”It’s tropical in here,” she says. ”Tropical!” Dame Maggie Smith is peering out from a corner table in the Conservatory, a restaurant in London’s Lanesborough hotel. It looks like a place where you’d expect to find a plumed colonial viceroy sipping quinine and gin. The walls are pink and green. The roof is glass. The decor is a riot of potted palms and Chinese figurines. And for some reason, the room feels as if it’s being pumped full of steam.
”Ridiculous, isn’t it?” she says, exhaling through her famous pursed lips. ”Mad dogs and Englishmen. One feels as if one’s in Rangoon.”
She pronounces the word ”Rangoon” with about seven descending o’s.
Almost four decades ago Richard Burton, her costar in ”The V.I.P.’s,” accused her of ”grand larceny,” and she’s still at it. As Lady Constance of Trentham in Robert Altman’s ”Gosford Park,” she nearly embezzles a whole movie; her twitches, quips, and dismissals repeatedly bring down the house. To direct her, ”you just turn the camera on and sit back and enjoy yourself,” says Altman. ”I don’t think you’d ever catch Maggie Smith phoning anything in.” (Meanwhile, here in the Conservatory, a piano player is scampering through warhorses like ”As Time Goes By.” If you’ve seen the way she treats Jeremy Northam in the movie, you can’t help but fear for this guy.)
It’s been that way for years; she may plead innocence, but she remains the Lucky Luciano of scene-stealers. Hold a private Maggie Smith Film Festival and you’ll wonder whether writers — even William Shakespeare — always had her in mind when they stuffed certain lines with ammonium nitrate. In the 1995 version of ”Richard III,” she howls at Ian McKellen, stretching the epithet ”You toad!” into about 11 syllables. During a scarlet harangue in ”The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” for which she won the 1969 Best Actress Oscar, she stuns Celia Johnson with verbal spitballs like ”fetid frustration” and ”slllime.” ”When you write a normal screenplay and the lines come out of Maggie Smith’s mouth, processed through her brain, the lines themselves are just underscored,” says Altman. Barely a film goes by in which her character doesn’t lacerate somebody with language.
”Yes, it’s true,” she says, sighing. ”I’m always playing this sort of formidable woman, I suppose. It is funny, how you get sort of stuck with that. It’s a bit boring.”