Judi Dench: There is nothing like the Dame
Most famous actresses are tall and willowy. At 5’3”, Dame Judi Dench breaks that mold. In 1987, when offered the part of Shakespeare’s Cleopatra on stage, 53-year old Dench is said to have resisted, stating that her Queen of Egypt would be no more than a “menopausal dwarf.” In the end she took the part and audiences were struck by her sexual force, proving that magnetism springs more from emotion than from vital statistics.
Born in Yorkshire in the north of England on December 9, 1934, Judi Dench’s Irish mother met her father when he was studying medicine at Trinity College. She had two older brothers. One followed their father into medicine, while the other led Judy into the theatre. Judi was educated at a Quaker school and remains a fervent Quaker to this day.
Dench studied at the Central School of Speech Training and Dramatic Art in London. In 1957, at the age of 23, she made her first professional stage appearance as Ophelia in the Old Vic production of Hamlet. To the surprise of some critics who thought she was too young, she remained a member of the company for four seasons playing a variety of roles.
A “croaky” voice
Looking back over her long, multifaceted career, Dench’s success did not come easily. When she was just starting out, an older player recalled that her voice was so croaky she sounded like she had laryngitis, stating that in the competitive world of stage acting she didn’t have a chance. His quip about her voice prompted Dench to put a notice in the box office saying “Judi Dench is not ill – she just talks like this.”
When she was offered the lead role in the musical Cabaret in 1968, Dench at fist thought they were joking. She had never done a musical and was so frightened of singing in public that she auditioned from the wings. She won the role and enjoyed a long run. Unfortunately, when Dench was due to play Grizabella in the original stage production of Cats in 1981, a torn Achilles tendon forced her to pull out. Otherwise today she might be famous for Grizabella’s solo, “Moonlight.”
Not a face for film
A film career had been one of Dench’s dreams, but she was turned down for the lead in A Taste of Honey because, she was told, she did not have “the face for film.” Instead, she concentrated on theatre and, in 1961, she helped form the Royal Shakespeare Company.
However, she also did not take no for an answer. Dench’s persistence led to starring roles in two long-running British television sitcoms: “A Fine Romance” from 1981-1984, and “As Time Goes By” from 1992 to 2002). Both series were well received around the world and confirmed that this Shakespearean actress acclaimed for her portrayals of Ophelia and Lady Macbeth was also a talented comedienne.
Her most visible milestone in the film business occurred in 1995, when Dench was cast as M, James Bond’s boss. She appeared first in “Golden Eye,” starring Pierce Brosnan. Always at loggerheads with Bond for his maverick ways, Dench’s character became a fixture and she has been in each James Bond film since.
A Real Romance
In 1969 Dench began seeing a lot of actor Michael Williams, whom she had met a decade before. The two had remained casual friends, but then their relationship became more serious. When Williams first proposed to Dench, she is said to have told him the setting was too romantic for her to make a reasonable decision and that he should ask her again, “on a rainy night in Battersea.”
They were married on February 5th, 1971 and enjoyed a happy marriage despite some sharp differences in character. Williams lacked confidence and was occasionally depressed, in contrast to Dench who was typically upbeat. Williams was heard to complain that, “With Judi it’s bloody Christmas morning every day.” Nevertheless, Williams sent her a red rose every Friday for the next 30 years. Their daughter, actress “Finty” Williams, continued the tradition after his death from cancer in 2001, but substituted a pink rose.
A Dame of a certain age
In a culture that worships youth, Dame Judi Dench achieved her greatest fame and loudest plaudits when she was in her early to mid sixties. While her portrayal of M got her noticed around the world, a more significant milestone in her film career occurred in 1997. She had spent 30 days shooting what was supposed to be a television film called Mrs. Brown. Dench played Queen Victoria, grieving over her deceased Albert and being urged out of seclusion by a gruff Scotsman. The two lead performances were so stirring that Miramax Films decided to release Mrs. Brown to cinemas and Dench was suddenly a movie star in her own right, winning a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination. Her film career continued, leading to numerous Academy Award nominations and an award for best supporting actress for her role as Elizabeth I in the film Shakespeare in Love.
Despite her small stature, croaky voice and “not right” face, critics regard Dame Judi Dench as one of the greatest actresses of the post-war period. She has received many nominations and awards for her acting in theatre, film and television. Dench was also awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1970, became a Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1988, and a Companion of Honour in 2005.
British playwright and director Sir David Hare describes Dench as having, “a calculated innocence: an ability to treat even the great classic roles as if they had been written yesterday….” She herself confessed that she never reads scripts that are sent to her, preferring someone else to give her the gist of the part. Writing in the March 28, 1998 edition of the British newspaper the Guardian, Michael Billington describes Dame Judi as “a woman of intense passion, as you might expect of a half-Irish Quaker, unafraid to expose the violent paradoxes of her own nature.”