The curtain is about to rise on Downton Abbey’s fourth season, and there’s a hint that the dowager Countess of Grantham, played by the indefatigable Dame Maggie Smith, might be next on the DA Hit List (that’s “hit” in mob terms and not golden oldie recording standings). Viewers have already vowed to swear off the show, warning that the demise of the grand dame would be the final straw to the recent kill-offs. Elizabeth McGovern, who plays Lady Grantham, has pretty much said that without the dowager’s character, the walls of Downton Abbey would implode. That translates into the entire cast—both upstairs and down, young and old, glamorous and frumpy—hinging on the 79-year-old actress’s rapier wit and her sometimes rude, often wise, but always show-stopping one liners.
I didn’t remember much about Smith’s 1969 Oscar-winning role in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, except for Rod McKuen’s title song that plays in my head whenever the dowager appears on the Downton Abbey set. I recently took the DVD of that movie out of my local library and with great anticipation sat down, late night herbal tea in hand, to watch it, not knowing who I would encounter. I was rather surprised to meet a character with the same xylophone-modulated voice, indignant pursing of lips, raising of eyebrows, and sashaying of hips, albeit much more bouncy on the part of the slender younger woman but no less pronounced than the deliberate cane-aided gait of the near ancient Violet Crawley. Jean’s face might be wrinkle-free, but her tongue is as sharp and her convictions as strong as her aged counterpart.
This is not to say that these characters are of the same ilk. One takes pride in embracing the new while the other struggles to maintain the past. Or is there more overlap in these two? While Violet Crawley might have trouble getting out of a swivel chair and defining the word “weekend,” she tells her granddaughter Edith to stop whining and find something to do. And Jean? Well, her twisted ego really caused her to miss the boat about a lot of things: comprehension of her own sexuality and admission of where her love interest lay for one, and the dangerous impact she had on her impressionable female students, her “girls,” her “crème de la crème,” as she called them. In the end, Jean comes to the realization that her coveted “prime” that she boasts about has long passed her by, while Violet, on the other hand, seems to remain very much in her prime as she strides farther and farther into antiquity.
But what’s of real importance here is that in both roles, and in real life, Maggie Smith succeeds admirably in portraying the complexities of being a woman, wrinkles and lumps and all. Not only is she a senior actress who continues to work, but one who has often embraced the roles of women a good generation older than herself, something that might horrify the average starlet. And in doing so, she has chipped away at that dreaded end of life stage that is particularly brutal on actresses. Instead, she has left us with more than hope; she’s left us with something to look forward to. We can still be Maggie’s girls—even the misguided Jean Brodie had some positive impact on hers, aiming to heighten their awareness of themselves and their world and urging them to break free of restrictive, conventional ways of thinking. As protégées of Violet Crawley, we can strive to not only survive the cruelties of old age, but become desirous and essential in the process as well.
Like Maggie Smith, just maybe, we can be la crème de la crème.