On December 28, 1934, Margaret Natalie Smith was born. The world now knows her as Dame Maggie Smith. And earlier this year, she walked away with her sixth Evening Standard Theatre Award as Best Actress.
That’s more than any other actress – including Dame Judi Dench, her friend of 60 years. Yet in listening to Dame Maggie’s unassuming acceptance speech, one might wonder how much she really believes in her ability to command a British stage.
And with good reason! For most of the past 12 years, in fact, she deliberately avoided the stage. As she told The Times in 2009, “I’m frightened to work in theatre.”
Millions of moviegoers loved Dame Maggie as Harry Potter’s persnickety Professor Minerva McGonagall. But none of them knew that, while filming Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince in 2008, she was also undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer.
The experience, she told The Times, “…leaves you so flattened… I’m frightened to work in theatre now. I would love to be able to, because I do love it.”
The fear and longing stayed with her through the remaining Potter films and her entire Downton Abbey run. As she recently explained to the Evening Standard:
“I am deeply grateful for the work in Potter and indeed Downton, but it wasn’t what you’d call satisfying. I didn’t really feel I was acting in those things… I wanted to get back to the stage so much because theatre is basically my favourite medium… But there wasn’t anything that came along.”
Until, that is, director Jonathan Kent sent her a book about Brunhilde Pomsel, Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels’ Jewish stenographer. Christopher Hampton’s brilliant script for A German Life followed, based on testimony Pomsel shared with Austrian film makers four years before her 2016 death at age 106.
And this past April, the remarkable actress faced her first opening night before a sold-out theater crowd since 2007. In a performance staged so she remained seated, she delivered a riveting, 100-minute monologue as notable for its immaculately timed silences as its words. The perfect vehicle for Dame Maggie Smith, Mistress of the Meaningful Pause!
And what might the future hold?
In a 2017 confession to the British Film Institute, Dame Maggie imagined the upcoming Downton Abbey theatrical film would properly open with her funeral. She was also the last cast member sign on.
And in her final scene, the Dowager Countess Violet confided to her granddaughter Lady Mary, “I don’t have long to live.” She was passing the torch to a kindred spirit.
Dame Maggie spoke the line as written during Lady Mary’s takes. But when the camera was on her, producer Liz Turnbridge told the Hollywood Reporter, she changed it to “I may not have long to live.”
And she followed up with, “It won’t be too quick, but of course you can never get a London doctor to be precise.” Just maybe, if there’s a Downton Abbey sequel, Dame Maggie won’t be so eager for it to open without her character!
What’s your favorite Dame Maggie Smith performance? Where does she rank among your list of favorite actresses? What do you think about a sequel to the Downton Abbey film? Please join the conversation?