I’m going to be very honest, here—the only debate I had with myself about today’s image was whether I’d go Happy McGonagall or Surly McGonagall. I’m sorry, but it’s true. And this isn’t a “I have to admit I’ve barely seen this person outside Harry Potter.” While I can’t get into Downton Abbey, I’ve seen a dozen or two things she’s done outside the franchise. A couple of them were actually staples of my childhood, and I’m far too old for Harry Potter to be “a staple of my childhood,” given I only give that title if I saw something repeatedly from the time I was about eight, and the books didn’t come out until I was in college. No, it’s just that it’s a heck of a memorable role.
I think of her as completing my trilogy of British Ladies Who Will Not Take Your Crap, along with Dame Judi Dench and Dame Helen Mirren. There’s a reason Surly McGonagall is such a thing; Dame Maggie Smith just has the face for it. This is not to say she wasn’t a lovely young woman; she absolutely was. It’s just that her face, in its age, has set in such a way so that she is ideal for the role of Stern Older Woman With a Soft Center. In a very British sort of way.
That said, I have also seen her as Desdemona, whom she played in 1965. Desdemona is many things—funny, tender, betrayed—but stern is really not one of them. What’s more, there’s a lustiness to Desdemona that I think would come as a surprise to people who only discovered Dame Maggie in 2001. These are people unaware of the old rumour that the Rod Stewart song “Maggie May” was about her. (He says the woman’s name was not actually Maggie May, so I think we may assume that it is not.) Dame Maggie was a hot woman, long ago, and there’s a certain residual impression of that to her now.
Actually, a lot of the things I’ve seen her in have a certain repressed sexuality to them. She’s a woman you can believe, if you know where to look, has a fire inside, but that fire is banked. This isn’t Dame Helen Mirren, who has a hard time repressing her sexuality; this isn’t Dame Judi Dench, who doesn’t care enough about you to repress things if she doesn’t want to. This is a woman who plays Upper Class Propriety better than anyone but is perfectly capable of projecting that there’s something more inside. I’m not sure anyone does it better than she does; perhaps her male counterpart in this ability is Jeremy Irons.
Yes, I’ve seen The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and, yes, that informs my opinion, here. I’ve seen her in a lot of things. I’ve seen her in Death on the Nile with Peter Ustinov, where she played a similar sort of character. Her Dora Charleston in Murder By Death had to be a sexual being in an uncomfortable relationship. I’ve long wondered what sort of life McGonagall had outside being a teacher; my opinion has been that it’s not in the books because Harry doesn’t think enough about his teachers as people for it to be textual. But in my head, she had a wild youth.