Maggie Smith, California Suite

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

David Denby

“A much better episode features Michael Caine and Maggie Smith. Too eccentric in style to play a romantic heroine or an ordinary mother or working woman, Maggie Smith is the closest thing we have to a great camp actress. In her movie work whe’s stayed within the brittle-mistress-of-temperament territory staked out by Gertrude Lawrence, Beatrice Lillie, and Angela Lansbury, even though she’s softer and more likable than any of those famous ladies. No matter what she does, she always seems actressy, and here she’s at her best actually playing an actress—a serious Shakespeare-and-Pinter-type performer who is up for an Oscar and is feeling very nervous about it. Smith performs comic miracles with her high, wandering voice, her mixture of sweetness and self-pity, mock hauteur and affected surprise (“What is this green slime?” she inquires, shocked, when some California vegetarian dip is placed before her at a bar). Caine cushions her nicely as a bixexual husband who is true to her in his own way. Their bedtime patter is all banter (what else?), but Caine and Smith, with their relaxed knowingness, manage to suggest the weariness of a couple who routinely substitute banter for sex. For a change, the jokes work with the situation rather than against it, and the two actors slow doesn the tempo of Simon’s repartee so much that they almost seem to be playing human beings rather than wrangling automatons. In a Neil Simon movie, that’s a rarity.”

David Denby
New York, January 29, 1979

Pauline Kael

“These Wasp plays represent the serious side of Neil Simon, which turns out to be surprisingly close to Noël Coward—not good Coward but mawkishly bittersweet Coward, in which gallant people use bitchy wisecracks to conceal their breaking hearts…. The entire point of the anguish exhibited by Maggie Smith … and Michael Caine … is that, though he is homosexual, they really love each other. And each playlet reaches its climax when the mask of sophistication is dropped and we see the suffering face. The plays are stripteases: brittle, glittering "successful" people are brought down to ordinary humanity.

“California Suite is such an acute embarrassment because Herbert Ross directs as if he thought there were depth in the lines, when what he has got Jane Fonda, Maggie Smith, and Michael Caine bringing out is the sentimentality in them. When Laurence Olivier does his virtuoso turns in pictures such as The Betsy and The Boys from Brazil, we can see that he isn't deceived about the quality of the material but that he's enjoying himself acting anyway. Jane Fonda and Maggie Smith are anxious and straining, as if they thought there were something more in the material, which was eluding them. They do extraordinarily well by it, but they're not fun to watch, as Olivier is. You may find yourself flinching at the toads that leap out of their mouths…. [Compare to Come Back to 5 & Dime and Crimes of the Heart.]

“Maggie Smith and Michael Caine have a more evenly balanced sparring match. Maggie Smith plays as if her situations and lines were witty, and she makes them so by the distancing device of eccentricity. She goes beyond cleverness: it’s a succinct performance—each gesture is an epigram. Yet there’s a cost: when an actor triumphs in great material you can often feel the joy she takes in the material that is bearing her aloft; here, with Maggie Smith triumphing over her material, you can see the tiny frown lines, the doubt…. Together, Maggie Smith and Caine waltz through the most ridiculous Wasp glitz dialogue with their heads held high and every syllable producing a satisfying click. It’s a class act, or would be if it weren’t marred by the author’s and the director’s hunger for the higher banalities—for shoving the couple’s suffering in our faces…. Maggie Smith is obliged to play one of the most degrading of all scenes: a woman pleading with a man—who does not desire her—to make love to her. This is Neil Simon’s moment of truth, and Ross brings the camera in for a tight closeup of Maggie Smith’s desperation as she begs, ‘Tonight, Sidney, let it be me.”….

Pauline Kael
The New Yorker, January 8, 1979
Taking It All In, pp. 529-531
[left out a little, but must save now]