Maggie Smith mystery: Why won’t beloved ‘Downton Abbey’ star come to the Emmys?

At Sunday’s Emmy Awards host Jimmy Kimmel introduced the Maggie Smith rule: winners who fail to attend awards shows don’t get their statues. He later got laughs enforcing the rule when Smith won her third Emmy for her role as the Dowager Countess for the final season of PBS’s “Downton Abbey.” This marks Smith’s fourth Emmy overall after previously winning for a TV movie called “My House in Umbria” in 2003 and, no, she has never accepted any of them in person.

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Unlike infamous awards show non-believers such as Marlon Brando and George C. Scott, Smith doesn’t have disdain for competitions but instead just seems to prefer her home base in England. She has been a frequent participant and attendee at British kudos such as the BAFTAS. And Smith took to the stage at the 1990 Tony Awards in New York when she won Best Actress for her role in “Lettuce and Lovage,” a play that Peter Shaffer wrote especially for her, that was running on the rialto at that time.

While she has always declined to make the trans-Atlantic trips to Los Angeles when Emmy called, she has attended the Oscars twice after missing the ceremonies the first three times she was nominated (“Othello” in 1965, “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” in 1969, and “Travels With My Aunt” in 1972.)

She won Best Actress for “Miss Brodie” but due to stage commitments in London had her friend Alice Ghostley (“Bewitched,” “Designing Women”) with whom she had made her Broadway debut in the revue “New Faces of 1956,” speak on her behalf. This was back in the days when winners were allowed to appoint anyone they wanted to accept an award for them. This practice would end three years later when Marlon Brando sent an actress Sacheen Littlefeather to the stage to decline his Oscar for “The Godfather” and protest the depiction of Native Americans in Hollywood westerns.

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Smith received three more Oscar nominations in the Supporting Actress category. She attended and won in 1978 for “California Suite” (watch her acceptance speech above), stayed home and lost in 1986 for “A Room with a View,” and attended but lost in 2001 for “Gosford Park.”

Her role in Neil Simon‘s “California Suite” may give us insight into why Smith and other stars have not appeared at awards shows. She plays Diana Barry, a successful British stage actress who flies from London to LA after she is nominated for an Oscar for her part in a frivolous romantic comedy. Barry is beset with one humiliation and frustration after another on her trip including a philandering husband (Michael Caine) and a strange hump that appears on her dress which she thinks makes her look like she is ready to take the stage as Richard III.

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One has to wonder if the indignities Diana Barry suffered in “California Suite” have happened also to Smith and thus explains her proclivity to stay home on Emmy nights. Or perhaps her thinking is more along the line of her “Downton Abbey” character who can easily be imagined saying, “Why should I attend? When I don’t, I still win anyway. Why mess with success?” Dame Maggie is quite tight-lipped about her reasons so I guess we’ll never really know her motivations, but hey, London to Los Angeles is a really long flight!

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