It’s Maggie Smith vs. Shirley MacLaine as Downton Abbey Season 3 Begins

It’s going to be the battle of the century when it comes to great actors as the legendary Maggie Smith competes with the inimitable Shirley MacLaine for the Downton Abby spotlight. The trailer above hints at what is to come. And while there won’t be bloody noses and technical knock-outs there will certainly be rusty daggers and bruised egos in the pitched battle between the forces of the emotional US acting style and the famous British reserve.

Shirley MacLaine as Martha Levinson from the TV series, "Downton Abbey."  Photo Nick Briggs.

Shirley MacLaine as Martha Levinson from the TV series, “Downton Abbey.” Photo Nick Briggs.

It’s not that we don’t care about the impending nuptials of Lady Mary and Matthew Crawley, not to mention all the social and economic upheaval of the early 1920s, but they pale in comparison to the upcoming confrontation between Dame Maggie and MacLaine who plays Martha Levinson, the mother of Cora, countess of Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern). In the Season 3 edition, MacLaine arrives from America bringing her tart tongue and liberal attitudes, and is totally unfamiliar to her daughter’s aristocratic household. Once again this period drama is preparing you for another genteel shock to your finely honed taste as the British gem finally gets aired on the PBS Masterpiece Theatre.

Dueling Actresses

Surely the two aging actresses retired to their fainting couches after each take to recover from the ongoing blows to the Downton household after each take. Ladies don’t tell but MacLaine and Smith are are evenly matched – within months – at the age of 78. I put my money on the Dame since she has been around all this pretense and preciousness for longer than I can remember. As for MacLaine, well, she has a serious handicap, and it is not being an American. Nevertheless she is looking forward to “going into that world, with those people who really seem to be living it. I didn’t know Downton Abbey. Everything I know I learned at my hairdresser’s. Really. I look at PBS for news.”

Maggie Smith

Maggie Smith

In talking with the English actress, MacLaine said that she planned to sing some of her lines to her. “You know, dear,” Smith replied: “When you do that, I’m going to fall off the chair.” then thought a moment and added, “No, I think not. I think I’ll fall asleep.”

She has a lot of catching up to do, what with 15 or more characters and at least that many sub-plots. No matter who wins this battle of wills, the public will eat it up.

The cast of Downton Abbey lines up.

The cast of Downton Abbey lines up.

The Season 3 Lineup

Season 3 takes place as The Great War is over and the long-awaited engagement of Lady Mary and Matthew is on. All is not tranquil at Downton Abbey as wrenching social changes, romantic intrigues, and personal crises grip the majestic English country estate. Shirley MacLaine joins the much-loved cast, which includes Dame Maggie Smith, Elizabeth McGovern, Hugh Bonneville, Dan Stevens, Michelle Dockery, Jim Carter, Penelope Wilton and many others. “No family is ever what it seems from the outside,” observes Smith’s shrewd character.

Downton Abbey Season 3 airs over seven Sundays beginning with a two-hour premiere on January 6 and concluding with a ninety-minute finale on February 17. The series’ total running time is 9 1/2 hours.

Written and created by Julian Fellowes, Downton Abbey Season 3 is a Carnival Films and Masterpiece coproduction. Seasons 1 & 2 have together won nine Primetime Emmy® Awards and a Golden Globe® for Best Mini-Series.

Viewers were no less passionate, with 17.1 million tuning in across the seven episodes, making Downton Abbey, Season 2 the most-watched Masterpiece Theatre series on record. It was also the most talked-about. The show has created real buzz on websites such as Berkshire on Stage, and within the social media websites like Twitter and Facebook. Because of today’s multitude of viewing options, a younger audience is being seduced by Downton Abbey’s sumptuously spread-out plot.

The cast is as impressive as the plot complications.

The cast is as impressive as the plot complications.

The story so far

Years earlier, Cora rescued Downton Abbey with her New World riches by marrying Robert, Earl of Grantham (Bonneville). Now, New World and Old World are about to clash as Cora’s mother locks horns with Robert’s redoubtable mother, Lady Violet, played by Maggie Smith.

Last season closed with the reluctant heir to Downton, Matthew Crawley (Stevens), recovered from his war wounds and ready to tie the knot with the eldest of Lord and Lady Grantham’s daughters, Lady Mary (Dockery). Meanwhile, Mary’s youngest sister, Sybil (Jessica Brown-Findlay), has eloped to Ireland with the political-minded chauffeur, Branson (Allen Leech), and is expecting a child.

A tantalizing glimpse ahead: Lovebird servants Anna (Froggatt) and Bates (Coyle) face new ordeals in their star-crossed marriage. Downton’s impeccable butler, Carson (Carter), breaks in a new footman, who happens to be the nephew of the scheming lady’s maid O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran). Following Matthew and Mary’s engagement, Robert sticks to his duty to maintain Downton more firmly than ever—even as other great houses are crippled psychologically and financially in the wake of World War I.

In this changing landscape nothing is assured, and could it be that even the war-weary Crawleys must fight a new battle to safeguard their beloved Downton?


Downton Abbey Season 3 is a Carnival/Masterpiece Co-production. It is written and created by Julian Fellowes. Gareth Neame and Julian Fellowes are Executive Producers. The Co-Executive Producer is Nigel Marchant. The Producer is Liz Trubridge. The first episode is directed by Brian Percival. Other episodes are directed by Andy Goddard, Jeremy Webb, and David Evans.

Masterpiece Theatre is presented on PBS by WGBH Boston. Rebecca Eaton is Executive Producer. Funding for the series is provided by Viking River Cruises and Ralph Lauren Corporation with additional support from public television viewers and contributors as well as to The Masterpiece Trust, created to help ensure the series’ future.

4 thoughts on “It’s Maggie Smith vs. Shirley MacLaine as Downton Abbey Season 3 Begins

  1. Oh come on, Larry!! Ms. MacLaine doesn’t even scratch the surface when it comes to character acting. I’ve  seen Ms. Smith on stage   many times in London, NYC, Stratford, Ontario and LA. plus countless film and tv performances,  She’s in the league with Peggy Ashcroft, Judy Dench,  or Irene Worth.  Ms. MacLaine? maybe the equal of Rosaline Russell and that’s GOOD but in no way on the same footing as Maggie Smith.


    • Having only seen Ms. Smith once on stage, in her famous turn as Lettice in the original of Peter Shaffer’s Lettice and Lovage at the Globe (now Gielgud) Theatre, I have marveled at the great lady for decades. But I never let a little blogging fun stand in the way of a good controversy. Would love to know what you are working on these days….

  2. Having seen the first entry of season three, I must say that each of the grande dames matches the other evenly in wit. However, Fellowes’ bias against all those not English is clear, as Shirley McLain couldn’t be portrayed more dowdy – even for 1920.
    Both women appear older than their chronological ages, which you point are close, but their acting beats Eliz McGovern by a mile. I’ve enjoyed both Maggie &’Shirley at various stages of their acting careers, & since seeing THE APARTMENT so recently, the fresh-faced Shirley as Miss Kublick remained vividly in my consciousness.
    As for the almost limitless plots & subs, I wish they were less soapy. They’ve already preserved the British class system in Upstaiirs Downstairs & redux, IMHO.

  3. Larry, Who’re you talking about??? When did Shirley Mac Laine ever play a classical role in ANY media. Have I missed something?? Did she ever play a Desdemona  with Laurence Olivier that  I missed ?? I don’t get what you’re after. She a gifted comedienne and was a damn good song and dance gal but I can’t imagine she ever aspired to be another Jessica Tandy or Margaret Rutherford. Did you ever see her in Schlesinger’s film where she tried to be a Russian piano teacher? Well, not many did. Even with John’s help she “crash landed”. I can’t recall the title now but it’s probably best forgotten. Why are you trying to promote some “dramatic contest” with this tv show? Do you think it will help build a larger audience??  I don’t think it necessary, really. 


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