The Big O: When it Comes to Oscar Dames, Dench Rules

Features
by Susan Wloszczyna
November 15, 2013 6:46 AM
4 Comments
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According to Rodgers and Hammerstein, there is nothing like a dame.

According to Oscar, few dames are grander than Judi Dench. 

Of the 14 Academy Award-nominated actresses who have held the lofty title of DBE - Dame Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire - this abundantly talented 78-year-old is tied with Maggie Smith with the most chances to take home a statuette: Six. Elizabeth Taylor, who became a dame in 2000 when her acting career was all but over, is in second place with five nominations. Dench is likely to bring her count to a lucky seven as she commands the big screen once more with her deceptively cozy performance as an elderly Irish woman who decides to search for the son she was forced to give up as an unwed teen in Philomena, which opens next Friday. That would put the actress, who won a supporting trophy for her eight-minute role as a rather daunting Queen Elizabeth I in 1998's Shakespeare in Lovein the same league as seven-time nominees Ingrid Bergman, Dustin Hoffman, Jane Fonda, Greer Garson and Richard Burton.

What makes her feat even more impressive is that she had a rather late start as a movie star while concentrating instead on the theater. Dench joined the Old Vic in 1957 and quickly built her reputation, becoming a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1961. She won the role of Sally Bowles in the first London production of Cabaret in 1968 and other stellar stage performances would follow.

She also found time to headline two popular British TV series, A Fine Romance (1981-84) opposite her husband, Michael Williams (who died from lung cancer in 2001), and As Time Goes By (1992-2002). 

Dench did wade into cinematic waters early on, starting with a bit part in the 1964 mystery thriller The Third Secret.  But it wasn’t until she reached her 50s that she began to devote herself  to movie acting with two noteworthy films in 1985, Wetherby and A Room With a View. Nonetheless, her contributions to the arts had already been enough to be declared a dame in 1988.

She quickly took to the medium and would earn nomination No. 1 with her first film lead as a widowed Queen Victoria reservedly smitten with a Scottish servant in 1997's Mrs. Brown.  It was also the start of a highly fruitful association with movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, who is behind Philomena as well. She credits him for raising her profile in Hollywood – going so far to surprise him with the sight of a fake tattoo with the words "Thanks to Harvey" drawn on her behind. 

Mrs. Brown was originally supposed to be just be a BBC TV movie until Weinstein decided to release it in U.S. theaters under his then-banner Miramax. He distributed four of the five other films that resulted in nominations for Dench.  Besides Shakespeare in Love, they are Chocolat (2000), Iris (2001) and Mrs. Henderson Presents (2005).  Meanwhile, 2006's Notes on a Scandal was handled by Fox Searchlight – the studio behind Dench's popular The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel last year.

If Dench does get to compete in the race, she will be facing stiff competition. It's likely the other actresses in the lead category could all be past winners, too. They might include Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine, Sandra Bullock in Gravity, Meryl Streep in August: Osage County and a fellow Brit, Emma Thompson in Saving Mr. Banks.

But it's pretty much certain that Dench would be the lone dame who might be in the running - although Thompson, the only Oscar winner honored for both acting (1992's Howards End) and screenwriting  (1995's Sense and Sensibility), probably has a dame-ship in her future.

After all, being a dame and being nominated for an Oscar pretty much go hand in hand. Of the 19 actresses who have been declared a DBE, 14 have either been nominated for or won an Academy Award. They range from Judith Anderson, who scored a bid as the intimidating Mrs. Danvers in 1940's Rebecca, to three-time nominee Helen Mirren, who took the gold as a sorely tested Elizabeth II in 2006's The Queen. Others lauded ladies include: Gladys Cooper, May Whitty, Celia Johnson, Flora Robson, Wendy Hiller, Margaret Rutherford, Edith Evans, Maggie Smith, Julie Andrews and Peggy Ashcroft.

But don't count Thompson out so quickly, either.  Just as the American public continues to be fascinated by the royals despite being liberated from British rule centuries ago, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has a long history of bowing before English actors. The voters first revealed themselves as Anglophiles back when George Arliss became the first Brit performer to claim an Oscar crown as the lead in 1929's Disraeli, and they have remained enthralled ever since.

Even the mighty Streep, who could go up against Dench while bringing her record number of nominations to 18, is in awe of her British peers: "I am vastly intimidated by English actors. We American actors think we're just a bunch of slobs compared to them, and that they can quote all of Shakespeare by heart."

In his book All About Oscar: The History and Politics of the Academy Awards, author Emanuel Levy suggests that a win-win situation might be the reason for British actors regularly making the ballot cut: "Both the academy and British actors benefit from playing the Oscar game. The Oscar has made these players into international stars, and the British players in turn have contributed to the prestige of the academy as a reputable institution that recognizes talent."

Some believe that British actors are superior not only because they are better trained - they are much more apt to attend a prestigious drama school before going professional - but they also benefit from their versatility.  "American players tend to specialize in one medium, often to the exclusion of the other two," Levy writes. "But British players continue to commute successfully between theater and film, or film and television, to the appreciation of all three arts and their audiences."

That description certainly fits Dench's resume. But she herself disagrees that the quality of a performance depends at all on one's nationality. "Good acting is good acting," she has said. "Good acting is not the things you say, it's the things you don't say. It's like in watercolor - it's what you leave out that's most important."

Still, just as not everyone is a Van Gogh, not everyone is a dame - or a Dench.

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4 Comments

  • Mustang55 | November 15, 2013 9:06 AMReply

    May not have anything to do with her nominations, but let's not forget... best M ever.

  • T | November 14, 2013 4:14 PMReply

    Maggie Smith has actually six nominations, with two wins - so she's actually ahead of Judi Dench in terms of Oscars.

  • H | November 15, 2013 8:10 AM

    Plus, Smith in California Suite is much much better than Dench cameo in Shakepeare in Love.

  • M | November 14, 2013 3:32 PMReply

    Good article, but one point - I'm pretty sure Emma Thompson will have been offered some form of honours and refused them; maybe not a DBE, but certainly a CBE or OBE given that people like Kate Winslet and Imelda Staunton etc have accepted these honours. I doubt it fits with her politics to accept a title containing the words "British Empire".

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