Smith clearly never got the memo that said actresses after a certain age should just fade gracefully into the scenery. At 77, she has arguably become a bigger star than at any time in her career, thanks not only to her unique talent, but also to her work ethic and astute choice of roles.
From the Dowager Countess of Grantham to Professor Minerva McGonagall, from a racist housekeeper in “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” to a retired diva in her latest pic “Quartet,” she has cornered the market in formidable dames with an acid tongue and a heart of gold, whether they are grand aristocrats or salt-of-the-earth commoners. And it’s box office and TV ratings gold.
Perhaps uniquely for a character actress in her age bracket, her presence in a project drives international pre-sales and co-production deals, particularly in the U.S. and Australia.
It was her casting that persuaded “Masterpiece” exec producer Rebecca Eaton to back “Downton Abbey,” having previously been concerned that the series might be too similar to “Upstairs Downstairs.” Eaton’s admiration stretches back decades to when she was working for the BBC and saw Smith perform on stage from the cheap seats: “Seeing Maggie Smith in ‘The Beaux Strategem’ in London in 1970 thrilled me only slightly less than seeing her inhabit Violet Crawley in ‘Downton Abbey.’ There’s no one like her,” Eaton says.
Smith has two Oscars (for “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” and “California Suite”), two Emmys (for “Downton Abbey” and “My House in Umbria”) and five Baftas (plus a lifetime achievement award and a fellowship). But despite a brush with breast cancer during the filming of “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” she’s still going strong, and no one would bet against her adding to that kudos tally in the future.