Maggie Smith in California Suite (1978) - Supporting Actress Sundays

California Suite is Neil Simon's schticky retread of the La Ronde-ish device he deployed to great commercial success nearly a decade earlier in 1968's Plaza Suite (film version, 1971). On stage, Simon's Suites staged a series of disparate one-act playlets on a unit set depicting a suite at a particular hotel; in each act, a different set of "visitors" (played by the same actors) arrived to the suite, their private dramas providing the comedic focus for each act. The theatrical pleasures of Simon's Suites change fundamentally on screen, with the elimination of the role-doubling (always an audience pleaser) and, in the case of California, of misguided attempts to intercut the free-standing pieces and "open" the action to streets, beaches, and red carpets (thus leaving the "suite" altogether). But Simon's intricate character-driven patter, riven with escalating intimacies, does insist on the privacy of the suite -- and California Suite (which is often just gruesomely unfunny) comes closest to working when the char/actors are permitted to just play the scene. Clear proof of this can be seen in California Suites's most vivid, complex and emotionally effective scenes, scenes which circle, fascinated, around...

approximately 26 minutes and 32 seconds
12 scenes
roughly 26% of film's total running time

Maggie Smith plays Diana Barrie, a revered British stage actress, who arrives to Hollywood in order to attend the Academy Awards, for which she is nominated. Smith's Diana is joined on this trip by her benignly bisexual husband, Sidney (Michael Caine), with whom Smith's Diana remains hopelessly smitten. (It's worth noting that, here, Sidney's bisexuality is treated with a casual aplomb -- a cosmopolitan open secret, just the way those sophisticates do things these days -- an approach that would, just a few years later, be utterly implausible.)

Diana has a fairly straightforward arc: arrive to Los Angeles; get ready for the Academy Awards; lose the Oscar; spiral into an alcohol-fueled, logorrheic frenzy of self-doubt and self-loathing; leave Los Angeles with the worst hangover ever. And, no surprise, Maggie Smith executes this arc with clarity, precision, confidence and -- what's best -- humanity.

See, 'twould have been really really really easy to make Diana Barrie a dissolute, despairing actress a la Alexandra del Lago. But Maggie Smith creates Diana as a complex, mildly-to-seriously neurotic woman, who happens to be good at her job -- not some diva on a depressive tear. To do this, Maggie Smith makes a very simple choice: Diana does not doubt her abilities as an actress, but seems absolutely terrorized by the task of being a celebrity.

Smith's Diana emerges as an absolutely respectable, ultimately endearing portrait of the emotional and existential dilemmas instigated by stardom's glare. Smith's patented ability to register comic surprise comes in especially handy here. Her alarmed utterances upon catching her reflection in the mirror -- "This dress makes me look like I've a hump!" or "Was I hit by a bus?" -- instigate genuine laughs while also somehow gathering empathy for the character.

An impressive aspect of Maggie Smith's performance, too, is just how adept she is at avoiding cruelty in delivering Diana's lines. StinkyLulu won't opine whether Simon's dialogue for Sidney & Diana sounds like bad Noel Coward as a result of skillful execution or fortuitous accident, but Caine and Smith handle the mildly malicious banter brilliantly. Caine and Smith invest even the bitchiest lines with a barely stifled tenderness that both finds the comedy and amplifies the genuinely mutual devotion that defines Sidney's and Diana's marriage. (Compare this to the sour awfulness of the Bill Cosby/Richard Pryor suite; playing the lines and the situation at full tilt, Cosby and Pryor skip the relationship -- and, thus, miss the source of whatever comedy is to be found in Neil Simon.)

Smith's performance does more than just keep Diana from becoming too too annoying. Somehow, from this parodic piffle of a part, Maggie Smith retrieves a performance that uses both a comedic and melancholic register to convey the quiet anxiety of a successful woman's mid-life crisis. Smith somehow strings it all together -- the job, the award, the dress, the relationship, the booze, the infidelity -- to render Diana as a portrait of a woman discovering herself, her wants, her needs... a woman who, for perhaps the first time, is beginning to ask: is that all there is?

Maggie Smith's performance in California Suite demonstrates one of the greatest pleasures of tracking actresses at the edge: watching a generous actress transform a sketch of a character into a fully human, fully interesting performance. Smith's performance as Diana might be the only reason to revisit this garishly unfunny film, but Smith's Diana remains a dang good reason to fast forward through the rest of the film.

1 comment:

newland said...

One of the most deserving Oscar wins ever. Magnificent performance by a magnificent actress. I was left speechless by Smith and also by Caine, who should have been nominated and maybe won as well. The film is crap, though.