In Her Prime

Mia Michaels, left, and Wade Robson, from the show "So You Think You Can Dance," celebrate backstage after tying to win for outstanding choreography awards at the 2007 Creative Arts Emmy Awards in Los Angeles on Saturday, Sept. 8, 2007. AP Photo

Says Maggie Smith: "My grandmother had said to my mother that she couldn't let me go on the stage, because, she said, 'You can't let her. Not with a face like that.' And I think that it made me so angry that I decided that I'd have a go."

And what a go it's been! That face, capable of expressing so much with just a glance, has made Maggie Smith a star. In every role, on stage and on film, her eyes reveal the same determination she face her grandmother with all those years ago. Correspondent Eugenia Zukerman reports for CBS News Sunday Morning.

It seems like everywhere you look today, you see Maggie Smith and those signature glances. She's simply amazing as Professor MacGonagle in the blockbuster "Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone." But she's getting the most attention for her work in Robert Altman's latest movie "Gosford Park," in which she plays Constance, Countess of Trentham, a snobbish aristocrat with a title but no money.

What did she like about Constance?

"Not a lot," replies Smith. "I thought she was absolutely horrid. But it's always quite fun to play those sort of aggressive people, if you know what I mean. That was sort of fun."

Audiences have been keeping their eyes on Maggie Smith since she was one of Broadway's "New Faces of 1956." She worked with many of the greats, including Richard Burton in the 1963 movie "The VIPs." But acting with him later on stage, she saw a lot more than the audience did.

"God, that was a long time ago," she recalls. "One of the first things I ever did. And what I remember most about that was that he was in this scene drinking scotch. And I was deeply shocked, because it was scotch that he was drinking. I thought it would be…tea with water in it that they used for props, but not at all. That was a bit startling. But aside from that, it was lovely."

She earned the first of her five Oscar nominations when she played Desdemona to Laurence Olivier's Othello.

"It was scary, very scary," she says. "It was very frightening, because not only was it working with him, but it was doing Shakespeare, which I hadn't done."

She won her first Oscar for playing a fiercely independent schoolteacher in "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie." And later, she received an Oscar as best supporting actress, playing an aging star with a failed marriage in Neil Simon's "California Suite."

And Smith is up for an Oscar again this year, with a nomination for "Gosford Park." Part "Upstairs Downstairs," part drawing room comedy, it's a murder mystery. But, even before the Oscar nomination, she was playing to high praise from her co-stars.

Of course, great actors are sometimes the hardest to know as people. And according to producer and co-star Bob Balaban, that's not necessarily a bad thing. Says he, "I think she's a kind of magician, and I don't think it helps the magician for you to go behind the cloak and see what it's really like."

Whatever it is that makes Smith so special was not lost on "Gosford Park"'s director, Robert Altman.

"Maggie always plays, I think, a three-dimensional person. She isn't just a cipher…and she's just, that's the measure of a great actor, of course… It was just a great privilege for me to be able to work with her, and I'm wracking my brains, because I want to work with her again," he says.

Despite her success on the screen, in true English fashion, Smith has never abandoned the stage. She's a Dame of the British Empire, and in 1990, she won a best actress Tony Award for "Lettice and Loveage."

She has more than proven that her grandmother was wrong about her face. In fact, what we're seeing today might just be the prime of Miss Maggie Smith.
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  • Ellen Crean

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