Thursday, September 20, 2012

Has Dame Maggie Smith Been Playing Herself All This Time?

"...But she's a very, you know, complicated and quite, in some ways, quite a defensive person. She protects herself a lot, and she needs to, because what's going on inside her, her talent, is such an absolutely remarkable thing that it could be very easily coarsened or cheapened or diluted in some way. And as her devotion to the talent that she's been born with, and indeed, of course, worked on subsequently, but her guardianship of that talent is a fantastic thing. That's something I've rarely met in actors either. She is protecting herself all the time, and nothing that comes between her and her work can be tolerated."

No, that's not a description of God in drag. It's actor and director Simon Callow pontificating on being in the great presence of Dame Maggie Smith, the ultimate acting deity and the subject of a biography I just finished watching. As I listened to him and others talk about Smith, I sensed a recurring theme: She's fiercely intelligent, and she doesn't suffer fools gladly. Were they talking about Smith or most of the characters she's played onstage and onscreen?

I understand the perfectionist and workaholic streaks all to well. I have them, too, but I always say -- okay, I'm saying it now for the first time -- that it's the human streak that makes great artists. You've got to live messily (and somewhat unhappily) and have full access to your emotions, which is more of a challenge when you spend your life encased in a hard protective shell.

I'm not saying Smith is anything like that -- maybe her colleagues are mistaking her for one of the characters she plays because she's secretly Method, always in character. Anyone who has experienced her onstage (I was lucky enough to see her in The Lady in the Van and Three Tall Women on London's West End in the '90s) or watched The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, the 1969 film for which she won the Best Actress Oscar, knows that accessing her humanity is hardly an insurmountable hurdle for her.


Perhaps Smith is simply a product of her working environment. If your colleagues are going to place your pedastal on such hallowed ground, is it any wonder that you might subconsciously strive to live up to their impression? Maybe that's why actors and actresses, more than any other brand of entertainer, take themselves so damn seriously. There's a scene in the 2004 film Being Julia in which Annette Bening, as stage actress Julia Lambert, is having a disagreement of her son, who accuses her of not knowing where her fictional characters end and his mother begins. It's must be hard to be real when you spend most of your life faking it.

A journalist friend recently interviewed a fairly established, though solidly B-list, TV and film actress and she was in something of a state of panic because several hours of interviews yielded no juicy material. She was simply no fun. She was nice enough, but always on guard, talking as if she had something to prove. She'd offer a morsel of juicy information, then pull it back. "I don't want to get into it." So Hollywood.

As much as I love and admire actors and actresses (especially actresses), I'm glad I don't have to work with them. Thankfully, I've spent the bulk of my career interviewing musicians, who, as a whole, are far more quotable, and it's easier to establish an easy rapport with them. My friend says it's because "they sing their life," which makes a lot of sense. Actors and actresses spend most of their time pretending to be other people, so perhaps it's more difficult for them to get a firm grip on who they really are. And if they have that grip, why not hide behind someone else anyway? It's something they already do so well.

On the other hand, musicians, particularly ones who write their own material, lead lives that are something of an open book. As my friend said, they sing their lives. Yes, they can be given to cliched observations and revelations and pretentiousness, too, but even when they talk about their "craft" -- or when others do the talking for them -- there's less intellectual posturing.

It's why Fiona Apple can be maddeningly opaque yet bleed profusely on the pages of any magazine in which she's featured. It's why David Bowie was my all-time favorite interview. He's one of the most creative men on earth, with a talent as worthy of protecting as Maggie Smith's or that of any B-list Hollywood starlet. Yet he can relax and have a laugh while being interrogated by a complete stranger in the recording studio.

Of course, while musicians only have to produce songs that move you (in your heart, in your mind, on the dance floor, in the gym, between the sheets, wherever), actors and actresses have a different and, in some ways, a greater challenge. They have to convince audiences that they're someone they aren't. And if the public knows too much about who they really are, the characters will be hard to believe. Kiss your career goodbye!

But I wonder if, by revealing the real Maggie Smith (or who they perceive her to be), her colleagues weren't doing something of a disservice to the actress. If who she is so informs what she does, if, to a certain extent, she is who she pretends to be, does that authenticity make the performances less of an acting feat?

Maybe that's why so many actors who aren't Dame Maggie have gravitated toward biopics and playing way against type in pursuit of both Oscar and respect. George Clooney won his for playing a chubby guy -- in 2005's Syriana -- but if he stars as men who look and act too much like him, the Academy nominates him with a shrug. "That's not acting. He's being George Clooney." When Michelle Williams squeezes into Marilyn Monroe's bombshell image or Meryl Streep steps into Margaret Thatcher's tweed persona, they get to be iconic figures and do all sorts of ghastly things, and no one can accuse them of simply playing themselves.


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