April 28, 1986 12:00 PM

Spinsters are a Maggie Smith specialty. Her current role as Charlotte Bartlett, the Edwardian chaperone in the hit film version of E.M. Forster’s 1908 novel A Room With a View, is her juiciest go at pinched prissiness since she won a 1970 Oscar for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Sharp of feature and tongue, Smith, now 51, owns the patent on how to play a haughty, high-strung handful—and not only when she’s working. In her dressing room at London’s Queens Theatre (where she’s playing a neurotic Foreign Office translator in Ronald Harwood’s new play, Interpreters), Smith lights up a Silk Cut filter and fidgets. Not one to enjoy interviews (she rarely grants them), Smith swats at questions like bothersome gnats. Of A Room With a View, she remembers “only the discomfort of it all—those corsets and wigs. My character, though interesting to play, is a pain in the neck and the epitome of everything Forster disliked.” Asked to elaborate on her technique, she chides, “What you go through is not clear-cut or defined.” As to what makes her an expert on repressed characters, she snaps, “What do I know?”

It’s remarkable that after 35 years performing just about everything from Congreve to Coward, Smith remains fearfully nervous before a performance. A full two hours before curtain she arrives at the theater, “where I chat on the phone and stagger through the Times crossword.” But mostly, she says, “I think. I think. I sight my guns. I worry about a performance. I go on forever trying to fathom it out.” The agony, she adds, is also the “fascination.” After the applause there’s a Scotch and Perrier in her dressing room. Then she runs for home.

On weekdays, her London base is a two-bedroom flat. “I loathe it,” she says. But immediately after her Saturday evening performance, Smith is driven 60 miles to her Sussex house for a break that extends until mid-afternoon Monday. Her hideaway is a five-bedroom farmhouse, where she lives with her second husband, playwright and screenwriter Beverley (Clash of the Titans) Cross, and her two sons, Christopher, 18, and Toby, 17. The property sports three barns, a stable, a vineyard and an orchard yielding a varied bounty of apples, pears, mulberries, plums and walnuts.

And here, to put it bluntly, this “theater creature” looks out of place. Dressed in customary black trousers and blouse, Smith says, “It must seem like everybody has died when you look at my wardrobe.” Her conversation consists of deflective asides, but the tone is warmly self-mocking, as in the way she quotes from past performances. Spoofing her penchant for wearing black, she says, “I’m in mourning for my life.” After a pause, she attributes the borrowed line: “Chekhov.”

In the kitchen, one of the leading actresses of the English stage unceremoniously plunks down a lunchtime snack of cold chicken and smoked salmon. It’s divvy up, help yourself. “Boys!” bellows Smith. On cue, two disheveled teenagers bound down the stairs. Smith grimaces at their appearance, which she likens to the state of their bedrooms: “Horrifying. I just close the doors.”

According to Chris, Smith is a “liberal” mother. “We’re pretty free,” he says, “but she likes to know where we are.” They say their mother is easier to be around when she’s between jobs; playing Virigina Woolf onstage in 1981, she became so physically exhausted that she was put under a doctor’s care. As the tension builds toward a first night, Chris says, “the best thing to do is steer clear and give her a wide berth.” Complaints about her calling are to be dismissed, says Toby. “Mummy couldn’t accept it if you took acting away from her. It’s addictive.”

Smith’s two Oscars (the second for 1978’s California Suite) are displayed on a shelf in her husband’s study, but she makes light of them. “They didn’t alter my life,” she says, her voice pure vinegar. Her four bronze theater trophies from the London Standard have been put to more practical use, two as fire-iron supports and two as bookends.

But there is a keeper of the Smith family flame. In a brick-and-stucco dwelling in the working-class Cowley district of Oxford, where Maggie grew up, her father, Nathaniel, 84, lovingly tends what his famous daughter calls “the shrine.” A retired lab technician and widower, Nathaniel enjoys boasting about his only daughter. On display in his living room are photographs of Maggie, theater programs from her countless plays and five meticulously indexed scrapbooks bulging with Maggie’s press clippings. Nathaniel is always eager to tell how it all began: “As a 6-year-old she was out shopping with her mother one Saturday morning. She was wearing a ballet frock and just started dancing and singing on the pavement in front of a store while her mother was inside. A crowd gathered and kept clapping her on.” He smiles, then tugs on his cardigan. “I’m very proud of her,” he says.

As well he should be. At an age when most actresses start taking Dramamine for their Love Boat cruises, Smith keeps improving. Last year she had two films—A Private Function and Lily in Love—playing simultaneously. But don’t expect any grande dame poses. “Frankly,” she says, “at my age I always feel lucky to get any film roles at all.” She spends her day and a half off reading, walking the dog, chatting with her husband by the fire, taking a hot bath and having an early turn-in. If she and Beverley go out for a meal, it’s usually over to the Oliviers’, Laurence and his wife, Joan Plowright (“she is my best friend”). Beverley says his role is “looking after the boys, keeping the house in order—anything practical but boring.”

Smith’s home life wasn’t always so well ordered. In 1975, after eight years of marriage, she divorced her first husband, actor Robert Stephens, now 54 and the father of her two sons. For a while they had been Britain’s hottest acting couple. Even so, it was a union that Laurence Olivier warned against. “You’re not going to marry her, are you?” Olivier asked Stephens. “She’s a thoroughbred, and they’re very difficult to handle. I know, I married one [Vivien Leigh].” Says Smith, “He should have taken Larry’s advice. The marriage was a mistake. It didn’t work.” Stephens’ penchant for flirting (he was linked with Vanessa Redgrave and Antonia Fraser) added to the strain. “The tumultuous period of my life, so much of it is such a winter in my head,” Smith says, careful again to give attribution: “That’s not me. It’s Christopher Fry.”

Reenter Beverley Cross, with whom Smith had had a serious relationship before marrying Stephens. They had met at a charity benefit in 1953. Seven years later Smith appeared in a comedy in Cambridge that Cross had written. They fell in love and set up housekeeping. At the time, Cross was separated from his first wife, by whom he has two daughters. Four years later Smith and Cross broke up. “Very civilized,” he recalls. “The old story of careers going in different directions.” But when they met again, “it was as if we had never left off,” Cross says. After the traumas with Stephens, Maggie is grateful for what she’s found the second time around. “Bev is a rock. He took on a lot: me and these two boys. I’m just remarkably fortunate that it did happen. When you meet again someone you should have married in the first place—it’s like a script. The kind of luck that’s too good to be true.”

Chris and Toby appear to be closer to Cross than to their real dad. “We had a smooth transition from one father to another,” says Toby. “He’s so calm,” adds Chris. “He’s the glue that sticks the family together.” Both boys aim to follow in the parental line. Chris, who hopes to enter drama school next fall, has just completed a stint as a stagehand in Interpreters. He wants to be a director. Toby, who’s in his last year of boarding school, wants to be an actor. They insist they’ve not been pushed to go into the theater, but suspect it would please mummy. “The outward appearance is that she doesn’t care,” says Chris, “but underneath she really does want to have a succession.”

Look how hard she worked for her career and against what odds. When, at age 16, Smith announced to her family that she was going to be an actress, her grandmother responded, “Oh, you can’t, not with that face.” Says Smith, grimacing, “I can’t say I was ever fond of her, but she had a point and voiced what everybody else probably was thinking.” When Maggie first achieved fame, critics wrote that she was an inspiration to plain Janes everywhere. “To have been stunningly beautiful and then see it going must be a terrible loss,” she says. “Nothing like that is restricting me. I want to keep on doing what I can. I just like to be thought of as a good actress.”

In his living room in Oxford, an old pensioner gazes at a picture of the actress. “There’s my little girl,” says Nathaniel Smith. “For me she’s never grown up—doing something she wants to do and enjoying it. That gives me a great kick.” It’s a kick felt by millions.

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