The recent retrospective on Maggie Smith at the National Film Theatre gave me the opportunity to see two of her more elusive performances - sadly they didn't show her 1973 Alan J Pacula film LOVE AND PAIN AND THE WHOLE DAMN THING which has also eluded me.
The first seen was George Cukor's film adaptation of the Graham Greene novella TRAVELS WITH MY AUNT for which Mag was nominated for the 1972 Best Actress Academy Award. It was a delicious, highly artificial film which benefited enormously from both Cukor's classic Hollywood style and Smith's idiosyncratic performance.
The film had a difficult genesis: Cukor had wanted Katharine Hepburn to play Greene's eccentric and maddening character Aunt Augusta but at the last minute she pulled out of the project, but not before she had reworked the script with Jay Presson Allen and Hugh Wheeler - Allen later stated that Hepburn should have had a writing credit on the film but she couldn't as she was not a member of the writer's union.
Cukor offered the role to the younger Smith which gave him the opportunity to use flashbacks to show Augusta in her glamorous youth, a much sought-after courtesan and her relationship with the mysterious Mr. Visconti who was the man she loved the most. Ironically this was played by Robert Stephens, the year before he and Smith divorced.
At the sparsely-attended cremation of his mother, staid bank manager Henry Pulling is accosted by the whirlwind that is his eccentric Aunt Augusta who wastes no time in asking him for a large sum of money that she needs to pay the ransom on her great love Mr Visconti who is being held by kidnappers.
Initially stand-offish and judgemental, Henry agrees to fly to Paris with Augusta and her black fortune-teller lover Wordsworth to pay off the blackmailers and to solve the mystery of the kidnapping. A journey to Turkey aboard the Orient Express is interrupted when the authorities discover Augusta smuggling the ransom money and eventually the trio track the kidnappers to North Africa where everyone is in for a surprise...
Cukor's elegant and champagne-dry handling of the material was a joy to watch - even though the denouement did seem a long time in coming - and the MGM production values make it feel like a film that could never be made now. Alec McCowen, in a rare leading role, was delightful as a man who discovers life through the madcap world of his outrageous relative and Lou Gossett Jnr, gave a strong supporting performance as the equally unreliable travel companion Wordsworth.
But Maggie Smith rightly dominates the film in a showy, highly theatrical performance that had it's detractors at the time but gives the film the energy it needs. Aunt Augusta may be low on funds at times but that is never reflected in her dizzying array of costumes for which designer Anthony Powell won a well-deserved Academy Award. I am so glad I have finally seen this important film in Smith's filmography.
The second unseen work was also an adaptation of a novel, this time Jack Clayton's 1992 BBC Screen Two version of Muriel Spark's MOMENTO MORI. I cannot understand how I missed this the first time round but it was worth the wait.
It's obviously limited budget helped set the scene of 1950s London and Clayton does a fine job directing the teasing and mockingly sardonic Spark tale of a group of elderly friends who receive ominous, anonymous telephone calls where the caller tells them "Remember you will die".
Who is threatening this group of people - an outsider or an insider? They mostly all have long-festering niggles about one another and they all react with different degrees of alarm to the calls. The group include the snobbish Dame Lettie Colston (Stephanie Cole), her brother the ageing but still randy Geoffrey Colston (Michael Hordern), his absent-minded wife Charmian (Renée Asherson) whose pre-war novels are being revalued, and the critic Guy Leet (Maurice Denham) and poet Percy Mannering (Cyril Cusack) who have had a literary feud for years
Outside the circle are Gwen, Dame Lettie's stroppy maid (Jacqueline Leonard), the Colston's gay and neer-do-well writer son Eric (Peter Eyre), Charmian's beloved maid Taylor (Thora Hird) who is now bed bound in a hospital, Percy's dutiful daughter Olive (Zoe Wanamaker) and the scheming housekeeper Mrs. Pettigrew. Is it one of these or does ex-police Inspector Mortimer (John Wood) discover a more surprising culprit?
Maggie was great fun as the conniving, waspish Mrs. Pettigrew but Clayton keeps her performance muted so as not to outshine his dazzling veteran cast which gives it a real ensemble flavour. They were all excellent but particularly memorable were Renée Asherson and Thora Hird, their final scenes as mistress and servant having to renegotiate their relationship as equals were a joy.
One day hopefully a dvd release of MOMENTO MORI would be a fitting tribute to them as well as Jack Clayton and composer Georges Delarue whose last screen work this was.