Margaret Natalie Smith
28 December 1934
Ilford, Essex, England
Smith began her career on stage as a student, performing at the Oxford Playhouse in 1952, and made her professional debut on Broadway in New Faces of '56. For her work on the London stage, she has won a record six Best Actress Evening Standard Awards for The Private Ear and The Public Eye (both 1962), Hedda Gabler (1970), Virginia (1981), The Way of the World (1984), Three Tall Women (1994), and A German Life (2019). She received Tony Award nominations for Private Lives (1975) and Night and Day (1979), before winning the 1990 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play for Lettice and Lovage. She appeared in Stratford Shakespeare Festival productions of Antony and Cleopatra (1976) and Macbeth (1978), and West End productions of A Delicate Balance (1997) and The Breath of Life (2002). She received the Society of London Theatre Special Award in 2010.
On screen, Smith first drew praise for the crime film Nowhere to Go (1958), for which she received her first nomination for a British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) award. She has won two Academy Awards, winning Best Actress for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969) and Best Supporting Actress for California Suite (1978). She is one of only seven actresses to have won in both categories. She has won a record four BAFTA Awards for Best Actress, including for A Private Function (1984) and The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1988), a BAFTA Best Supporting Actress for Tea with Mussolini (1999), and three Golden Globe Awards. She received four other Oscar nominations for Othello (1965), Travels with My Aunt (1972), A Room with a View (1985), and Gosford Park (2001).
Smith played Professor Minerva McGonagall in the Harry Potter film series (2001–2011). Her other films include Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing (1973), Death on the Nile (1978), Clash of the Titans (1981), Evil Under the Sun (1982), Hook (1991), Sister Act (1992), Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit (1993), The Secret Garden (1993), The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2012), and The Lady in the Van (2015). She won an Emmy Award in 2003 for My House in Umbria, to become one of the few actresses to have achieved the Triple Crown of Acting, and starred as Lady Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham, on Downton Abbey (2010–2015), for which she won three Emmys, her first non-ensemble Screen Actors Guild Award, and her third Golden Globe. Her honorary film awards include the BAFTA Special Award in 1993 and the BAFTA Fellowship in 1996. She received the Stratford Shakespeare Festival's Legacy Award in 2012, and the Bodley Medal by the University of Oxford's Bodleian Libraries in 2016.
Margaret Natalie Smith was born in Ilford, Essex, on 28 December 1934. Her mother, Margaret Hutton (née Little; 1896–1977), was a Scottish secretary from Glasgow, and her father, Nathaniel Smith (1902–1991), was a public-health pathologist from Newcastle upon Tyne, who worked at the University of Oxford. During her childhood, Smith's parents told her the romantic story of how they had met on the train from Glasgow to London via Newcastle. She moved with her family to Oxford when she was four years old. She had older twin brothers, Alistair (died 1981) and Ian. The latter went to architecture school. Smith attended Oxford High School until age 16, when she left to study acting at the Oxford Playhouse.
In 1952, aged 17, under the auspices of the Oxford University Dramatic Society, Smith began her career as Viola in Twelfth Night at the Oxford Playhouse. In 1954, she appeared in the television programme Oxford Accents produced by Ned Sherrin. She appeared in her first film in 1956, in an uncredited role in Child in the House, and made her Broadway debut the same year playing several roles in the review New Faces of '56, at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre from June to December 1956. In 1957, she starred opposite Kenneth Williams in the musical comedy Share My Lettuce, written by Bamber Gascoigne. In 1959, she received the first of her 18 BAFTA Film and TV nominations for her role in the film Nowhere to Go.
In 1962, Smith won the first of a record six Best Actress Evening Standard Awards for her roles in Peter Shaffer's plays The Private Ear and The Public Eye, again opposite Kenneth Williams. She became a fixture at the Royal National Theatre in the 1960s, most notably for playing Desdemona in Othello opposite Laurence Olivier, and earning her first Oscar nomination for her performance in the 1965 film version. She appeared opposite Olivier in Ibsen's The Master Builder, and played comedic roles in The Recruiting Officer and Much Ado About Nothing. Her other films at this time included Go to Blazes (1962), The V.I.P.s (1963), The Pumpkin Eater (1964), Young Cassidy (1965), Hot Millions (1968), and Oh! What A Lovely War (1969). Smith won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in the title role of the 1969 film The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Vanessa Redgrave had originated the role on stage in London, and Zoe Caldwell won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play, when she played the role in New York City. The role also won Smith her first BAFTA Award.
In 1970, she played the title role in Ingmar Bergman's London production of the Ibsen play Hedda Gabler, winning her second Evening Standard award for Best Actress. In 1972, she starred as the eccentric Augusta Bertram in George Cukor's film Travels with My Aunt. She received her third Academy Award nomination for Best Actress for her performance. She also appeared in the film Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing (1973). In the mid-1970s, she made several guest appearances on The Carol Burnett Show.
From 1976 to 1980, she appeared in numerous productions at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario, to acclaim; her roles included Queen Elizabeth in Richard III, Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth, Virginia Woolf in Virginia, and opposite Brian Bedford in the Noël Coward comedy Private Lives. Also during this time, she starred on Broadway in Private Lives in 1975 and Night and Day in 1979, receiving Tony Award nominations for both.
In 1978, Smith played opposite Michael Caine in Neil Simon's California Suite, playing an Oscar loser, for which she received the 1978 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. She is, to date, the only person to win an Oscar for portraying a fictional Oscar nominee. For this role, she also won her first Golden Globe Award. Afterward, upon hearing that Michael Palin was about to embark on the film The Missionary (1982) with Smith, her co-star Michael Caine is supposed to have humorously telephoned Palin, warning him that she would steal the film.
Her other films at this time include Murder by Death (1976) with Vincent Canby of The New York Times writing, that the film had one of Simon's "nicest, breeziest screenplays," with James Coco "very, very funny as the somewhat prissy take-off on Hercule Poirot" and David Niven and Maggie Smith "marvelous as Dick and Dora Charleston, though they haven't enough to do." Smith also starred in Death on the Nile (1978) alongside Angela Lansbury, Bette Davis, Peter Ustinov, and David Niven.
In 1981, Smith starred in the Merchant Ivory film Quartet alongside Alan Bates and Isabelle Adjani. The film premiered at the 34th Cannes Film Festival where it received positive reviews. Smith received her sixth BAFTA Award nominations for Best Actress for her performance as Lois Heidler. Smith also played the goddess Thetis in Clash of the Titans (1981).
For her role on television as Mrs Silly, she received the first of her four Best Actress BAFTA TV Award nominations. On stage, she won her third and fourth Evening Standard awards for Best Actress, for Virginia in 1981 and The Way of the World in 1984. She won two more Best Actress BAFTA Awards for her roles as Joyce Chilvers in the 1984 black comedy A Private Function, and the title role in the 1987 film The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne.
In 1985 Smith appeared as Charlotte Bartlett in the Merchant Ivory Production of A Room with a View. The film received universal acclaim earning 8 Academy Award nominations including Best Picture. The film starred Helena Bonham Carter, Daniel Day-Lewis, Judi Dench, Simon Callow, and Denholm Elliott. For Smith's performance she earned her fifth Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress, and won her second Golden Globe Award and her third British Academy Film Award.
In 1987, she starred in A Bed Among the Lentils, part of Alan Bennett's Talking Heads series, receiving a second BAFTA TV nomination. She starred in the 1987 London production of Lettice and Lovage alongside Margaret Tyzack, receiving an Olivier Award nomination, and reprised the role in 1990, when it transferred to Broadway, and won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play. The play was written specifically for her by the playwright Peter Shaffer.
In the early 1990s, appeared in various box office comedies. In 1991, Smith appeared as Wendy Darling in Steven Spielberg's 1991 hit movie Hook, a fantasy adventure film based on the Peter Pan character. The film starred Robin Williams as Pan, Dustin Hoffman as Hook, and Julia Roberts as Tinker Bell. The film was a financial success making $300 million at the box office. In 1992, Smith starred as Mother Superior in the Whoopi Goldberg comedy film Sister Act and its sequel, Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit (1993). In 1996, Smith appeared in the comedy film The First Wives Club alongside Goldie Hawn, Diane Keaton and Bette Midler. Smith also received a third British Academy Television Award nomination for the 1992 TV film Memento Mori, and her first Primetime Emmy Award nomination for her role in the 1993 PBS television film Suddenly, Last Summer.
In 1993, Smith appeared in the film adaptation of The Secret Garden directed by Agnieszka Holland. The film was a critical success, Smith in particular was praised for her performance as Mrs. Medlock earning a British Academy Film Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. In 1995, Smith portrayed the Duchess of York in another film adaptation this time of William Shakespeare's Richard III (1995) starring Ian McKellen in the titular role. The film adapts the play's story and characters to a setting based on 1930s Britain, with Richard depicted as a fascist plotting to usurp the throne. The film also starred Annette Bening, Jim Broadbent, Robert Downey Jr., Nigel Hawthorne, and Kristin Scott Thomas. Smith also starred in another film by Holland titled Washington Square (1997), playing the incurably foolish Aunt Lavinia Penniman.
Her 1990s stage roles included Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of being Earnest in 1993, the Elder Tall Woman in Edward Albee's Three Tall Women in 1994, which won her a fifth Evening Standard award. In 1997 Smith played Claire in another Albee play, A Delicate Balance opposite Eileen Atkins. In 1999, Smith played the title role (known as Miss Shepherd) in Alan Bennett's stage play The Lady in the Van in which she was nominated for the 2000 Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actress. She won a BAFTA for Best Supporting Actress for the 1999 film Tea with Mussolini, in which she played Lady Hester. In 1999, Smith starred in the BBC television adaptation of David Copperfield alongside Daniel Radcliffe. Smith portrayed Betsey Trotwood for which she received a British Academy Television Awards and her second Primetime Emmy Award nominations.
From 2001 to 2011, Smith gained great acclaim and international recognition for playing Professor Minerva McGonagall in the Harry Potter movies. Smith reunited with Daniel Radcliffe with whom she recently starred in David Copperfield from 1999. Smith appeared in seven of the eight films. The series was known for hiring legendary and iconic British actors, including Michael Gambon, Alan Rickman, Robbie Coltrane, Emma Thompson, Ralph Fiennes, and Helena Bonham Carter. Without inflation adjustment, it is the third-highest-grossing film series with $7.7 billion in worldwide receipts. In 2016, while promoting, The Lady in the Van, Smith shared her experiences working on the Harry Potter films and working with the late Alan Rickman. "He [Rickman] was such a terrific actor, and that was such a terrific character that he played, and it was a joy to be with him. We used to laugh together because we ran out of reaction shots. They were always – when everything had been done and the children were finished, they would turn the camera around and we'd have to do various reaction shots of amazement or sadness and things. And we used to say we'd got to about number 200-and-something and we'd run out of knowing what to do when the camera came around on us. But he was a joy."
In 2001, Smith appeared in the British ensemble murder mystery Gosford Park, which was directed by Robert Altman. The film's cast included Michael Gambon, Helen Mirren, Kristen Scott Thomas, Eileen Atkins, Emily Watson, Charles Dance, Richard E. Grant, Derek Jacobi, and Stephen Fry. Her portrayal as the haughty Constance, Countess of Trentham earned Smith her sixth Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress alongside Mirren. The film premiered at the 2001 London Film Festival, where it received critical acclaim from critics including Roger Ebert, who awarded it his highest rating of four stars, describing the story as "such a joyous and audacious achievement, it deserves comparison with his [Robert Altman's] very best movies."
In 2002, Smith reunited with Dame Judi Dench for David Hare's stage play The Breath of Life. She also acted alongside Dench in the film Ladies in Lavender (2004) directed by Charles Dance. In 2003, Smith received her first Primetime Emmy Award in the Lead Actress in a Limited Series or Movie category for the HBO Television film My House in Umbria. She toured Australia in Alan Bennett's Talking Heads in 2004. In 2005, she starred as Grace Hawkins alongside Rowan Atkinson and Kristen Scott Thomas in the black comedy Keeping Mum.
During 2007, Smith had a productive year appearing in films, television and the stage. In March she starred in a revival of Edward Albee's stage play The Lady from Dubuque which ran at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in the West End. Smith that same year starred in another HBO television movie, Capturing Mary alongside Ruth Wilson for which she was nominated for her fourth Primetime Emmy Award. Smith also appeared in the British costume drama Becoming Jane, a film that centers around the life of Jane Austen, played by Anne Hathaway. The film also starred James McAvoy, Julie Walters, and James Cromwell.
From 2010 to 2015, Smith appeared as Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham, in the British period drama Downton Abbey. The show became a cultural phenomenon, with her performance becoming a fan favorite. This role won her three Primetime Emmy Awards, a Golden Globe Award, and four Screen Actors Guild Awards. In a March 2015 interview with Joe Utichi in The Sunday Times, Smith announced that the sixth season of Downton Abbey would be her last (it was in fact the last to be produced).
In 2012, she played Muriel Donnelly in the British comedy The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel alongside Judi Dench, Dev Patel, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, and Penelope Wilton. The film was distributed by Fox Searchlight and received positive reviews. She received a Screen Actors Guild Award nomination for the role. The film was such a financial success, it spawned a sequel, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2015). Also in 2012, Smith starred in Dustin Hoffman's directorial debut, Quartet, based on Ronald Harwood's play. The film co-starred Tom Courtney, Pauline Collins, Billy Connolly, and Michael Gambon. The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival to positive reviews and garnered her a 10th Golden Globe nomination. In 2014, Smith starred in the romantic comedy My Old Lady alongside Kristen Scott Thomas and Kevin Kline. The film received modest critical praise according to Rotten Tomatoes, with Smith's performance being a standout.
On 30 October 2015, Smith appeared on BBC's The Graham Norton Show, her first appearance on a chat show in 42 years. During the show, Smith discussed her appearance in the comedy-drama film The Lady in the Van alongside Alex Jennings, which was directed by Nicholas Hytner. The film, which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival, received critical acclaim, with Kate Muir of The Times praising Smith's performance by writing, "Smith delivers a compelling performance in The Lady in the Van, as Alan Bennett's play comes to the big screen 15 years after it premiered at the Royal National Theatre." Smith received a Golden Globe Award and British Academy Film Award nominations for her performance.
In 2018, Smith starred in a British documentary titled Nothing Like a Dame, directed by Roger Michell, which documents conversations between actresses Smith, Judi Dench, Eileen Atkins, and Joan Plowright, which were interspersed with scenes from their careers on film and stage. The film was released in the United States as Tea with Dames.
In April 2019, Smith returned to the London stage for the first time in 12 years, starring in A German Life. The new play by Christopher Hampton was drawn from the life and testimony of Brunhilde Pomsel (1911–2017), in which Smith was alone on stage, performing a 100-minute-long monologue to the audience. Jonathan Kent took the directorial role. Her performance won her a record sixth Best Actress Evening Standard award. In September 2019, a continuation of the Downton Abbey series in form of a feature-length film was in theaters entitled simply, Downton Abbey. The film was a financial success, and earned $194.3 million at the box office.
In 2019, it was announced that Smith will be starring in the Netflix adaptation of the children's book, A Boy Called Christmas. The film also stars Sally Hawkins, Kristen Wiig, Jim Broadbent, and Toby Jones.
In 2020, it was reported that Smith would be starring in an Irish drama film, The Miracle Club, with Kathy Bates and Laura Linney. The film's plot is being described as a "joyful and hilarious" journey of a group of riotous working-class women from Dublin, whose pilgrimage to Lourdes in France leads them to discover each other's friendship and their own personal miracles."
Smith was announced as starring in the film version of Christopher Hampton's A German Life, reprising the role she originated onstage in 2019 in London.
In April 2021, Smith appeared in a streaming event alongside Kathleen Turner. In the same time, WarnerMedia Chief Jason Kilar evoked Harry Potter sequels and a possible cinematografic adaptation of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, in which Smith should appear.
Acting credits, awards and legacy
Smith was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 1970 New Year Honours, and was raised to Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in the 1990 New Year Honours, for services to the performing arts. Smith was made a Member of the Order of the Companions of Honour (CH) for services to drama in the 2014 Queen's Birthday Honours, becoming the third actress to receive the honour, after Sybil Thorndike (1970) and Judi Dench (2005).
In 1971, Smith was conferred an honorary doctor of letters (DLitt) by the University of St Andrews. In 1986, she was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters (DLitt) from the University of Bath. In 1994, Smith received an honorary Doctor of Letters (DLitt) from the University of Cambridge. In October 2017, Smith was conferred with an honorary fellowship of Mansfield College, Oxford.
A six-time Academy Award nominee, Smith won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of an idealistic, unorthodox schoolteacher in the 1969 film The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in the 1978 film California Suite.
She was awarded the Shakespeare Prize by the Hamburg Alfred Toepfer Foundation in 1991. Smith was made a Fellow of the British Film Institute in recognition of her outstanding contribution to film culture in 1992. She was elected to the American Theatre Hall of Fame in 1994. On 10 April 1999, Smith received the William Shakespeare Award for Classical Theatre (The Will Award) presented by the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. in recognition of her significant contribution to classical theatre in the US. On 9 February 2014 she was inducted into the Actors Hall of Fame. Smith had a star on the London Avenue of Stars until all of the stars were removed in 2006.
In 1993, she was awarded with the BAFTA Special Award by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. In 1996, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts presented her with the BAFTA Fellowship, the highest honour the Academy can bestow. At the 2010 Laurence Olivier Awards, she was celebrated with the Society of London Theatre Special Award. In 2013, she was awarded with the Evening Standard Icon Award.
In September 2012, she was honoured with the Stratford Shakespeare Festival's Legacy Award. She accepted the award, presented to her by Christopher Plummer, in a ceremony at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel. In March 2016, Smith was awarded the Critics' Circle Award for Distinguished Service to the Arts. In April 2016, she was awarded the Bodley Medal by the University of Oxford's Bodleian Libraries in recognition of her outstanding contribution to the performing arts.
Smith married actor Robert Stephens on 29 June 1967. They had two sons, actors Chris Larkin (born 1967) and Toby Stephens (born 1969),[failed verification] and were divorced on 6 April 1975. Smith married playwright Beverley Cross on 23 June 1975, at the Guildford Register Office, and they remained married until his death on 20 March 1998. When asked in 2013 if she was lonely, she replied, "it seems a bit pointless, going on on one's own, and not having someone to share it with". Smith has five grandchildren.
In January 1988, Smith was diagnosed with Graves' disease, for which she underwent radiotherapy and optical surgery. In 2007, the Sunday Telegraph disclosed that Smith had been diagnosed with breast cancer. In 2009, she was reported to have made a full recovery.
In September 2011, Smith offered her support for raising the NZ$4.6 million needed to help rebuild the Court Theatre in Christchurch, New Zealand, after the earthquake in 2011 that caused severe damage to the area. In July 2012, she became a patron of the International Glaucoma Association, hoping to support the organisation and raise the profile of glaucoma. She is also a patron of the Oxford Playhouse, where she first began her illustrious career. Smith is a Vice-President of the Chichester Cinema at New Park and a Vice-president of the Royal Theatrical Fund which provides support for members of the entertainment profession that are unable to work due to illness, injury or infirmity.
On 27 November 2012, she contributed a drawing of her own hand to the 2012 Celebrity Paw Auction, to raise funds for Cats Protection. In May 2013, Smith contributed a gnome which had been personally decorated by her, for an auction to raise money for the Royal Horticultural Society Campaign for School Gardening. In November 2020, Smith joined Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi, and Ian McKellen for a conversation on Zoom entitled For One Knight Only, for the charity Acting for Others. Branagh described the group as "the greatest quartet of Shakespearean actors on the planet" as they talked about the highs and lows of their careers.
- List of Academy Award records
- List of actors with two or more Academy Awards in acting categories
- List of Dames Commander of the Order of the British Empire
- Tale Spinners for Children
- University College Players
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