Maggie Smith (‘The Lady in the Van’): Oscar comeback like Katharine Hepburn?

Will Maggie Smith follow in the footsteps of Katharine Hepburn and win an Oscar decades after her last victories? In her new film “The Lady in the Van,” Smith plays the real-life Mary Shepherd, a homeless woman who moved her van into the driveway of writer Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings) and stayed there for 15 years.

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Hepburn claimed her record fourth Best Actress Oscar for her performance as Ethel Thayer in the heartwarming “On Golden Pond” in 1981. She had won her first in 1933 for “Morning Glory” and then back-to-back in the late 1960s (“Guess Who Coming to Dinner,” 1967; “The Lion in Winter,” 1968); However, in the 1970s, she had only headlined two films (“A Delicate Balance,” 1973) and “Rooster Cogburn” (1975). The latter of those paired her with one screen legend, John Wayne, for the first time and “On Golden Pond” gave her a chance to work with another, Henry Fonda, in their only film outing. 

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As with Hepburn, Smith has been out of the Oscar spotlight for a while. She won a pair of Oscars (Best Actress for “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” in 1969, Best Supporting Actress for “California Suite” in 1978) from six nominations. However, she hasn’t contended since “Gosford Park” in 2001.

But Dame Maggie has hardly faded into obscurity since then. She has appeared in all eight films of the “Harry Potter” franchise as well as the popular hit “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.”

And currently, she is stealing scenes as the acidic dowager duchess in the ratings juggernaut “Downton Abbey.” That role has earned her two Emmys, three SAG Awards and a Golden Globe.

And, as you can see from the chart to the left, she is likely to contend at the Golden Globes for her performance in “The Lady in the Van.” If she pulls off a win there, that could send her on to the Oscars. 

“On Golden Pond” contended at the Golden Globes on the drama side, winning Best Drama Picture, Actor (Fonda)  and Screenplay (Ernest Thompson). Hepburn lost to Meryl Streep (“The French Lieutenant’s Woman”). 

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The key difference between their two films is that in “On Golden Pond,” Fonda was the crotchety character while Hepburn was the understanding companion. It told the story of a couple in their golden years who are dealing with aging and had darker emotions than “The Lady in the Van.”  

Bennett first told this story as a stage play in 1999, which earned Smith an Olivier Award nomination for Best Actress, and he has adapted it for the screen. This slice of life focuses on an impoverished woman and her encounters with the folks of an upscale neighborhood. It does eventually delve into her past anguish and crisis of faith.

“On Golden Pond” also had the benefit of director Mark Rydell who came to the project off the red-hot “The Rose” (1979) and Jane Fonda, who produced the picture as a showcase for her father. 

“The Lady in the Van” is helmed by Nicholas Hytner, who himself has an impressive pedigree, having directed the Oscar-contending films “The Madness of King George” (1994) and “The Crucible” (1996). “Madness” earned him a BAFTA Award for Best British Film. However, most of his work has been on stage so he may not be as familiar to Oscar voters as Rydell was, especially since as this is Hytner’s first film in nine years.

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Do you think Maggie Smith will win the Golden Globe for “The Lady in the Van.”?

Watch the trailer below and make your Golden Globe predictions beginning with Best Comedy/Musical Actress to the right or at the bottom of this post and you could earn a place of honor on our leaderboard and a starring role in next year’s Top 24 Users (the two dozen folks who do the best predicting this year’s Globe film nominations).

“Lady in the Van” photo credit: Moviestore Collection/REX

“On Golden Pond” photo credit: Snap Stills/REX

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