Monday, April 26, 2010

Actress Files: Maggie Smith

Maggie Smith, Travels with My Aunt
★ ★ ★ ★
(lost the 1972 Best Actress Oscar to Liza Minnelli for Cabaret)

Why I Waited: Because I am no fan of Auntie Mame, and I had always heard Travels with My Aunt described as "Okay, but no Auntie Mame." And I wonder if you've ever noticed that, once you've seen one comic performance from Maggie Smith...

The Performance: Clearly a low-point in the history of the category, and not only in retrospect: reviews at the time were split at best, and the nomination raised some eyebrows where it didn't provoke outright moans. Which, obviously, isn't to say that the performance doesn't have its fans. Indeed, it's precisely the sort of overbearing Daft Hussy camp that exists so as to generate a cult following. More power to all those queens who at any time in their lives have gone to a costume party as Aunt Augusta Bertram, for you know these faithful must exist. Thing is, were Maggie herself to attend such a party, there's no end to the amount of shade that would be thrown at her hard-driving but creaky and too often joyless approach to the character.

Who knows how much input she had, if any, to the lugubriously overwrought makeup and hair designs of Carmen Sánchez and José Antonio Sánchez, stuck with the task of transforming an actress in her late 30s into a beldame well into her dotage. Surely, though, they represent the only team of cosmetologists in Hollywood history who felt compelled to make Maggie's cheeks look even more sunken and her eyes more unsettlingly profound, like something out of Franju. But pity the poor dears who, in grim cahoots with Oscar-winning costumer Anthony Powell and cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, have to pass the character off in one extended flashback as a blushing schoolgirl. I understand that at one point in time, Maggie Smith must have negotiated secondary education, but even by the ghastly standards of any advanced performer trying to pass for 16, is there any face in movies less plausibly matched to the body of a uniformed adolescent?

The performance is in many respects a sort of catalog of tasks that no one should assign to Maggie Smith: be a belated teenager, be a premature dowager, sing, go Big as often and as far as possible, have an ongoing drugs-and-sex fling with an understandably adrift Lou Gossett Jr., fritter and quip with abandon until a climactic and lachrymose plea for affection, conjure a notorious legacy of sexual irresistibility. In fairness, the last point is one that Smith occasionally marshals in her favor. Her Augusta flaunts an erotic chutzpah that just dares people to second-guess her. When this odd, unexpected apparition at a family funeral counters the rumors that she was lost at sea many years ago, offering the retort that she was "rescued – many times," I see an ember of glee in the actor and the performance, and a zesty distillation of that peculiar but intense sexuality for which Smith is such an unlikely vessel in more "serious" films like Jean Brodie.

(Image c/o the Evening Standard, documenting this performance at its least makeup-enhanced)

But this is an early bit, doomed to dozens of basically unvarying reiterations. Worse, there remains the problem of chiseling away at the thick cement of affectation, much less the sepulchral layering of pancake makeup, so as to furnish any oxygen to that essential spark of mischief. I recently re-screened the first half-hour or so of Jack Clayton's The Pumpkin Eater and rediscovered Smith's small, hilariously disingenuous turn as a live-in seductress of Anne Bancroft's husband. What a marvel, what fun to see her breathing so much easier, feeling out her moods and gestures, rather than arriving to the part already locked into a rigid retinue of mannerisms. I hear that Smith is much more inventive on stage, and she's such a droll reader and stylist that I don't want to solemnize the account of watching her give even a bad performance. We need more actors who can transform a line like "You insignificant bank manager!" into such a delectable truffle.

Nonetheless, even by the familiar standards of Maggie "doing" herself in a film like Gosford Park, in Travels with My Aunt she's just laboriously encrusted. The plot, apparently derived in a free but dulling way from Graham Greene's comic novel, is so over-stuffed with outlandish incident and aggravating contrivance that it's hard to imagine any performer thinking they need to festoon the picture with more clutter. I'm equally mystified by Smith and director George Cukor's evident strategy of selling every moment of the character to the rafters, so that we can see how fully "in" on the joke of this person they are. As if it could possibly be otherwise! Augusta is indefensibly obnoxious, squeezing interludes of faux wisdom (e.g., "Some of us get out of life what everyone else is stupid enough to put into it") or ghastly introspection ("Sometimes I get the awful feeling that I'm the only one left who gets any fun out of life") between her tiresome habits of lying, smuggling, dithering, bamboozling, dragooning, and making a cock of herself. That Smith's garish overplaying, either in sync with Cukor's notes or (one hopes) in defiance of them, amounts to a constant burlesque of unnecessary ironization, maybe even a form of apology, only intensifies the displeasure of spending two endless and arbitrary hours with her. Grating with such brio yet standing apart from her own performance: it's like bringing an intolerable date to a party and imagining that you are easing the situation by telling everyone in attendance, "Sorry about my date, isn't s/he the most grueling nuisance?" A surefire tactic for getting everyone crankier at you than at the bugbear on your elbow.

I like Maggie Smith, even though I can't help grousing about a film career largely misspent on a seemingly willful program of not challenging herself, which makes it harder to view Travels with My Aunt as what it probably is: a massive but early lapse in how to conceive a character for the screen and scaling one's effects. I have only ever liked her less in Tea with Mussolini, almost three decades on. Still, though it's surely down to directors and casting agents as much as it is to her, I wish Smith had learned a lesson of keeping her roles and approaches more varied and earnestly modulated, rather than just keeping a future eye on dialing herself up to "8" or "9" rather than "10" or "11," perpetually. Scuttlebut on the movie has always run that Katharine Hepburn badly wanted and developed this role until the studio dropped her for being too old. I'm not convinced I would have liked Travels in any configuration, but asking a newly celebrated character actress three decades younger than Hepburn to tie herself up playing too old and too young within a lavishly overproduced nonsense plot was surely not the ideal solution... especially once it became obvious (surely by the first day of shooting?) that Smith was making all the crudest, least disciplined choices about how to navigate such a buzzkill assignment. Holding my ear up to the lion's share of her scenes, I hear her saying, sotto voce, "Can you believe what a sod they've made of this script?" and "Aren't you glad I'm at least going at it full-bore?" To each his own diva-kitsch, but from my perspective, No and No.

The Best Actress Project: 1 More Down, 37 to Go

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Blogger James T said...

I started reading and I was like "Oh, Maggie :)". Then I saw the grade and I was "Oh, shit :(". :p

Needless to say that I haven't seen this movie and I have the feeling you're not recommending it :p

But I also think you were not really impressed by most of Maggie's nominations. Is there at least one performance of hers that you love?

For me, I don't know if there is one but I always enjoy watching her. And although she was kind of playing herself in Gosford Park, she was bitchier than usual.

And yes, beautiful and witty writing as always.

10:17 AM, April 26, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@James: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was one of the first Best Actress-winning performances I ever saw; I liked it, didn't love it, but ought to revisit. I think she's very funny in all of her nominated supporting turns in California Suite, A Room with a View, and Gosford Park, and subtly different in each, though none involves the sort of risk-taking I'd like to have seen from her. I think Desdemona is a tough role to have a big success in, but I think she's very affecting, finally, opposite Olivier. She's very clever and just what the doctor ordered in Sister Act, and emphasizes the suffocating quality of her favorite tics as a character point in Washington Square, for which I'm sure she or the filmmakers expected a nomination. Like everything else about that movie, it's a limited success (again: take a real risk, Maggie!), but a success nonetheless.

Tim Robey will vouch for her plumly wicked bitchiness in Evil under the Sun, which was my favorite part of that movie. I hear only the best about Maggie in The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, a film that is annoyingly hard to see, but it sounds like just the thing I'd like to see Maggie do. I'm sure someone will eventually stump for it in these comments.

10:36 AM, April 26, 2010  
Blogger Daniel Smith said...

Haven't seen Travels With my Aunt (it's been sitting on my DVR since TCM aired it in the fall, and I haven't worked up the motivation to watch), but I still think one of the great crimes in Oscar history was that she wasn't even nominated for The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne.

10:37 AM, April 26, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Daniel: HA! We posted at virtually the same time, and you fully bore out the prediction at the end of my last comment in 60 seconds or last. Instant vindication - I love it!

10:40 AM, April 26, 2010  
Blogger James T said...

I didn't mention The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne on purpose because I saw some clips at Youtube and I couln't decide whether I liked her perf or not. But I want to add Murder by Death in the discussion. I really liked her in it. Should I stop now or go ahead and mention Harry Potter? :p

10:49 AM, April 26, 2010  
Blogger James T said...

I really can't resist going off-topic so:

I would love it if you saw Pote tin Kyriaki since Mercouri is the only Greek actress with a best actress nomination. (Paxinou won the supporting Oscar)

And in case you haven't heard, We Need To Talk About Kevin starts shooting this week. It really bugs me that Die Blutgräfin isn't confirmed yet. Please, people, tell me if I'm gonna see Tilda and Isabelle together or not!

11:33 AM, April 26, 2010  
Blogger Robert Hamer said...

"...and the nomination raised some eyebrows where it didn't provoke outright moans."

Why does this happen as often as it does? I mean, has there ever been an acting year so sparse that a weak-assed performance was actually justifiably nominated? Do voters just get lazy and nominate someone because, hell they're Maggie Smith/Meryl Streep/Judi Dench/Kate Winslet/Helen Mirren, so they *probably* gave an Oscar-worthy performance, right? Am I (and from what I remember, you) just trapped in a parallel dimension when I have to watch Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth: The Golden Age through my fingers?

I'm not saying that the Academy should be admonished for not agreeing with me. I know they often will, and that's fine. If they want to reward Sandra Bullock for being perfectly adequate in a perfectly awful film, that's their perogative. But to go for performances that are near-universally dismissed (sometimes even by the nominees themselves! i.e. Stanley Tucci, Cate Blanchett, etc.) is just...weird to me. Any thoughts on this, or did I just incoherently ramble?

12:10 PM, April 26, 2010  
Blogger Dan Callahan said...

Oh God, yes, I have to reiterate, you have to see "The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne." It's not only the best performance Smith ever gave on film, but one of the best performances by anyone, period.

All I can really remember from "Travels" is her ketchup-colored hair. I couldn't get through the Greene novel.

I'd love to see her in "A Private Function" again, and I wish I could have seen her on stage; I do have a weakness for her even when she's triple-taking it up. Apparently she's deathly ill; it's a shame that she's spent her last years in those Harry Potter things.

12:31 PM, April 26, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

You guys are great. Every time I get stuck on this book I'm trying to read and this chapter I'm revising (i.e., work stuff, not actresses), someone has chimed in and said something funny or helpful or spirit-lifting.

@James: The Báthory movie sounds divine, though I'd expect something very astringent from Ulrike Ottinger: a legend, but not known for dazzling entertainments. Seeing Swinton and Huppert together would be a thrill in any case, especially with Irm Hermann in the cast, too, and Elfriede Jelinek (author of The Piano Teacher and Nobel Laureate) working on the script. Shot by The White Ribbon's Christian Berger, too, or so IMDb reports! As for Mercouri, you can count on getting your wish!

@Robert: This comment really made me chuckle. Partly because you're funny, partly because it's preferable to sighing. I'm sure the people who love Maggie (in general, or in Travels) really went nuts for this, but the camp of detractors was large, and no, I don't know how/why this happens so often, short of personal enthusiasm in the industry and the fact that I really, really don't know how many new releases people actually see who work in the industry. Some of them clearly a lot, some of them not very many. I'm sure several of them vote for what they've heard is good, or want to be good. I realize that's condescending to the fact that some of them believe that Maggie, Stanley, Cate, etc., did good work in those roles. It's past explaining.

@Dan: One day, I'll track down one of those British PAL DVDs of Judith Hearne, or someone will do me a good turn and get me one. When I use the phrase "do a good turn," I of course think of Brenda Blethyn, and say it out loud in the voice of Secrets & Lies's Cynthia (who can resist?), and it serves notice that it is possible to an actress who adores her mannerisms and knows what people usually want from her, yet still finds room to dig deeper on regular occasions. Cast wider nets. Choose your metaphor. The idea of Maggie Smith in something like Secrets & Lies? Delectable.

12:57 PM, April 26, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

(Also, for those wondering: you could make the argument that by nominating Smith, Oscar gave these gals who had most reason to be miffed: Susannah York in her Cannes-winning work for Robert Altman in Images, though she was no fan of the Academy and mocked her first nomination rather openly; Tuesday Weld in Play It As It Lays, though as usual, she got much stronger notices than her film; Joanne Woodward doing serious Broadway in The Effect of Gamma Rays...; Barbra Streisand in Up the Sandbox or What's Up, Doc?, wondering why Oscar couldn't keep it close to home if he wanted to nominate a class-A cut-up; or Carol Burnett in Pete 'n' Tillie and Goldie Hawn in Butterflies Are Free, wondering why the Supporting noms for Page and Heckart didn't yield collective enthusiasm for more of the cast.)

1:02 PM, April 26, 2010  
Blogger Tim said...

I don't know if you've gotten tired the past couple of weeks of getting praise, but: this has been my favorite of your Best Actress posts all month, and that's from someone who absolutely loves him some Maggie (though I haven't seen Travels).

My own pick for her best performance in an underseen film (I haven't seen Lonely Passion either) is Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing, opposite Timothy Bottoms, but I think it would probably fit entirely within your definition of "not challenging herself". I think her performances as Jean Brodie is one of the most deserving winners ever in that category, so we're clearly not in perfect accord regarding this particular actress.

4:04 PM, April 26, 2010  
Blogger Andrew K. said...

I saw this once on late night TV and my mind was programmed to dislike it, even though I wonder now if my information was accurate. I vaguely remember reading that the Late Great Kate being attached to this role (I think she mentioned it herself actually in her "Me"). For some reason they didn't use her, heaven know's why...and her comment was "the film was eventually made with Maggie Smith, it wasn't particularly successful."

Seeing that Kate is me own personal deity I just couldn't acquiesce to the film and it's fault (I'm weird like that), even though I do like Maggie Smith.

5:41 PM, April 26, 2010  
Blogger Dan Callahan said...

If I remember correctly, Carol Burnett has some revelatory moments in "Pete 'n' Tillie," and the other women you mention are far more deserving than Smith in 1972---I'm sure even she would agree that "Travels" is a failed performance.

Maggie Smith in a Mike Leigh movie? That's an idea to really chew over, but I don't see it happening. She's too old school to get into his improvisatory style. Then again, she's always at her best as low-born women with upper class pretensions, and that's right up his alley.

I think part of your problem with her is that she's almost purely a technician, an often brilliant technician, and you can't really see/learn who she is from her work. But there is some core of emotional truth there; as with Streep, I'm always waiting to catch her out, when she has her guard down, and it almost never happens.

Steve Vineberg wrote a very illuminating essay about Smith for Salon in 2000; I think it's still on line. He writes about her stage work as well, including her Hedda Gabler for Ingmar Bergman, and I think he nails her finest qualities.

12:14 PM, April 27, 2010  
Blogger Calum Reed said...

I suddenly feel really guilty for deleting The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne from my DVR last month. The backlog just gets so intimidating!

I do love me some Maggie Smith, but I can't help but agree with your assessment of this performance Nick. She felt completely in a world of her own throughout, and literally just an annoying Aunt that you're not interested in and don't want to have around.

The film really is terrible though, so I didn't think she's much worse than Roz Russell was in Auntie Mame for example. It's just misguided to the last reel, and not even attentive enough to be labelled a confection, trifle, or anything that suggests cheeky warmth. Was anyone having fun making this picture?

I had to laugh at the coin-toss scene at the end. There was no logic to anything that preceded it, so it was fitting in a way.

6:51 PM, April 27, 2010  
Blogger tim r said...

I thought Sylvia Miles was your favourite in Evil Under the Sun! Stabbing out fags in tomatoes? Don't tell me you're flip-flopping!

I entirely agree that Smith can be horribly OTT and pretty great, practically at the same time. Feel the same about her in Jean Brodie and Pumpkin Eater, and I'd put in a small word for her in that 1993 version of The Secret Garden, though "stern governess" is hardly venturing anywhere outside her comfort zone. Colour me intrigued (and now lovefilm-queued) about this Judith Hearne business...

Funnily enough, I've never seen her on stage, though I guess I've had plenty of chances.

11:29 AM, April 28, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

I forgot she was in it! Miles is kind of my favorite in everything I've ever seen her in, so even though my memory of her has evaporated, I'm sure you're right.

11:49 AM, April 28, 2010  
Blogger Yellowlees Douglas said...

I spent time in my teenage years with Maggie when she was at the Stratford (Ont) Festival (I'm her god-daughter and cousin). If I recall correctly, she said that the makeup artist on Travels with My Aunt was the same guy who'd made up Judy Garland when she was laid out. Might explain the maquillage in Travels with My Aunt.

Also, to see her range, you would've needed to see her onstage, doing a classic repertoire, which she did at Stratford in the late 70s and early 80s. She told me that she loathes making films, since one plays everything out of sequence and never gets to develop an organic performance.

11:50 AM, May 20, 2010  
Blogger Unknown said...

Great article! Love it and the interesting discussion going on here. I'm pretty sure these guys will mention it as well.

6:24 AM, July 26, 2010  

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