces the fact that gay men love and gay men’s cultures claim Maggie Smith as their own. And in personal life, Coveney tells, she always “thrived in the company of homosexuals”—the term by which he means gay men only, as it turns out. Countless of her leading men, directors, good friends have been gay men and they all play significant roles in the book. Not a single lesbian makes an appearance; not only that, but the author (I dare surmise a gay man himself) gets in an awful huff at any sign of lesbophile and queer women readings of Maggie’s aesthetics. Gay and lesbian cultures sometimes really are the two solitudes which keep to themselves and claim different bits of culture, and Coveney in this book is a perfect advocate for such a Berlin Wall. His ear is deaf to any lesbian or even feminist or even strongly female-centric celebrations or readings of Maggie Smith’s art. Her many en travesti roles (The Recruiting Officer, Rosalind, Peter Pan) get complimented and catalogued with utter obliviousness to gender-bending reconfigurations and frisson they inevitably bring. He glosses over the sexual aspect in the O’Brien play Virginia and praises Smith’s perceived granting of privacy to the author. (Has he read the play, I wonder. “VIRGINIA and VITA stand and look at each other, each for the other an object of desire,” says one stage direction.) The Shaffer play Lettice and Lovage, about two very different spinsters who become friends against all odds and start meeting regularly to re-enact dramatic scenes from the British royal history in the privacy of their own homes, is very much about a couple. Coveney pleads utter surprise, shock even, that critics found that in the play. “Michael Ratcliffe, dismissing the piece as ‘a fey heritage comedy’, declared that the play’s greatest mystery was the failure of Lettice and Lotte to end up in bed together. Margaret Tyzack [who played the other woman] says that lesbianism, even crypto-lesbianism, was never even discussed by anyone on the production. The idea would certainly never have crossed Maggie’s mind. She was absolutely aghast when Ingmar Bergman had asked her, during rehearsals for Hedda Gabler, apropos of her interest in Mrs Elvsted’s long hair, if she had ever experienced any physical sensations towards her own sex.”
At which point one feels the urge to yell at the book, Oh do untwist your knickers, you damn queen.
Or take the film Death on the Nile, in which Maggie Smith plays the companion—something like a PA whose job description includes massage—to Bette Davis’s grande dame. It’s a hilarious tandem, replete with ambiguities, none of which Coveney notices.
So here’s my wish, gods are you listening: for another Maggie Smith bio to be written, covering the period from 1992 to present day, this time by a woman.
Maggie Smith’s next film, meanwhile, will have a strong operatic connection: she’ll play a retired opera singer in Quartet, alongside Peter O’Toole and Tom Courteney. (Hat tip to Stray for the early info)
Should you read the biography: Can’t you infer from my inflections, duckie?