Washington Square

13 May

Washington Square – directed by Agnieszka Holland. Costume Drama. 116 minutes Color 1997.


The Story: Is the swain of the homely heiress a fortune hunter, as her father thinks, or is he something else?


I’m exploring the acting of Maggie Smith with you today and for a little while to come.

Yesterday, friends crabbed about The Lady In The Van. They made long faces, said they didn’t like Maggie Smith at all. Sounded like they would never go see her again if they didn’t have to. Stuck out their tongues.


Perhaps they make a mistake.

I haven’t seen the film, but the mistake they perhaps make is to confuse Maggie Smith with the character she is playing. Perhaps the character she is playing is unlikable, selfish, and cruel.

But, if the character is supposed to be these awful things and Maggie Smith convinces you she is those things, then Maggie Smith is a brilliant actor, to be admired, commended, enjoyed, and advanced in our affection. If she creates it without eliciting your sympathy, well that may be her job.


It used to be said that John Wayne was a bad actor. But that was because he played cowboys, and the snob in folks thought Westerns were lowbrow so you could not find good acting in them. Entertainment, yes, good acting, no.

John Wayne was a good actor. Of course, he could not play King Lear. But to scold an actor because he cannot play a role his particular instrument is not suited to is plodding. And not being Lear does not mean the actor is not a good actor in his way.

Wayne’s instrument was not of a classical nature. Wayne’s instrument could play in costume legend, which is what Westerns are. For Wayne’s particular instrument to be effective it had to be in costume, which in Western  would be jeans and which in modern dress would be military uniform, captains’, admirals’, marines’ and such. This was true from the moment he started, in The Big Trail, where he is in fringed white buckskin. Put him in a suit and tie and you have a problem. He is or became a performer of ceremonial plots with dialogue spoken with the ritual intonation of a doxology. He was successful at it. As King Lear he would not have been successful, and Paul Scofield would have failed as The Ringo Kid in Stagecoach.


Maggie Smith’s instrument is of a classical nature. And it is one of the quirks of such an instrument that the noise it makes, whatever else it may be able to do, is generally not endearing, John Gielgud being an exception to this rule.

On the other hand, it also seems true that actors who are not classical actors are often quiet endearing. Lady Macbeth was not within Marilyn Monroe’s reach, but she was very endearing.


So it’s a good idea to try to see the whatness of an actor’s instrument before responding to their performance. Try to see what they are and what they are not before making up your mind.

John Wayne?

Really, who could have been better?


As I say, I have not seen The Lady In The Van, but considering that Maggie Smith is essentially an actor seldom cast in heavy drama but more often cast in comedy, we might consider what experienced theater folk say of her: that comedy is where the essence of her talent lies.

In which case, from that lady in the van we might expect her to be nasty, sour, and unlikeable, and all those things we mentioned – plus funny.

If you look at her work in Downton Abby, you must observe that, except for Daisy and Mrs Patmore belowstairs, Smith is the only source of comedy, and the only upstairs version. Why does she make you laugh?

(Those who know her say that as a person Maggie Smith is inherently funny!)

The Dowager Countess is funny because she is wickedly funny.

And how does that work? How does she do it?

Why isn’t it just malicious?

It almost is.

She’s funny because she makes her Dowager funny to herself.

She is not saying these things because they are mean. She says what she says not to hurt someone. She simply says it to them anyhow! And because it is delicious to her.

How does the Dowager get away with it?

She gets away because she directs her cracks towards those we already dislike. Which is also the way it is written.

This is quite different from her performance as Lady Trenton in Gosford Park. The Dowager is not malicious. Lady Trenton is. She is inhumanly thoughtless to servants, whereas The Dowager is tolerant of her servants, and indeed pretends to let them believe that they rule her life. When Lady Trenton says, “Me? I haven’t a snobbish bone in my body!” you laugh at her behind her back, for she is so ridiculously unaware of herself. But, when an obnoxious suitor to the granddaughter of The Dowager says, “I’ll never come to Downton Abby again!” and The Dowager says. “Do you promise?” you laugh not at her but with her, for she is never ridiculous and always well aware of herself indeed.

Partly what’s funny is that Smith makes The Dowager so completely selfish in this that you have to laugh.

And the screenplay grants her license to be so. Still, how does she get away with it?

She gets away with it because The Dowager tells the truth and it is always out of place, except that no one can put her in her place because being a countess she has the highest title, because she is the principal forebear, because she is old, because she is rich, because she holds maternal power, because she is beautifully spoken – all of which are givens with the role which do not have to be acted and which Smith does not need to act – but all of which allow her to tell the truth out of place. She is privileged as a child who cannot be spanked. What the rest of us have in mind but dare not say, she blurts.

And, of course, she is given lines which ask her to do so.

Such characters as The Dowager and Lady Trenton in Gosford Park have riches, power, position,. They have everything. And so they are characters free to speak their minds.

Another character who could freely speak her mind would be one who had nothing. Such as a child.

Or a baglady in a van.


Other actresses admired Maggie Smith when she first started. And other actresses are very chary and very near and very keen in perceiving excellence in a rival, and to all actresses all actresses are rivals. It was not because she played likeable characters, attractive characters, entertaining characters that she was admired by actresses. It was because she acted what was there. She played godsbody to Orson Welles in The V.I.P.s and a paid companion to Bette Davis in Murder On The Nile. She didn’t play glamorous roles. And not doing so, she has won 57 competitive acting awards in 158 nominations, and it would be wise to observe that these were not from roles that made her universally popular like Bette Grable or John Wayne. For as anyone can tell, if she is a movie star at all she is not a star of that sort.

She is not a star of the universally admired forces: The Heroic (such as Katharine Hepburn); The Endearing (such as Elizabeth Bergner); The Trophy (such as Elizabeth Taylor); The Sex Kitten (such as Brigitte Bardot); The Tough Dame (such as Barbara Stanwyck) or The Striver (such as Joan Crawford).

Those women gave fine performances, but Maggie Smith is not an actor of such universal sort. She is not an actress of the great forces that drive us. That is not her whatness,

If Geraldine Page were not in a class by herself, you might want to put Maggie Smith in her class. But Maggie Smith does not possess Page’s power, which is why Page is in a class by herself.

So you don’t go to Maggie Smith for a character to be nice or popular or kind or beautiful or vulnerable. Those are very big things. You might find that a certain character she plays might include those things. But you’d best not count on it. If you want bittersweet chocolate, Carole Lombard will grant it without fail. Carole Lombard was the most loved actress in Hollywood. She was also of the order of actress who could give the audience bittersweet chocolate reliably every time. Sweetness with a bite. It’s a fine order of actor. Maggie Smith is not of that order. She does not possess universal consistency. Or rather, A Consistent Universality.


So you’d best not say you don’t like Maggie Smith when what you may really not like is the character she is playing. You’d best not confuse the actor with the character she is acting.

The actor will use herself to do the acting. She can play a beast and a bitch because those things are in her and because they are in everyone. She may be amusing or not.

But do not expect her to be always decent, as you do Henry Fonda, or emotionally pretty, as you do Marilyn Monroe.

As I say, the only thing you might expect of Maggie Smith is that, within the realm of the character itself, she might be funny.

But her Desdemona in Olivier’s Othello, could be, but is never funny. So there! Best not expect anything.


Maggie Smith is now just over 80. Leading roles for actors of this age are few. And, if they are written, do audiences come to see someone old?

So actresses always take what is on offer at the time as they have always done, and if character leads are also fewer, even an actor of renown may find herself pinched into the corset of a supporting role.

That seems to be the case with Washington Square, a TV adaptation of Henry James’ novel of that title. It had previously been done from a Broadway Play in a film called The Heiress.

It’s about an upper class girl with no confidence who is wooed by a good looking worldly young man with no money. Her father acts as though the young man must want to marry her for her money and tries to put the kibosh on the wedding.

The hard thing is find the right cast.

In New York, the heiress was played by Wendy Hiller and the father by Basil Rathbone. Outwardly a good combination. In London it was played by Peggy Ashcroft and Ralph Richardson, another good combination. Cherry Jones won an Emmy in it 1995.

This version, which is a different take on Henry James’ story from The Heiress, returns us to something nearer to his novel Washington Square. As a version it is more interesting, as a performance questionable.

The question arises as to how to play Catherine Sloper.

Her father sees her as unmarriageable – awkward, charmless, dull —  and calls her so.

But how does an actress do that?

For real.

Because the play, which has been successful many times, is about one thinking one is not lovable.

I think that’s what it’s about. “Nobody will ever love me,” is the mantra behind all of us that makes us want to prove this story out and stick with it

But unloveability cannot be acted.

Shyness might be acted, but it doesn’t get one far.

Physical awkwardness might do something, but it’s external. And it doesn’t work here, because it’s exaggerated in a dance scene where she looks at her feet and counts beats. Doesn’t ring true.

Besides, doing that would make Catharine Sloper an idiot, and if she were retarded, she probably could not be pursued for a wife legally by anyone.

She has bad taste in dress?

She wears one which is hideous, true, but that’s not enough to make one unmarriageable in the eyes of all the world.

The character lacks self-confidence.

It seems to me, that’s the heart of it, but in and of itself that is also unactable. That is, technically an actor cannot act such a thing as lack of confidence.

Lack of self confidence can be worked as someone who tries to be someone else or someone better or other than she is, which would make her a hypocrite and a phony. Katharine Hepburn in Alice Adams does this.

But she’d have to be a very small hypocrite for a suitor to get past it.


The key to the part lies in her father’s behavior towards her. Her birth killed his wife, and so in his mind Catherine’s very existence deprived him of love and sex. So he in turn denies her both. It just comes out of him that way. When she is little, he treats her as his devoted spaniel. And no more than that. We later learn what in his eyes her life should be: a spinster and permanent household companion. Obedient. Faithful. Fawning. He never wants her to leave the house. He never wants her to marry. He always wants her kept on a leash. He wants her faithful to him. He wants her to be a dog.

So, we see her as a child tearing down the stairs and jumping up on him like a clumsy puppy, and there we have the foundation for Catherine’s character.

How would it feel to be treated like a pet dog but wanting to be treated like a human?

Dog into human, human into dog. Now there is something actable.

Perhaps Catharine’s failing is that she approaches life and others like a puppy.

Or, perhaps, she refuses to be petted is stand-offish, until she finds someone who can love her without scratching behind her ear.

“Do people think I’m a dog? That I’m a mammal but not human? I don’t want them to. But so what! If that’s what they think, then I’ll be an Afghan Hound!”


I’ve seen this part done by Julie Harris, Olivia De Havilland and now by Jennifer Jason Leigh.

Jennifer Jason Leigh has always been a problematic actress. She usually plays creeps.

We see something unstable in her as she does this. This not so much in evidence here, but the actress, here as elsewhere, deliberately makes herself technically unmoored. Her characters are all gaga. This makes her into a loose canon, such as she so brilliantly was in The Ugly Eight. And this is what she uses to show why Catharine Sloper is taken to be unlovable. Meaning unattractive. Meaning so odd no one can get a fix on her long enough to court her. It doesn’t work.

Jennifer Jason Leigh does not get to the heart of anything here, but still she is a professional actress playing a part for which she is suited.

And she fails because in the end we know we do not want her suitor to love Catharine any more than her father does.


Maggie Smith plays her in-house chaperone, Aunt Lavinia. It’s a marvelous role, successfully played by Miriam Hopkins in the William Wyler movie in which Olivia De Havilland won an Oscar.

De Havilland is a pretty a woman if ever there was one, so that Catharine is supposedly plain doesn’t work. Instead, her Catherine is supposed to be ordinary, which is not quite enough either. But Ralph Richardson turns his opaque eye upon her to good effect. Montgomery Clift as the penniless suitor is beautiful enough to make up for all the other qualities which the suitor Maurice Townsend is meant to possess: brilliance, charm, and a well-travelled sophistication, in all of which Clift is completely void.

None of these does Ben Chaplin possess either. He has lightless eyes and not even great beauty. So we have to simply take on credit that he is her dreamboat.

The argument that the suitor could make a good husband as well as being a fortune-hunter does not enter into the Wyler film, but it does so here, and it is cogent. It would make of this piece a considerable tragedy were there any appeal for us in the two actors themselves.


Another American actor, Judith Ivey, is excellent.

The costumes are superb and are of the ugliest period of women’s clothes in the history of the world. Urban crinolines topped by sausage curls. Hideous. But accurate.

The interior settings are the most brilliant I have ever seen for this period. The movie is well worth watching just for them.


What Maggie Smith does is have a grand old time – strictly within the bounds of the size of the part. Aunt Lavinia, poor woman, is as much in a passion over Maurice Townsend as Catherine Sloper is. Smith’s sexual dabbing on him, her brazen and fake-bashful rendezvous with him in a bordello, her interloping and go-betweening actually capsize the affair. Having so little business of her own, she noses into others’ business like mad.

Smith has a sound American accent in the sense that she rounds her Rs, a letter which, except at the beginning of words, the British never pronounce. Her mistake is that she has no specific American accent. Everyone in American came from somewhere; in 1850 they would have sounded as though they did. Albert Finny as Dr. Sloper is also supposed to be American. Ben Chaplin also is, and is also English. So we have three English actors having vacated their native tongue and one American actress who has vacated her technique. The result is a dead axle.


Moreover, Maggie Smith, even with her American accent partly in place, still does not convince in the role.

Watch what she does. Everything she does is on the money. But…

But her speech patterns are English. They are of English Modern Comedy, in which she excelled. Restoration comedy, in which she excelled. Shaw, in which she excelled. Oscar Wilde, in which she excelled. Comedies of Shakespeare, in which she excelled.

The energy behind them is not of an American from Boston, a widowed Aunt living on the charity of relatives. The energy is British. The sort of person she gives us is someone who never crossed the sea.


To do my friends justice, their response to The Lady In The Van was that the character Smith played was so obnoxious that it made them gag, and, if they made of that a condemnation of the way she played her, their condemnation may be right. I haven’t seen it.

But if you look for the whatness of an actor at work you may find in you elements for judgment with which you can weigh and distinguish what you’ve seen or are seeing. That way, you are more able to avoid saying that you hate an actor, that such an one is a bad actor or that so and so gave a bad performance.

It’s hard to distinguish one thing from another in human beings. Or in oneself.

Still, it’s more fun to look a little deeper. Not much deeper, just a little.

It may help make one more forgiving.


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