One of the most revered and rewarded actresses on both sides of the Atlantic, Maggie Smith has created a gallery of characters who run the gamut from repressed spinsters to comical eccentrics. The attractive redhead with the distinctly adenoidal voice, the youngest daughter of a pathologist with ties to Oxford, decided to pursue an acting career while still in her teens. She got her start as an assistant stage manager and performer at the Oxford Playhouse where she made her debut in a 1952 production of "Twelfth Night". Four years later, Smith was improbably singing and dancing on Broadway in the sketch revue "New Faces of '56". That same year, she first appeared on screen in a blink and you'll miss it bit role as a party guest in "Child in the House". Her official screen debut was in "Nowhere to Go" (1959).
Joining the Old Vic company in 1959, Smith was cast alongside Laurence Olivier in "Rhinoceros". By 1962, she was earning her first accolades in the Peter Shaffer double bill "The Private Ear" and "The Public Eye". The following year, the actress garnered plaudits for her turn as a love-starved secretary secretly attracted to her boss in "The VIPs". Her stellar performance led co-star Richard Burton to half-jokingly accuse her "grand larceny" and set the stage for most of her memorable on screen work. Also that same year, Olivier invited her to become a charter member of the National Theatre and cast her as his Desdemona in "Othello", which she recreated on screen in the 1965 film version, earning her first Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actress.
The Sixties were a heady time for Smith. In addition to building her impressive resume with acclaimed roles, she embarked on a torrid love affair with the still-married Robert Stephens, causing a minor scandal when she gave birth to their first child in June 1967. (They married ten days after son Christopher's birth.) She and Stephens co-starred as illicit lovers in "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" (1969), but critics and audiences were captivated more by her performance as the neurotic and fascistic Scottish schoolteacher. Indeed, her portrayal of Jean Brodie was so impressive it earned the Best Actress Academy Award.
Having taken time out to give birth to a second son in 1969, Smith was back at the top of her game in 1972 headlining a London revival of Noel Coward's "Private Lives" and starring as the oddball relative sojourning across Europe in "Travels With My Aunt", a performance that netted her a Best Actress Oscar nomination. Following the collapse of her union with Stephens and her second marriage to playwright and old beau Beverley Cross, the actress spent much of the mid- to late 70s in North America. If she wasn't appearing in various classic roles at Stratford, Ontario, she was making films, like the Neil Simon spoof "Murder By Death" (1976) or the Agatha Christie adaptation "Death on the Nile" (1978). Simon provided her with one of her richest roles in his "California Suite" (1978), that of Diana Barrie, an insecure British actress coping with a crumbling marriage and the spotlight glare brought on by an Academy Award nomination. Although her onscreen character may have lost the coveted statue, Smith took home her second Oscar for her nuanced portrayal. In 1979, she returned to Broadway recreating her London success in Tom Stoppard's play "Night and Day.”
Smith proved a hilarious foil for Michael Palin in two comedies, "The Missionary" (1982) and "A Private Function" (1984). As the repressed chaperone who lives vicariously through her charge in the Merchant Ivory production "A Room with a View" (1986), the actress excelled. Her delicious and witty line readings delivered in plummy tones coupled with her expert timing proved irresistible. Smith picked up several awards for her work and received a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nomination. As the decade waned, she made a rare, but indelible small screen appearance delivering an Alan Bennett monologue in "Bed Among the Lentils" (shown in the USA on PBS' "Masterpiece Theatre") and had one of her best dramatic roles on film as the repressed spinster who blossoms when she finds romance with a con man in "The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne" (1987).
Playwright Peter Shaffer especially tailored his stage comedy "Lettice and Lovage", about an outlandish tour guide, for the actress and it proved a triumph in both London and New York, where she added a Tony Award to her trophy collection. Smith was lovely was the aged Wendy Darling in "Hook" (1991), although playing a character much older than herself led to typecasting. For much of the rest of the decade, her on screen personae tended to dour, elderly types, ranging from the tart Mother Superior in "Sister Act" (1992) and its 1993 sequel to her Emmy-nominated turn as Southern matriarch in the small screen remake of "Suddenly, Last Summer" (PBS) to the Duchess of York in "Richard III" (1995). Director Agnieszka Holland tapped into similar qualities casting Smith as the no-nonsense housekeeper Mrs. Medlock in "The Secret Garden" (1993) and as the meddlesome aunt in "Washington Square" (1997).
Although she was enjoying a strong career as a character player in films, Smith did not neglect the theater, appearing in several high profile, critically-acclaimed performances. Her Lady Bracknell in "The Importance of Being Earnest" in 1993 was said to rival Dame Edith Evans' interpretation. She originated the central character in the London premiere of Edward Albee's award-winning "Three Tall Women" in 1994 and three years later co-starred with Eileen Atkins in a revival of Albee's "A Delicate Balance". Heading back to the big screen, Smith was impressive as a grande dame in Italy whose misguided admiration for Benito Mussolini recalled Jean Brodie's admiration of Franco in "Tea with Mussolini" (1998). The following year, she was featured as Aunt Betsey in a BBC remake of "David Copperfield" and netted another Emmy nod when the program aired in the USA on PBS.
As the new millennium dawned, Smith brought a poignant sense of loss to her turn as a member of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy in the elegiac "The Last September" (2000). Her next screen role as the stern, shape-shifting Professor Minerva McGonagle in "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" (2001) perhaps brought her to her widest audience and earned her a legion of new, young fans. She reprised the role in the sequels, "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets"(2002) and "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" (2004), the latter expertly directed by Alfonso Cuaron.
Smith earned nearly unanimous praise for her scene-stealing portrayal of the tart-tongued, imperious Countess of Trentham in the Robert Altman-directed "Gosford Park" (2001). Her delicious dispensation of the bon mots in Julian Fellowes script brought the actress her sixth career Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actress. Smith next graced the big screen in "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood" (2002) before embarking on what was one of the most anticipated theatrical events in a long time, her first on stage teaming with Judi Dench in David Hare's new play "The Breath of Life." Her role in the acclaimed HBO TV adaptation of William Trevor's novel "My House in Umbria" (2003), in which she played an English romance novel writer who invites her fellow survivors of a terrorist bombing to join her at her Italian villa. In yet another feather in her storied cap, Smith won an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or a Movie for her portrayal, along with being nominated for other accolades.
Smith next starred in the British-made “Ladies in Lavender” (2004), a period drama in which she played a spinster living with her sister (Judi Dench) in an idyllic coastal town outside Cornwell. When a handsome young German man mysteriously washes ashore, both sisters immediately fall in love, pitting the two against each other for his affections. Smith again revived her role as Professor McGonagle for “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” (2005), the first installment helmed by a British director (Mike Newell).