- - Monday, March 14, 2016


By Michael Coveney

Martin’s Press, $27.99, 353 pages, illustrated

With American viewers still rejoicing in our bittersweet farewell to “Downton Abbey” and in particular to its only real superstar, the actress who does not so much play Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham, as inhabit her and vice versa, this is the perfect time for a book to come along and remind us just how much more there is to Maggie Smith and her extraordinary career stretching back more than six decades. Longtime British theater critic and writer Michael Coveney’s comprehensive book manages to be both authoritative and delicious, mixing serious analysis and telling anecdote to produce a rounded portrait that is neither hagiographical nor overly negative, understanding in the best sense of the word about this singular phenomenon.

The biography is broad enough in its sweep and deep enough in its reach to be a terrific book for any reader, but it is particularly timely for those who only know Maggie Smith as the formidable dowager of the abbey or the wizardly Professor Minerva McGonagall, Deputy Headmistress of Hogwarts, head of Gryffindor House and Professor of Transfiguration in the “Harry Potter” films. Mr. Coveney traces her rise through a series of lesser film parts to the seemingly drab and mousy but underlyingly fierce and passionate Miss Mead in 1963’s “The VIPs” where Mr. Coveney correctly writes she “finally created an international stir.”

The succession of blockbuster movie roles, two of which won Oscars, and her subsequent television triumphs are far more well-known than the amazing range of stellar stage performances that he assiduously chronicles. Starting off in a West End review in London that traveled on to Broadway in 1954, Ms. Smith has lit up roles ranging from the classics — Desdemona in “Othello” and a host of other Shakespearean roles — through Noel Coward and on to the avant-garde like Ionesco and the contemporary, like Peter Shaffer and Edward Albee. She can quite fairly be said to own the roles these playwrights created in “Lettice and Lovage” and “Three Tall Women,” respectively.

There are far too many parts to mention here, but I can never forget the impression Ms. Smith made on me performing Amanda in Coward’s “Private Lives,” rightly hailed in this book as “a watershed production directed by John Gielgud.” We learn here that her interpretations of this role varied widely and not always successfully, but I must have been lucky enough to catch one of the best, for it has spoiled me for any other and justifies the great praise which it sometimes but not always elicited from the great and famous, including the playwright himself. Mr. Coveney’s account of her scene-stealing in the production of “Hay Fever,” directed by Noel Coward himself at London’s National Theater in 1966, makes my mouth and eyes water with regret at missing it. I was not fortunate enough to see her Desdemona opposite Olivier, but I did see her with him in Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros” in what was only my second visit to a London theater as a preteen in 1960. The stories here about her and Olivier are among the most piquant in a book crammed with such treats.

Mr. Coveney does an exemplary job of pointing out the personal effort and cost of producing such a huge quantity of high-quality work. His explication of her difficult childhood and complicated pair of intertwined marriages are sympathetic and illuminative of the spikier as well as the surprisingly gentler sides of her character, without any special pleading or reductionism. She not only comes across as the determined, focused person you’d expect but as a surprisingly hands-on mother despite the absences necessitated by her fierce devotion to her craft and her enduring guilt about them. She is also apparently a woman capable of great kindness and other softer qualities not notable in so many of her more famous roles. The brittleness we have so often seen in her performances is not absent in life, but you finish this book remembering far more vividly the many occasions when its direct opposites are present.

Of course, it is notoriously difficult to write a successful biography of a living person, but I must say that Mr. Coveney has carried it off with great aplomb. His account in the epilogue of what with characteristic dry wit he describes as “My quest — ‘pursuit’ sounds far too dramatic and slightly perverse — for Maggie Smith” gives you some idea of his persistence and her less than definite resistance. More importantly, it shows just how attuned he is to both the woman and her work on stage and screen, which is key to why he is a perfect biographer for someone so clear-cut in performance and so enigmatic and complex everywhere else. She is not the kind of person who can ever come across as cozy, but he does succeed in making her likeable as well as admirable, which is no small achievement in itself.

• Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, California.

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