Dame adds another odd Brit to repertoire

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PROS: The Acad loves a British Dame.

CONS: Watch out for “Gosford Park’s” other secret weapon, Helen Mirren. Also, A-list ensemble cast may divide votes.

Brit actress Maggie Smith has been creating unforgettable characters onscreen since the 1960s, ranging from the title role in “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” to Miss Bartlett in “A Room With a View” to her most recent roles: the Countess of Trentham in Robert Altman’s “Gosford Park,” a social satire disguised as a period murder mystery, and Professor Minerva McGonagall in “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.”

As she recently noted in an interview, “I’m always in costume and period things, wandering around in wigs, Merchant Ivory department. If they want one of those snobbish English nasty people or whatever, I get into that bracket.”

Critics agree, that along with Helen Mirren, Smith leaves the biggest impression among “Gosford Park’s” star-studded cast. Smith, who has won Oscars for her work in “Jean Brodie” and “California Suite,” effortlessly wins auds over with her typically crisp enunciation of each and every word, although her character is far from pleasant or likable.

The film’s producer, Bob Balaban, who came up with the original story idea for the project and co-stars in the film, says Smith was a natural for the role.

“The minute we (with Altman) sat down and read the first 62 pages of Julian Fellowes’ script, we looked up and said, ‘Maggie Smith!’,” he recalls.

“The first thing you notice about her is her huge intelligence. She innately understands the vigors of the class situation in her bones. Aside from that, she’s got a fabulous sense of humor. And you just love to listen to her speak.”

Balaban says Smith gave it her all throughout the shoot, although she was battling a severe cold. “Those old English houses are as freezing as they look,” he adds. “There were some days when we thought she wouldn’t come in, but she would show up … a genius and a trooper.”

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