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Book Reviews

Maggie Smith: A Biography, by Michael Coveney

NO SLOWING DOWN

By MATT WINDMAN

Michael Coveney’s admiring biography gives a full account of Maggie Smith's extensive career on the stage and on the screen.

When Michael Coveney’s admiring and informative biography of Maggie Smith was first published in 1992, the stage and screen star was nowhere near as well known to American audiences as she is today. Sure, she had won Academy Awards for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and California Suite, and had just won acclaim on Broadway inLettice and Lovage, but this was still a decade before she would appear as the upright Professor Minerva McGonagall in the Harry Potter movies, and two decades before she ruled Downton Abbey as the quick-witted, dignified Dowager Countess of Grantham.

Coveney, a British theater critic who currently writes for WhatsOnStage.com, is certainly a good authority on Smith’s career, given that he assumedly had aisle seats to observe firsthand Smith’s biggest theatrical successes since the 1970s, including but not limited to Private LivesThe Way of the World (a highly sexual Restoration comedy that is rarely revived in the United States), and The Importance of Being Earnest.

This is an opportune time for an updated version of the book to appear. The Harry Potter movies concluded not too long ago, and Downton Abbey is about to end in America, but the 81-year-old actress shows no signs of slowing down. A sequel to the hit comedy The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (The Second Best Marigold Hotel) was released last year (where Smith is joined by Judi Dench and Bill Nighy), along with a film adaptation of Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van led by Smith. Perhaps a return to the New York or London stage will soon follow.

Although Coveney met with Smith a few times (even though Smith originally laughed off the idea of a biography on her), it is devoid of her direct input or any extensive interviewing. This permits Coveney to maintain his impartial role as a critic.

He brings up Smith’s personal life (working-class upbringing in Oxford, two marriages, two sons, recent health scares), her old-fashioned work ethic and her reclusiveness in public life, but he primarily explores her acting career, from appearances in musical revues, to playing Desdemona opposite Olivier’s Othello, to Hollywood. Her cameo as the elderly Wendy in Steven Spielberg’s Peter Pan sequel Hook even merits a full analysis. Coveney also pays heed to her work at the Stratford Festival in Ontario, where she rejuvenated her career in the late 1970s. He also compares her expressive, primarily comic acting style with that of her colleagues Judi Dench and Vanessa Redgrave.

This gives the casual spectator a full portrait of Smith’s body of work, beyond the supporting character roles for which she has just recently gained international stardom. It also offers a comprehensive, name-dropping history of the English stage from the 1950s to the present.