Maggie Smith Earns Oscar Buzz for ‘Lady in the Van,’ But It Won’t Be Easy

Do we just take her for granted at this point?

Courtesy of TIFF

Sony Classics’ “The Lady in the Van” has many virtues, but it’s principally a showcase for 80-year-old star Maggie Smith, who could/should earn yet another Oscar nomination for her great performance — but it won’t be a slam dunk.

The Tristar film, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, screens Nov. 6 at AFI Fest and opens in the U.K. Nov. 13. It bows in the U.S. in December.

Though the movie industry is international, awards voting is often regional. British films often do well with Academy voters, but even better with the BAFTA contingent. So the film itself, the self-adapted script by Alan Bennett (justifiably revered in the U.K. for decades of stage/TV/film work, including “The Madness of George III” and “The History Boys”), direction by Nicholas Hytner (who has now directed three of Bennett’s plays for the screen) and other contributions could score with voters across the pond. With Oscar voters, however, Smith is the strongest bet.

“Van” begins in 1970, when English writer Bennett allowed the real-life Mary Shepherd to park her vehicle in front of his house. It turned into a 15-year stay and Bennett first wrote about the relationship in the London Review of Books in 1989. He turned the story into a play for London’s West End in 1999, which was nominated for play of the year and best actress (Smith) at the Laurence Olivier Awards. A film version has been brewing ever since.

Smith’s Oscar advantages: This is one of the best film performances from an actress who’s universally admired. As a bonus, TV’s “Downton Abbey” begins its final season in January and will serve as a reminder of the two-time Oscar winner’s range. Both Miss Shepherd and Violet Crawley are withering, acidic and offbeat. But otherwise, the characters are far apart. As the eccentric Miss Shepherd, Smith displays wit, frailty and poignancy: Reviewing the film out of Toronto, Variety‘s Guy Lodge called the actress”our veritable Garbo of dingbat hauteur,” and the character of Shepherd “one of the most tailor-made leading roles of her late career.”

Challenges: To her advantage and disadvantage, Smith is always good. She has shown up regularly in charming little comedies (“Quartet,” “My Old Lady,” the two “Exotic Marigold” movies) and perhaps been taken for granted along the way, all the while stirring nominal awards speculation. So voters may not feel the urgency to see this. She also hasn’t been able to hit the campaign trail due to recent hip surgery, but it’s hoped she will circle around soon. That would certainly boost the film’s profile for voters amid the year-end glut.

The chief obstacle, though, is the year’s crowded best actress race. Even within Sony Classics’ own stable, which also features Lily Tomlin (“Grandma”), Bel Powley (“The Diary of a Teenage Girl”) and Cate Blanchett (“Truth”), it’s competitive. Additionally, Smith, Tomlin, Blythe Danner (“I’ll See You In My Dreams”) and Charlotte Rampling (“45 Years”) all play characters dealing with loneliness, loss and memories, and some pundits have debated which of them will earn Oscar’s “AARP slot.”

Well, why not all four?