If you are a Downton Abbey fan, you may skip to Michael Covenly’s chapter 21 on “Harry Potter and Downton Abbey” in his biography of Maggie Smith. As I revelled in the memory of the scenes recalled throughout the series and Maggie Smith’s role as the Dowager, I suddenly cringed when Covenly mistakenly identified Lady Edith as the youngest daughter of the Earl and Lady Cora. Had he missed an agonized mother’s line at Sybil’s deathbed – “My beauty, my baby…” ? Was he only watching Maggie Smith scenes?
Nonetheless, the rest of the book documents Maggie Smith’s career with long summaries of her dramatic roles. Covenly has more to say about her numerous roles than her life, and her resume is amazing, from Desdemona to Diana Barrie to Spielberg’s Wendy, and remember Mother Superior in Sister Act? Throughout her career, Smith has earned six Oscar nominations (winning two), 16 BAFTA nominations (winning five) and seven Golden Globes (winning two). In 2003 she won an Emmy award for her lead performance in the TV movie My House in Umbria.
She supposedly had a long running feud with the great Laurence Olivier – sometimes on stage, and her first marriage to fellow actor Robert Stephens, with whom she had two children, seemed to mirror a Noel Coward play. In 1975 she married her old friend, writer Beverley Cross, who “she began to say she should have married in the first place” and stay married to him until his death in 1998.
Her audience today knows Maggie Smith for her more recent roles – the Dowager Countess, Professor Minerva McGonagall in the Harry Potter series (Smith was instrumental in the casting of Daniel Radcliffe as Harry), or Muriel in the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and Covenly includes those in his book. But he is also careful to remind the reader where Smith started, and reading about her journey makes her all the more amazing.
Covenly notes – “At all stages of her career, Maggie has, for the most part, remained curiously invisible to the public, She rarely appears in charity shows, seldom lends her name to committees or educational institutions…It is as if she hides away, nursing her gift, and then bursts forth in a new role…” So, it is no wonder she barely gave an interview to the author. The book reads like a complete catalogue of Maggie Smith’s performances but seems somewhat lacking on the personal side – except for the author’s suppositions and conclusions.
I enjoyed the book – after all, now I know more about where to look for Maggie Smith in past productions. Covenly protects Smith’s mystique yet offers glimpses into who she might really be – and she comes across as “what you see is what you get.”
In looking for explanations of Covenly’s references, I came across a 2004 interview by Susan Mackenzie for The Guardian – neatly summing up Smith’s background and comic timing (Covenly claims Jack Benny, the master of comedic timing, commented on Smith’s facility with the delivery of a line). The interview preceded both Harry Potter and Downton Abbey, but offers a good and short background to the complete biography. You might want to read it to prepare…You Have to Laugh