Authors: Michael Coveney
It is in a state of reasonable intoxication, on an improvised bed among sacks of lentils, and largely thanks to twenty-six-year-old Mr Ramesh, who has wonderful legs and a child bride waiting for him in India, that Susan, on the second Sunday after Trinity, discovers ‘what all the fuss is about’. By this fourth scene in the vestry, Geoffrey’s loyal parishioners, ‘the fan club’, are on red alert: the Communion wine has all gone! Susan is now reduced to knocking back the Benylin and driving more regularly into Leeds for physical consolation with Mr Ramesh.
In the final tableau, Susan has signed up with Alcoholics Anonymous, starchily attired in a suit, blouse and respectable brooch. But ‘Geoffrey’s chum’, the deity, can take credit for this, too. Susan and her plight are brandished as further evidence of Geoffrey’s case for ecclesiastical advancement. From being a fly in the ointment, she has graduated to being a feather in his cap. Mr Ramesh has gone home to collect his child bride and is rumoured to be setting up a new shop in Preston. Although Maggie’s eyes are filled with tears, she has all but frozen over with fierce anger and her imprisonment is complete.
It is this glacial surface, rippling with animosity, tension, pain and frustration, that makes the acting so profound and moving in both
Bed Among the Lentils
. To an extent, these are self-immolating performances just held in control by sheer technique and the sustained effort, over the whole arc of a role, to let us see straight through to the soul of a benighted but resilient human being. Maggie’s full comic armoury serves this purpose, lending sharp edge and clear, high definition to the tragic expression. The characters are never indulged and the actress never wallows. There is nothing random or vague about Judith’s or Susan’s state of mind. The process Maggie describes is one of truthful, clinical disintegration and the residual but wholly rational manner in which the human spirit rallies to defy the rampant claims of the abyss.
These performances are majestic and beautiful because they celebrate human dignity in conditions of weakness and stress. Maggie had her own share of weakness and stress. After playing at the Globe in
Lettice and Lovage
for a year, she went on holiday with Beverley and Joan Plowright before the planned opening in New York. At Albert Finney’s recommendation, they all went to the British Virgin Islands, and the fateful accident occurred on 29 November 1988 when Joan Plowright left early to return to the ailing Olivier in Brighton. Returning on a bicycle from making her farewells, Maggie rounded a bend, came off the road and the bicycle, fell over a smallish escarpment and landed on her shoulder in a prickly bush. She had splintered the top of her shoulder, and the slow and painful recovery entailed physiotherapy, long daily swims at the Goodwood country club, exercises and a good deal of patience. At the same time, her eyes were causing serious problems – to deal with them, she underwent surgery and a course of radiotherapy.
This period of adjustment was also marked by Olivier’s final decline and his death on 11 July 1989. Maggie emerged from her gruesome regimen of recovery, and from deepest Sussex, to attend his memorial in Westminster Abbey on 20 October. Her eyes were concealed behind great sunglasses and she cut a figure of stylish anonymity in a black-and-white checked coat, a black skirt and a wide-brimmed black hat. She joined a select band of leading actors associated with Olivier’s career who processed slowly up the central aisle carrying mementos and symbols on blue velvet cushions, depositing them on the main altar before resuming their places in the nave. Douglas Fairbanks carried Olivier’s Order of Merit, followed by Michael Caine with an Oscar, Peter O’Toole with the
film script and Ian McKellen with Coriolanus’s laurel wreath. Maggie walked slowly alongside Paul Scofield, he bearing a silver model of the new National Theatre and she a similar emblem representing the Chichester Festival Theatre; ‘Not the first time she’s carried Chichester on her own, dear,’ Jack Tinker whispered in the nave. Dorothy Tutin bore the crown Olivier wore as King Lear on television, Derek Jacobi the one he had worn on stage as Richard III.
Frank Finlay brought up the rear with Edmund Kean’s Richard III sword, a gift from John Gielgud to his old sparring partner which more vividly than anything else symbolised the direct succession from Shakespeare, through Garrick and Kean, to Sir Henry Irving and Lord Olivier. Albert Finney read from Ecclesiastes, John Mills from Corinthians, Peggy Ashcroft the last thirty lines of Milton’s ‘Lycidas’ (‘At last he rose, and twitched his mantle blue: / Tomorrow to fresh woods, and pastures new’). And Gielgud himself, looking frail after recent illness, shook his fist at death in John Donne’s ‘Holy Sonnet’ and Hamlet’s ‘We defy augury’ speech. Alec Guinness gave a twinkling, dispassionate address in which he described the threat of danger that clung to Olivier, both on stage and off: ‘There were times when it was wise to be wary of him.’
Maggie was seated between her Sussex neighbour Scofield and her one-time film partner Michael Caine, who had gained the friendship and respect of Maggie on
and of Olivier on the filming of Anthony Shaffer’s
. She stood sadly among her peers and colleagues, joining in the singing of ‘Jerusalem’ at the end.
Maggie and Beverley attended the post-ceremonial thrash hosted by Joan Plowright in the upper foyers of the National Theatre. Many actors and backstage people have no recollection of seeing Maggie at this party. For while old acquaintance was renewed all around her, Maggie sat quietly in a corner talking to a very close and very ill friend of Peter Shaffer. The friend subsequently died, but Shaffer says that he will never forget the tenderness and sympathy Maggie evinced during this painful period of his life.
Maggie’s own powers of recovery amazed her sons. Toby said that, when his mother went back to see her doctors after a few months of physiotherapy and swimming for two hours every day, ‘Their teeth fell out. They couldn’t believe it. Most younger people, if they have that injury, just learn to live with the fact that they can’t move their shoulders any more. She can now move her shoulder around better than I can. And I’ve never fallen off my bike.’
She was determined to go to New York with
Lettice and Lovage
. Maggie could face a new start in better health as Dame Maggie Smith: she was secretly delighted, and relieved, to be remembered by the Prime Minister’s office one year after Judi Dench had been similarly honoured. On 25 March 1990 she opened in New York at the Ethel Barrymore, the theatre she had first played in
In New York, she took up residence in the Wyndham Hotel on the west side of 58th Street.
reduced her to a state of terminal exhaustion and she did not stint on a single performance. The result was that the gradual process of recovery from her other misfortunes – which were further complicated by some root-canal problems with her teeth – was compounded by galloping fatigue. She became more reclusive than Garbo, supping bowls of soup in the hotel suite and only venturing out of town at weekends to visit Joe Mankiewicz and his wife, and occasionally Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy.
Frank Rich hailed ‘a spellbinding actress’ and drew a distinction between this theatre acting ‘of a high and endangered order’ and the same actress’s ‘tightly minimalised film work’. The Biograph Cinema in New York honoured Maggie with a festival of her films in April, and she and Margaret Tyzack triumphed at the Tonys on the first Sunday in June. Tyzack was certain that Maggie would win the best actress, but she herself was a surprise winner in the best supporting slot, and remembers verbatim the acceptance speech she made: ‘Peter Shaffer’s written a wonderful play and I wish I had his eloquence in order to thank him and our marvellous director, Michael Blakemore, our producers, and, above all, Dame Maggie, whose inspired idea it was that I should play this part. I thank them, I thank you, the Tony voters.’ Maggie has not a clue as to what she said when she was announced. She had not been in the best of health. She stood up and bumped her leg against the chair, executing an extravagant, laugh-winning double take on the offending obstruction, just as she had when rushing into an Oxford classroom thirty-five years previously.
Two weeks later, on 18 June, Maggie attended another memorial service, this time for Rex Harrison, at New York’s Church of the Transfiguration. The glittering congregation included Douglas Fairbanks, Claudette Colbert and Zoë Caldwell. Harrison had been one of the first big stars she had met on her first trip to New York in 1956, and, although she had only worked with him once, she belonged to the same aristocracy of talent. Maggie’s address complemented those of Harrison’s two sons and of Brendan Gill.
As one who had successfully battled against being pigeonholed, Maggie rightly lamented the fact that we never saw Harrison in Molière or Shakespeare, claiming, surely with justification, that ‘he would have been wonderful as Tartuffe, Prospero or King Lear’. Unconsciously, she confirmed the kinship of temperament in those who specialise in the rare, demanding skills of light comedy: ‘A man of charm, affection and wit … but his charm was often not evident offstage [laughter was reported] … He was not one to suffer fools gladly, whether it was his director or an overbearing leading lady … [He] gave every line, every thought, every movement, a bit of magic.’
She was happy, too, to renew her friendship with Brian Bedford, who was also in town with his one-man show. Most of Maggie’s friends, with the possible exception of Robin Phillips and Gaskill, are in some way frightened of her. Bedford feels ‘the eagle eye’ on him all the time. He first met her in the late 1950s at a London party and remembers her crouching in a corner talking about her prevailing virginity. He has since, she has told him, often featured in her anxiety dreams, ‘sometimes wearing a dress while being terribly well organised and saying “Oh, I’ve got it all together!” I don’t know what the hell it means, but I think it’s an aspect of her professional insecurity, that she would think I was not only getting something right but also threatening her own position.’
After she agreed to go out to supper with him – ‘it was like pulling teeth’ – Bedford said he would pick her up after the performance. He arrived at her stage door and as Maggie came off to her usual tumultuous applause, she swished past him with ‘Did you hear them ovating?’ ‘Yes,’ replied Bedford. ‘Did it drive you mad?’ stabbed Maggie. They fell laughing into the dressing room, with a bottle of champagne and a table booked for 11 p.m. Maggie was ready to relax. More bottles were opened; the stage managers and the doorkeeper were brought in. Bedford recalls suddenly asking someone for the time. It was five to three in the morning: ‘We staggered out, Maggie’s car’s been waiting, and we disappear into another haze of white wine. I woke up late next morning in need of fresh orange juice. I go to a little hole-in-the-wall place on 57th Street and by this time they are serving lunch and I have to sit at the counter. I’m vaguely aware that some woman next to me is ordering black bean soup. This woman grabs me, and it’s Maggie.’
She does surprise her friends all the time, but never with any ploys that are calculated or self-conscious. She once met Bedford’s brother and his wife in Stratford, Ontario. Bedford was astonished to learn, some months later, that she had unexpectedly followed up the idle exchange of telephone numbers by ringing his sister-in-law in Yorkshire and asking for her Yorkshire pudding recipe. Maggie has never been a great letter-writer. But she does write very occasionally to give her friends fleeting encouragement about herself. After her father died, she wrote to Bedford, who had settled into a new Stratford season in a stable domestic relationship: ‘I am glad you are enjoying Stratford. You are quite right. If you are happy on the domestic front, as they say, it makes a huge difference. I was so happy when I was there and that was, now I think about it, the main reason. It was terrific having Bev and the boys with me … Pissing down as usual in England. It’s so cold even the sheep look wrecked.’
She had started her eventful imbroglio with
Lettice and Lovage
just three weeks after finishing work on
Bed Among the Lentils
. Both roles had left her feeling raw, she told an interviewer in the
Los Angeles Times
. ‘I’d got so absorbed, and it doesn’t go away from you.’ She took a long time to get the rawness out of her system, and the feeling was one she said she had never known before. She was ready for anything. She told another interviewer: ‘I wouldn’t want to retire. I am sure there is something to do, even if it be a wardrobe mistress … I take things day by day. You can’t plan. You hope.’
A slightly alarming development in Maggie’s career was the extent to which she played old ladies before her time. In the end, of course, this accidental tactic paid off handsomely and you could never be quite sure if she’d caught up with herself or not. All the same, she stuck out against old ladies right at the start, when Leonard Sillman was unwise enough to foist some doddery dowagers on her during the pre-Broadway try-out of
. But after the blazing directness of her tragic performances in
The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne
Bed Among the Lentils
, Maggie aged prematurely as the ninety-two-year-old Wendy Darling in Steven Spielberg’s Hollywood blockbuster
and as the seventy-three-year-old but well-tended housekeeper Mrs Mabel Pettigrew in the BBC television adaptation of Muriel Spark’s
. By the time she played Lady Bracknell in
The Importance of Being Earnest
at the Aldwych Theatre in 1993, she seemed, if anything, too young for the part.
is the ultimate Spielberg film in that it combined, at the time, the director’s twin obsessions: the glorification of childhood innocence in middle-class Middle America and an application of those homey backyard values to the world of wistful adventure;
. Glutinous and often torridly spectacular, the Spielberg films nonetheless amounted to a significant strand in American popular culture at a time when environmental pollution, urban violence and poverty, and the general moral degradation of political and public life, demanded some sort of compensating reply from art and literature. The collapse of family life was especially exploited by Spielberg. The tragedy of adulthood, as Spielberg was not the first to observe, is the sacrifice we make of our childishness. In
, Maggie, in the relatively peripheral role of Wendy, her large beseeching eyes daubed on her crinkled face like liquid pools of memory, lays down a single rule in her London house: ‘No growing up.’
Peter Pan has forgotten his childhood and, in the shape of the impish Robin Williams as Peter Banning, has matured into a forty-year-old New York mergers and acquisitions lawyer, with a wife, two children, and a cellular phone. The family comes to London – by Pan Am, of course – Williams wrestling with his fear of flying, to see Wendy after a ten-year gap. Peter has married her granddaughter in a desire for parenthood. But he takes calls during his daughter’s school play (a pleasingly gauche performance of
) and misses his son’s key baseball game (he sends along an office colleague with a video camera). The film opens directly into this contemporary scenario, with no credits and no fanfare. The sense of ‘other-worldliness’, the familiar Spielberg element of the light on the other side of the window, has an obvious significance in this case. Maggie provides the first shiver when she appears at the top of the stairs, rather like Judith Anderson as Mrs Danvers in
, as Peter and his family arrive: transfigured in the half-light, dignified by age and a walking stick, she intones ‘Hello, boy’ with the sinister implication of one claiming rights of possession.
When Peter tells her of his busy commercial life in New York, the sadness in Maggie’s eyes is briefly enlivened with a twinkling regret: ‘So, you’ve become a pirate.’ The tension gathers at a grand dinner in aid of the Great Ormond Street Hospital (the beneficiary of J. M. Barrie’s
royalties) at which Wendy is honoured for her lifetime’s work of rehabilitating orphans. One such was Peter, who makes the keynote, moving speech. This tribute is similar to that afforded Coral Browne as the very old Alice Liddell in Gavin Lambert’s
Alice in Wonderland
. Wendy has no chance to reply before the fictional underworld rises frighteningly to reassert its claims on reality. As the ranks of fellow orphans stand emotionally in gratitude to toast their maternal saviour, the windows are flung open in a terrifying blast and the howling rage of the invisible Captain Hook disrupts the self-congratulatory equilibrium. Back at the London house, the children have been snatched and a kidnapper’s note is stabbed with a knife to the nursery door. Wendy now tells Peter that he must return to Neverland and make himself remember. The quest is not just to recapture his children, but to recapture his own childhood. The whole premise of Barrie’s play has been turned around. Initially,
is concerned with a child’s defiance of the real world of domestic security in favour of imaginary escapism and the excitement of a brush with the forces of pantomime evil; but even there, Wendy becomes for Peter a potential surrogate mother figure.
The fantasy island and the huge dry-docked
in the film were the creations of John Napier, who was the RSC designer on all the great Nunn/Caird collaborations, including
in 1982. His movie Neverland is a cluttered theme park with skateboard circuits, food-pelting competitions, secret caves, a lagoon populated by seductive mermaids, and a general air of a Duke of Edinburgh’s Award assault course; Tom Sawyer’s island as an outpost Disney World. The tribal hairstyles, costumes and smart rap patois – Williams asks if this is a
Lord of the Flies
pre-school – also relate to another influential Nunn/Napier stage production,
. This is a way of Spielberg cutting into the youth culture. But it is also a means of taking the make-believe not towards the dreamy, timeless inconsequentiality of Barrie’s escapism, but to the tougher, stage-bound pantomime conventions of the play itself. Julia Roberts’s seven-inch Tinkerbell, a leggy, gamine sex object in a ball of light, gives Peter a tough old time, knocking him out, urging him on, before briefly emerging in full womanly dimensions to plant a lascivious kiss on his lips. This pricks the sides of Pan’s intent – the Happy Thought which Tinkerbell has bullied him to rekindle is one which ironically defeats her and renders her devotion tragic: Peter wanted to be a father.
His paternity suit is further spruced up by the sight of his son hitting a home run in a baseball game supervised by Hook, who has decided to defer the death sentence in favour of assuming the father role himself. ‘That’s my boy,’ Hook sighs contentedly as the child biffs the ball into the stratosphere. And the staginess of these central episodes is certainly reinforced by Dustin Hoffman’s magnificent bravura performance as Hook. Variously likened by the critics to Charles II, Terry-Thomas, William F. Buckley Jr, Basil Rathbone, Captain Morgan on the rum bottle, and every King Louis, Hoffman’s gap-toothed, laboriously posh-vowelled rollicking swordsman with a gleaming silver mitt is the ultimate cultural revenge on generations of English actors both flaunting their educated manners in Hollywood and adopting phoney American accents on the stage. Bob Hoskins, delightful as Smee, is Hook’s sidekick, waxing his master’s twirly moustaches with the contents of his own eardrums. The grotesque, Herod-like obscenity of Hook’s campaign – Barrie’s 1928 rewrite included the chilling line ‘A holocaust of children, there is something grand in the idea!’ – is missing, perhaps, but Hoffman has never been funnier. He may not actually cry out ‘Floreat Etona’ but he is certainly blooming eaten when time runs out and a concealed crocodile finally swallows him up.
The ultimate, reinforcing message of the film, and a slightly depressing one, is that families are better off staying together because the alternative really is less desirable. More fun, but inadequate to our emotional needs. Wendy’s home in London may be cosy and reassuring but Neverland, threatened by the gruff nastiness of Hook and his crew, is not only dangerous, but depressingly artificial. The film is also concerned about how you live with family and friends, and the need for maintaining those ties. Maggie herself is not promiscuous in friendship, nor does she worry all that much about ‘keeping up appearances’ – except on stage and screen, of course. And it’s been fascinating to see how she adapts those demands to the ageing process. She is fiercely and unshakably loyal to those friends and colleagues – and the closest colleagues become friends, too – who make her professional life tick over as time goes by.
Michael Blakemore believes that she really does organise the world in terms of friends and foes. ‘I love her, but she’s a killer,’ says Patricia Millbourn, the hairdresser Maggie has used regularly since the late 1950s. Millbourn bleached Maggie’s hair blonde for her first television role, and went backstage in tears after
What Every Woman Knows
at the Old Vic. ‘Oh God, you’re ’opeless,’ Maggie said. She has collected an Oscar with Maggie and been on holiday several times with her to Barbados. Their routine is to swim miles out to sea, swim back, play Scrabble, read and relax, and enjoy a glass or two of bubbly. But the hair is really what keeps them together: ‘She does have one of the most wonderful heads of hair as an actress that I’ve known. It can be so versatile, short or long, off the face, and she has a great profile. She knows instantly what the hair should be for each part. Other actors study the period, read history books. She gets it in one.’
On the first night of
, Millbourn sat in front of the
critic, who said to his companion what a marvellous wig Maggie was wearing. It was her own hair. And every night during
, Maggie would affix her eyelashes and put her hair in Carmen rollers to achieve the Marcel-wave style; similar routines have been undertaken on many plays. Maggie always takes advice from Millbourn before going abroad in a play, or unofficially during film shoots. They usually decide on a wig, in order, as Maggie says, to avoid ‘funny ’airdressers in Atlanta’. At which point the wig and make-up specialist, Kenneth Lintott, is invariably contacted. Lintott, who started his career in ‘Wig Cremations’ (Coral Browne’s term for Wig Creations), was for many years associated with the RSC and did not work with Maggie until she needed wigs for the American tour of
in 1974. Lintott was introduced to Maggie by the designer Anthony Powell. He took an instant shine to Maggie having at first been apprehensive. ‘I was knocked out by how beautiful she was. She used to wear horrendous make-up in those days and I’d only ever seen her with all that stuff on. It never suited her at all. But she was divine. And everything about her was tiny: tiny hands, tiny feet, tiny head.’
They got on well. And that, Lintott thought, was that. But then he was asked to Stratford, Ontario, by Maggie and Robin Phillips, to work on her wigs and general ‘look’. He regards her stay there as ‘her cleansing-out period’. Her previous ‘look’ had been compounded by all the make-up. Now she had some skin removed from her eyelids – she used to call these pouches her ‘shopping bags’ – and her make-up was simpler, although Lintott wooed her into a false, built-up nose as Titania. There was nothing ‘stuck on’ for her Rosalind, and the freckles for Ganymede were based on her son’s, little Toby’s. Lintott worked on the films
Evil Under the Sun
The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne
. On the latter, he says that a lot of the crew found her ‘in the role’ depressions disconcerting. She was given a blue dress to wear one day. She was not pleased. ‘I can’t wear this. I look like a sofa in Maples,’ she said, and it was changed. Lintott thinks she has a thing about blue. Similarly, in Canada, she referred to a dress provided by Daphne Dare for
The Way of the World
as ‘Daphne’s revenge’. That was brown. Watching her in the fitting room, a friend told her that she had a February face. ‘So would you in this, dear,’ she said. ‘I can’t do comedy in brown!’
Even closer than Lintott is Anthony Powell, who first worked with Maggie as costume designer on
Travels with My Aunt
. Many colleagues declare that they love Maggie. One or two, including Powell, possibly the film director Jack Clayton and certainly the veterans Joe Mankiewicz and George Cukor, were all palpably in love with her. Powell even landed her the role of Wendy in
. The late Peggy Ashcroft had been cast originally and one of Spielberg’s co-producers rang Powell when he (Powell) was in New York to see Dustin Hoffman for fittings. He said, not knowing that Powell was a friend of Maggie’s, that Ashcroft had withdrawn with illness and back trouble, and that he had always loved Maggie’s work. How old was she now, he enquired? ‘Ooh, I dunno,’ bluffed Powell, ‘she must be in her early nineties by now … ninety-one – ninety-two …’ Maggie was cast. Although she worked only once each with the great film directors Joe Mankiewicz and George Cukor, both men figured as large as anyone in her private life.
Maggie’s obsessive attention to detail carries over into the photography sessions. She will not sit for photographs if she does not feel that everything is absolutely right. And if she could choose her snapper in the theatre, it would usually have been Zoë Dominic, who remembers Maggie cancelling a photo-call because she was dissatisfied with her earrings. ‘With any other actor,’ said Dominic, ‘I would have forced the issue. But with Maggie I would never argue.’ She finds her a great subject and a great actress, who is primarily physically funny: ‘She is the only actress I know who can walk in one direction and be acting with her head in the reverse direction. I’ve always found that hysterically funny. She has immense physical grace, which is why I like to catch her on the move. On a bad day – and I try not to photograph her if she’s unhappy, or not ready – she shrinks, in face and body. But when she feels good, and that’s the ideal time to photograph anyone, she positively blossoms. She looks like a wonderful peach. Whether she’s conscious of that or not I don’t know. I wouldn’t dream of discussing it with her. She’s tremendously subtle.’
Maggie, says Dominic, commands loyalty, but never demands it. She probably feels a lot closer to some people than she is capable of indicating. During the time of the boys’ growing up, she was very close to her brother Alistair and his wife. But she drifted out of touch with the other brother, Ian, when he moved to New York. Letters were exchanged across the Atlantic, but not very many. Ian thinks the difficulty arose because he had not achieved anything as an architect comparable to what she had achieved as an actress. In other words, he was not Robert Venturi or Michael Graves. It is almost certain that such a thought never occurred to Maggie. But Ian, for years, felt slightly hurt by the distance she maintained between them. He tried to ring every day during
but never got through. During the entire New York run of
Lettice and Lovage
, he saw her once. Not until their father died peacefully in April 1991, and Ian came over to stay with Maggie and Beverley in Sussex for ten days, spending more time with her in that week than he had in the previous twenty years, did he realise that his paranoia was only partly justified. He had profoundly misunderstood his own sister. ‘I had been very upset all this time, but now I realised I need not have been. What I had been interpreting as a sort of rejection was in fact just this obsessive reclusiveness which had nothing to do with me. I was shocked when she told me that she found it virtually impossible to eat lunch, that to do so would make her physically ill.’