At 88 years old, Maggie Smith has this physical status:
In 1952, aged 17, under the auspices of the Oxford University Dramatic Society, Smith began her career as Viola in Twelfth Night at the Oxford Playhouse. She continued to act in productions at the Oxford Playhouse including, Cinderella (1952), Rookery Nook (1953), Cakes and Ale (1953), and The Government Inspector (1954). In 1956 Smith made her Broadway debut playing several roles in the review New Faces of '56, at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre from June to December 1956. In 1957, she starred opposite Kenneth Williams in the musical comedy Share My Lettuce, written by Bamber Gascoigne.
In 1962, Smith won the first of a record six Best Actress Evening Standard Awards for her roles in Peter Shaffer's plays The Private Ear and The Public Eye, again opposite Kenneth Williams. After seeing Smith in The Double-Dealer at The Old Vic, she caught the eye of Laurence Olivier, who invited her to become part of his new National Theatre Company soon after it was formed at The Old Vic in 1962. She soon became a fixture at the Royal National Theatre in the 1960s. British theatre critic Michael Coveney wrote that during her eight years in the company, Smith developed a fierce rivalry with Olivier writing, "He knew immediately he’d met his match – that she was extraordinary. He said that anyone who can play comedy that well can also play tragedy and he offered her the likes of Desdemona in Shakespeare’s Othello. But having got her into the company they became not enemies, but professional rivals. Never before had anyone on stage been quicker than him and now, it seemed, there was a contest." On The Graham Norton Show in 2015 Smith admitted that Olivier had slapped Smith across the face during a production of Othello in 1964. She appeared opposite Olivier in Ibsen's The Master Builder, and played comedic roles in The Recruiting Officer and Much Ado About Nothing all in 1964. Smith started with the company at its inception in 1962 with Derek Jacobi and Michael Gambon and continued acting with the company for eight years.
In 1970, Smith played the title role in Ingmar Bergman's London production of the Henrik Ibsen play Hedda Gabler, winning her second Evening Standard Theatre Award for Best Actress.
From 1976 to 1980, Smith appeared in numerous productions at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario, to acclaim; her roles included: Cleopatra in Anthony and Cleopatra (1976), Queen Elizabeth in Richard III (1977), and Lady Macbeth in Macbeth (1978).
In 1975, Smith starred in the Noël Coward comedy Private Lives as Amanda Prynne on Broadway at the 46th Street Theatre. The play directed by John Gielgud received positive reviews. The New York Times theatre critic praised Smith's physical comedic skills writing, "Miss Smith's body spins, lurches, misses yards at a time before another foot comes down, ends in a paralysis that will require hypnosis to undo. The effect, because Noel Coward's situation is funny and because Miss Smith sends off that one little extra signal that spells extravagance, is hilarious, explosively so." Smith received her first Tony Award nomination and a Drama Desk Award nomination.
A few years later, Smith would return to Broadway in Tom Stoppard original play Night and Day as Ruth Carson in 1979. The play concerns a confrontation between British diplomat and an African leader over a local uprising that has attracted much media coverage. The diplomat's wife observes everyone else's behaviour throughout. The play received mixed reviews with Walter Kerr of The New York Times praising Smith's performance while critiquing the characters writing, "Which leaves us, theatrically and dramatically, where we began, with Miss Smith. The actress can, and does, do wonders. But she can't single‐handedly turn night into day." Smith received her second Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play nomination.
She won her third and fourth Evening Standard Theatre Award for Best Actress, for her role as Virginia Woolf in Virginia (1981) and as Millament in The Way of the World (1984). She starred in the 1987 London production of Lettice and Lovage alongside Margaret Tyzack, receiving an Olivier Award nomination. She reprised the role in 1990, when it transferred to Broadway, and won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play. The play was written specifically for her by the playwright Peter Shaffer. "There is only one Maggie Smith, but audiences get at least three of her in Lettice and Lovage, the Peter Shaffer comedy that has brought this spellbinding actress back to Broadway after an indecently long absence and that has the shrewd sense to keep her glued to center stage."
In 1993, she portrayed Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde's comic play The Importance of Being Earnest at the Aldwych Theatre in the West End, receiving her fourth Olivier Award nomination. The following year she starred in Edward Albee's Three Tall Women for which she garnered critical acclaim. Theatre critic Paul Taylor for The Independent wrote, "Maggie Smith has to be seen to be believed. The sudden subsidings into wretched senile tears; the frustrated, dismissive flappings of her arm as her mind gropes impotently for a mislaid fact; the comic cunning with which she tries to cover over her patches of blankness; the beadily aggressive suspicion and the moments of alert cackling triumph - Smith's performance which, at the moment, is firmly on the right side of caricature, captures all this and more. She received her record fifth Evening Standard Theatre Award for Best Actress for her performance.
In 1997 Smith starred in another Albee play A Delicate Balance opposite Eileen Atkins. She received her fifth Olivier Award nomination for her performance as the witty, alcoholic Claire. Matt Wolf of Variety wrote, "This actress [Smith] continues to get laughs where no one else ever would...but she can be as revealing when quiet: admitting, sad-eyed, that "time happens" or sending the audience out for the first intermission on a note of doomy suspense." In 1999 she gained critical acclaim for her performance as Miss Mary Shepherd in Alan Bennett's drama The Lady in the Van. For her performance, she received her sixth Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actress nomination.
In 2002, Smith reunited with Dame Judi Dench for David Hare's stage play The Breath of Life. She toured Australia in Alan Bennett's Talking Heads in 2004. During 2007, Smith had a productive year appearing in films, television, and the stage. In March she starred in a revival of Edward Albee's stage play The Lady from Dubuque which ran at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in the West End. David Benedict of Variety criticised the production with however praising Smith writing, "The exception is Maggie Smith, who arrives in the last minute of the first act and then dominates the second. Yet even the magnetically watchable Smith cannot save the evening as a whole."
In April 2019, after an eleven-year absence from theatre, Smith returned to the stage in Christopher Hampton's play A German Life as Brunhilde Pomsel at the Bridge Theatre in London. The new play by Christopher Hampton is a one-woman solo play consisting of Smith giving an extended monologue as Pomsel, an elderly German woman who, in her youth, wound up working as a secretary for Joseph Goebbels at the Ministry of Propaganda. Jonathan Kent took the directorial role. Variety theatre critic praised Smith's performance writing, "It’s a performance that combines the knowingness of hindsight with the naivety of youth, blasé enough to catch you off-guard when the magnitude of events suddenly cuts through". Matt Wolf of The New York Times wrote, "[Smith's performance] represents a new high in a six-decade career with no shortage of peaks", and added "The audience knows it is witnessing something special". Her performance won her a record sixth Best Actress Evening Standard award.
In 1954, she appeared in the television programme Oxford Accents produced by Ned Sherrin. In the mid-1970s, she made several guest appearances on The Carol Burnett Show. For her role on television as Mrs Silly in All is Love (1983) she received the first of her four Best Actress BAFTA TV Award nominations. In 1987, she starred as Susan in A Bed Among the Lentils, part of Alan Bennett's Talking Heads series, receiving a second BAFTA TV nomination. Smith also received a third British Academy Television Award nomination for her role as Mrs. Mabel Pettigrew in the 1992 TV film Memento Mori, and her first Primetime Emmy Award nomination for her role as Violet Venable in the 1993 PBS television film Suddenly, Last Summer.
In 1999, Smith starred in the BBC television adaptation of the Charles Dickens' novel David Copperfield alongside Daniel Radcliffe. Smith portrayed Betsey Trotwood for which she received a British Academy Television Awards and her second Primetime Emmy Award nominations. In 2003, Smith received her first Primetime Emmy Award in the Lead Actress in a Limited Series or Movie category for her role as Mrs. Emily Delahunty in the HBO Television film My House in Umbria. She also received her 8th Golden Globes nomination for her performance in the television movie. In 2007 she starred in another HBO television movie, Capturing Mary alongside Ruth Wilson for which she was nominated for her fourth Primetime Emmy Award.
From 2010 to 2015, Smith appeared as Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham, in the British period drama Downton Abbey. The show became a cultural phenomenon, with her performance becoming a fan favourite. This role won her three Primetime Emmy Awards, a Golden Globe Award, and four Screen Actors Guild Awards. In a March 2015 interview with Joe Utichi in The Sunday Times, Smith announced that the sixth season of Downton Abbey would be her last (it was in fact the last to be produced).
Smith participated in the filmed event National Theatre Live: 50 Years On Stage (2013) along with many actor of the stage including Michael Gambon and Judi Dench. The program features a variety of live performances from productions by the Royal National Theatre from the past five decades: The programme features a clip from the 1964 production of Hay Fever by Noël Coward starring Smith and Anthony Nichols which introduces her giving a live monologue from The Beaux' Stratagem by George Farquhar featuring Maggie Smith. Michael Billington of The Guardian wrote of the event, "Obviously it was moving to see legendary actors, either through archival footage or live performance, repeating past successes."
On 30 October 2015, Smith appeared on BBC's The Graham Norton Show, her first appearance on a chat show in 42 years. During the show, Smith discussed her appearance in the comedy-drama film The Lady in the Van alongside Alex Jennings, which was directed by Nicholas Hytner.
In 2018, Smith starred in a British documentary titled Nothing Like a Dame, directed by Roger Michell, which documents conversations between actresses Smith, Judi Dench, Eileen Atkins, and Joan Plowright, which were interspersed with scenes from their careers on film and stage. The film was released in the United States as Tea with Dames.
Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian gave the film a five out of five star rating, declaring it an "outrageously funny film". Guy Lodge of Variety called the film a "richly enjoyable gabfest" but that the film was "hardly vital cinema".
She appeared in her first film in 1956, in an uncredited role of a party guest in the British drama Child in the House, In 1959, she received the first of her eighteen British Academy Film Award nominations for her role as Bridget Howard in the film Nowhere to Go, her first screen credit. In 1963 she appeared in a supporting role as Miss Dee Mead in the British drama film The V.I.P.s starring Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, and Orson Welles. She earned her first Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in the film adaptation of Othello (1965) as Desdemona acting alongside Laurence Olivier, Derek Jacobi, and Michael Gambon.
During this time she also appeared in the British comedy, Go to Blazes (1962), Jack Clayton's The Pumpkin Eater (1964) with Anne Bancroft, and Young Cassidy (1965) directed by Jack Cardiff and John Ford. She also appeared in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's crime comedy The Honey Pot (1967) starring Rex Harrison and Hot Millions (1968) opposite Peter Ustinov, and guest-starred as Music Hall Star in Richard Attenborough ensemble comedy and musical Oh! What A Lovely War (1969).
Smith won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in the title role of the 1969 film The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Vanessa Redgrave had originated the role on stage in London, and Zoe Caldwell won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play, when she played the role in New York City. Smith was singled out for her performance in the film. Dave Kehr of Chicago Reader said that Smith gives "one of those technically stunning, emotionally distant performances that the British are so damn good at." Greg Ferrara wrote that the film "is one of the best British films of the decade. It is as captivating today as it was upon its release and its two central performances by Maggie Smith and Pamela Franklin are both stirring and mesmerizing. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is the crème de la crème." The role also won Smith her first BAFTA Film Award for Best Actress.
In 1972, she starred as the eccentric Augusta Bertram in George Cukor's film Travels with My Aunt. She received her third Academy Award nomination for Best Actress for her performance. She also appeared in the film Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing (1973) directed by Alan J. Pakula.
In 1978, Smith played opposite Michael Caine in Neil Simon's California Suite, playing an Oscar loser, for which she received the 1978 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. She is, to date, the only person to win an Oscar for portraying a fictional Oscar nominee. For this role, she also won her first Golden Globe Award. Afterward, upon hearing that Michael Palin was about to embark on the film The Missionary (1982) with Smith, her co-star Michael Caine is supposed to have humorously telephoned Palin, warning him that she would steal the film.
Her other films at this time include Murder by Death (1976) with Vincent Canby of The New York Times writing, that the film had one of Simon's "nicest, breeziest screenplays" with David Niven and Maggie Smith "marvelous as Dick and Dora Charleston, though they haven't enough to do." Smith also starred as Miss Bowers in Death on the Nile (1978) alongside Angela Lansbury, Bette Davis, Peter Ustinov, and David Niven.
In 1981, Smith starred in the Merchant Ivory film Quartet alongside Alan Bates and Isabelle Adjani. The film premiered at the 34th Cannes Film Festival where it received positive reviews. Smith received her sixth BAFTA Award nomination for Best Actress for her performance as Lois Heidler. Smith also played the goddess Thetis in Clash of the Titans (1981).
In 1982, she starred as Daphne Castle in the locked-room mystery film Evil Under the Sun opposite Peter Ustinov, Jane Birkin and Diana Rigg. The following year, she appeared in the film Better Late Than Never alongside David Niven and Art Carney.
She won her second Best Actress BAFTA Film Awards for her role as Joyce Chilvers in the 1984 black comedy A Private Function with Michael Palin. Three pigs were used in the filming of A Private Function all named Betty. Producer Mark Shivas was advised by Intellectual Animals UK, that the pigs used should be female and six months old, so as to not be too large or aggressive. However, the pigs were "unpredictable and often quite dangerous". During the filming of one of the kitchen scenes, Smith was hemmed in by one of the pigs, and needed to vault over the back of it in order to escape. She also starred in the 1984 Hungarian-American film Lily in Love with Christopher Plummer. According to Smith's biographer, she referred to the film as "the ghoulash" and admitted to not understanding the Hungarian director's direction. She also called her co-star "Christopher Bummer".
In 1985 Smith appeared as Charlotte Bartlett in the Merchant Ivory Production of A Room with a View. The film received universal acclaim earning 8 Academy Award nominations including Best Picture. The film starred Helena Bonham Carter, Daniel Day-Lewis, Judi Dench, Simon Callow, and Denholm Elliott. For Smith's performance she earned her fifth Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress, and won her second Golden Globe Award and her third British Academy Film Award for Best Actress.
Smith won her fourth BAFTA Film Awards for Best Actress for the title role in the 1987 film The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. Pauline Kael wrote: "Clayton is a felicitous choice to direct a character study film about a woman's rage against the Church for her wasted life. His first feature was Room at the Top with Simone Signoret and he made The Innocents with Deborah Kerr and The Pumpkin Eater with Anne Bancroft – he knows how to show women's temperatures and their mind-body inter-actions. Maggie Smith becomes the essence of spinster – she makes you feel the ghastliness of knowing you're a figure of fun."
In the early 1990s, Smith appeared in various box office comedies. In 1991, Smith appeared as Granny Wendy in Steven Spielberg's 1991 hit movie Hook, a fantasy adventure film based on the Peter Pan character. The film starred Robin Williams as Pan, Dustin Hoffman as Hook, and Julia Roberts as Tinker Bell. The film was a financial success making $300 million at the box office. In 1992, Smith starred as Mother Superior in the Whoopi Goldberg comedy film Sister Act and its sequel, Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit (1993). In 1996, Smith appeared in the comedy film The First Wives Club alongside Goldie Hawn, Diane Keaton and Bette Midler.
In 1993, Smith appeared in the film adaptation of The Secret Garden directed by Agnieszka Holland. The film was a critical success, Smith in particular was praised for her performance as Mrs. Medlock earning a British Academy Film Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. In 1995, Smith portrayed the Duchess of York in another film adaptation this time of William Shakespeare's Richard III (1995) starring Ian McKellen in the titular role. The film adapts the play's story and characters to a setting based on 1930s Britain, with Richard depicted as a fascist plotting to usurp the throne. The film also starred Annette Bening, Jim Broadbent, Robert Downey Jr., Nigel Hawthorne, and Kristin Scott Thomas. Smith also starred in another film by Holland titled Washington Square (1997), playing the incurably foolish Aunt Lavinia Penniman.
She won her fifth BAFTA Film Awards, this time for Best Supporting Actress, for the 1999 film Tea with Mussolini, in which she played Lady Hester Random opposite Cher, Joan Plowright and Judi Dench. She also starred in The Last September opposite Michael Gambon and the film Curtain Call with Michael Caine in the same year.
From 2001 to 2011, Smith gained great acclaim and international recognition for playing Professor Minerva McGonagall in the Harry Potter movies. Smith reunited with Daniel Radcliffe with whom she recently starred in David Copperfield from 1999. Smith appeared in seven of the eight films. The series was known for hiring legendary and iconic British actors, including Michael Gambon, Alan Rickman, Robbie Coltrane, Emma Thompson, Ralph Fiennes, Helena Bonham Carter and Julie Walters. Without inflation adjustment, it is the third-highest-grossing film series with $7.7 billion in worldwide receipts. In 2016, while promoting, The Lady in the Van, Smith shared her experiences working on the Harry Potter films and working with the late Alan Rickman. "He [Rickman] was such a terrific actor, and that was such a terrific character that he played, and it was a joy to be with him. We used to laugh together because we ran out of reaction shots. They were always – when everything had been done and the children were finished, they would turn the camera around and we'd have to do various reaction shots of amazement or sadness and things. And we used to say we'd got to about number 200-and-something and we'd run out of knowing what to do when the camera came around on us. But he was a joy."
In 2001, Smith appeared in the British ensemble murder mystery Gosford Park, which was directed by Robert Altman. The film's cast included Michael Gambon, Helen Mirren, Kristin Scott Thomas, Eileen Atkins, Emily Watson, Charles Dance, Richard E. Grant, Derek Jacobi, and Stephen Fry. Her portrayal as the haughty Constance, Countess of Trentham earned Smith her sixth Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress alongside Mirren. The film premiered at the 2001 London Film Festival, where it received critical acclaim from critics including Roger Ebert, who awarded it his highest rating of four stars, describing the story as "such a joyous and audacious achievement, it deserves comparison with his [Robert Altman's] very best movies."
In 2002, she starred in the film Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood alongside Sandra Bullock and Ellen Burstyn. She also acted with Judi Dench in the film Ladies in Lavender (2004) directed by Charles Dance. In 2005, she starred as Grace Hawkins alongside Rowan Atkinson and Kristin Scott Thomas in the black comedy Keeping Mum. Smith also appeared in the British costume drama Becoming Jane (2007), a film that centres around the life of Jane Austen, played by Anne Hathaway. She appeared in Julian Fellowes's fantasy drama film From Time to Time in 2009. In 2010, she played Mrs. Docherty in period fantasy comedy film Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang opposite Emma Thompson.
In 2012, she played Muriel Donnelly in the British comedy The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel alongside Judi Dench, Dev Patel, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, and Penelope Wilton. The film was distributed by Fox Searchlight and received positive reviews. She received a Screen Actors Guild Award nomination for the role. The film became a surprise box-office hit following its international release and was such a financial success, it spawned a sequel, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2015). Also in 2012, Smith starred in Dustin Hoffman's directorial debut, Quartet, based on Ronald Harwood's play. The film co-starred Tom Courtenay, Pauline Collins, Billy Connolly, and Michael Gambon. The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival to positive reviews and garnered her a 10th Golden Globe nomination. The following year, Smith starred in the romantic comedy My Old Lady (2014) alongside Kristin Scott Thomas and Kevin Kline. The film received modest critical praise according to Rotten Tomatoes, with Smith's performance being a standout.
The film The Lady in the Van (2015) which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival, received critical acclaim, with Kate Muir of The Times praising Smith's performance by writing, "Smith delivers a compelling performance in The Lady in the Van, as Alan Bennett's play comes to the big screen 15 years after it premiered at the Royal National Theatre." Smith received a Golden Globe Award and British Academy Film Award nominations for her performance.
In September 2019, a continuation of the Downton Abbey series in form of a feature-length film was in theaters entitled simply, Downton Abbey. The film was a financial success, and earned $194.3 million at the box office. She reprised her role as Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess Of Grantham in Simon Curtis's 2022 historical-drama Downton Abbey: A New Era alongside Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern and Michelle Dockery.
In 2021, Smith starred in the Netflix adaptation of the children's book by Matt Haig of the same name, A Boy Called Christmas. The film was directed by Gil Kenan and also starred Sally Hawkins, Kristen Wiig, Jim Broadbent, and Toby Jones.
In 2020, it was reported that Smith would be starring in an Irish drama film, The Miracle Club, with Kathy Bates and Laura Linney. The film's plot is being described as a "joyful and hilarious" journey of a group of riotous working-class women from Dublin, whose pilgrimage to Lourdes in France leads them to discover each other's friendship and their own personal miracles."
Smith was announced as starring in the film version of Christopher Hampton's A German Life, reprising the role she originated onstage in 2019 in London.