New fans of Maggie Smith probably love her most for her scene-stealing performances as matriarch Violet Crawley in Downton Abbey. Others may know Smith as Minerva McGonagall in the Harry Potter franchise. Some may remember her Oscar-winning comic performance as an Oscar-loser in 1978's California Suite.
My own love affair with Maggie Smith began with 1969's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. I've also been blessed to have seen Dame Maggie (she was granted the title by Queen Elizabeth II in 1990) in multiple stage performances in New York or London.
One of my absolute favorites was 1999's The Lady in the Van in London's West End, so I'm pleased as punch to report Dame Maggie has brought the play's titular lady to the big screen, in what playwright Alan Bennett says is a "mostly true" story. It will most certainly punch Smith's return ticket to next year's Academy Awards.
The "lady" is Mary Shepherd, a cantankerous old coot who planted herself (and her van) in the driveway of Bennett's London home. She stayed there for 15 years. The "how" and the "why" of Mary's motivation is the centerpiece of the film, and I'm not inclined to give any of that away.
"Mary could be be subject of one of your plays," a neighbor told Bennett. The celebrated playwright took that advice and brought the "mostly true" story of Mary and her van to the London stage in 1999. Of course, Bennett was certain Maggie Smith was the only actress on the planet who could portray Mary.
The Lady In the Van is as uproariously funny as it is occasionally heartbreaking; and the story is a poignant reminder that growing old is, more often than not, a rather messy business: "Going downhill is an uphill job," says one of Bennett's neighbors.
The Lady in the Van will be a big art house hit when it opens in the U.S. this coming holiday season. You can bet your boots that Smith will be a prime contender for the Best Actress Oscar (if she wins, it would be her third).