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It's what she doesn't say

Maggie Smith conveys volumes with sly expressions and eloquent sighs. Perhaps that's why she can't explain what makes a performance resonate.

May 25, 2003|David Gritten | Special to The Times

London — "Usually the parts I get now are cameos or bits and pieces," Maggie Smith observed, her eyebrows arching into an expression of mild surprise. "Cameos are lovely, but you do feel slightly detached from the film being made. Everyone else is busy and knows each other, whereas you're just nodding in and nodding out."

To Americans who know their Academy Awards trivia, Smith is a versatile veteran who won the best actress Oscar in 1968 for playing the title role, a stern Scottish schoolmistress, in "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie," and a supporting actress award for "California Suite" (1977) -- ironically, for playing an actress who failed to win an Oscar. Her most recent brush with Oscar was a supporting actress nomination for "Gosford Park." To the British, Dame Maggie (she was thus honored by the queen in 1990) is a national treasure, the greatest stage actress of her generation and, at 68, still the leading box office draw in London's West End, along with her close friend Judi Dench.

But to all children and teenagers who revere "Harry Potter" Smith is Professor Minerva McGonagall, the brusque but warmhearted schoolmarm at Hogwarts -- a role she describes as "Jean Brodie in a witch's hat." It may have made her famous to a new generation, yet it's essentially another cameo: "It's odd when you're just saying tiny little brief things, which in my case in the 'Harry Potter' films is mostly: 'Go back to your classrooms!' or 'Go back to your dormitories!' That's what I seem to say all the time."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday May 27, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Oscar date -- An article about Maggie Smith in Sunday's Calendar mistakenly said she won a best actress Oscar in 1968 for "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie." The film was released in 1969.

No surprise, then, that Smith is pleased by her latest work on film, "My House in Umbria," an HBO movie based on the book by Irish writer William Trevor. It airs tonight with Smith playing Emily Delahunty, an English romance novelist living in a rural Italian villa. Not only is hers the lead role, but Smith is also in almost every scene. "Being involved day after day and frame after frame was rewarding, to feel your effort made some difference," she said. "You understand the whole structure of the film, rather than drifting in and out. Then it becomes more like working in the theater."

In "My House in Umbria," an explosion shatters the train carriage in which Emily is traveling. Five passengers die, but she and three more survive. One, Aimee, an American girl of 8, is stricken mute by the trauma. Emily invites the survivors to convalesce at her idyllic home, and they start to heal, mentally and physically. But then Aimee's uncle (Chris Cooper), a childless, dry-as-dust academic, comes to take her back to America. Concerned that Aimee will not flourish in a joyless home, Emily urges him to let her stay in Umbria; her desperate attempts to change his mind include flirting embarrassingly with him and engaging in some inappropriate intimacy.

Was this over-the-top behavior hard to play? "Something else to play is what it was," said Smith, characteristically changing the subject. "Chris Cooper's a bloody good actor, you know. I was delighted about his Oscar, thrilled for him."

Something 'so gossamer-like'

She reflected on this one recent afternoon in a suite of a chic hotel, paid for by HBO, close to her apartment in the Chelsea district. (Her main home is in Sussex, south of London.) "Hmmm, nice, isn't it?" she murmured, inspecting the light, airy room. "I might spend the night here."

Smith is widely regarded as reclusive; she rarely does one-on-one interviews. With her precise, cut-glass tones, she is daunting company for the easily intimidated. She affects a weary, faintly disdainful air, and one imagines in certain moods that she can be withering. But on this afternoon she was warm, relaxed and funny. Smith's wit is hard to nail in print, reliant as it is on apparently neutral comments being accompanied by a repertoire of eloquent sighs and facial expressions: meaningful sideways glances, raised eyebrows, eyes rolling heavenwards. "She can be one of the funniest people you'll ever meet," says a longtime colleague, theatrical producer Robert Fox.

Still, no one would call her an easy interview. She will not talk about her private life ("Well, what is there to say?") and prefers not to discuss her work. Why is that? "I just don't think it's possible to talk about something that's so gossamer-like," she says of acting. "Talking about it -- comedy, anyway -- makes it disappear. You can't analyze things like that, I don't think, and it certainly isn't up to me to analyze it. And I couldn't anyhow."

Yet she concedes that on stage, a facial expression from her and a specific intonation of a word can produce a frisson of pleasure in an audience: "Yes, but it's hard to know why. And it doesn't happen the same way all the time."

Would we damage the process by talking about it?

"Absolutely, because then it becomes manufactured. It's surprise that works, the unexpectedness. I couldn't for the life of me set down how I do it. I know when a moment's not working, but I can't pinpoint what it is."

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