Actress Files: Maggie Smith
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(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