Thursday, December 13, 2012

A Seemingly Unlikely, Yet Genuine, Movie Star

This is a big week for Judi Dench.  Her latest James Bond movie, "Skyfall" (2012), went back to the top of the list of highest grossing films in the United States.  She was part of the ensemble nominated for a SAG Award for "Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture" for "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" (2012).  Her own performance in that movie was nominated today for a Golden Globe as Best Actress in a Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy Film.  And she celebrated her 78th birthday earlier this week, December 9th.  That's a heady list of accomplishments for an actress who defies our usual expectations of what constitutes a movie star.  But that's what Judi Dench is.  Despite all her awards, and the position she enjoys as perhaps the most esteemed and respected actress of our time, she really is a true movie star of the classic definition.  My late friend Polly Platt once said that her definition of a movie star is someone that men and women equally like.  If only one or the other gender like you, you're not really a movie star.  Not only does Judi Dench have the esteem and affection of men and women, she also gets it from young people who, not only know who she is, but they also like her and revere her the way their elders do.

I have been fascinated with Judi Dench's success since she burst onto the scene in America in the mid-1990s when she debuted as "M" in the James Bond series and soon followed that up with her Oscar nominated performance in "Mrs. Brown" (1997).  I already knew who she was from her BBC romantic comedy series "As Time Goes By," which aired on PBS, and her earlier movie roles like "A Room with a View" (1985), "84 Charing Cross Road" (1987), and "A Handful of Dust" (1988).  I also remembered her from her early performance as a young actress in the Sherlock Holmes mystery thriller "A Study in Terror" (1965).  I already had a vague understanding that she was an established and respected stage actress in the U.K. even before Bond and "Mrs. Brown."  So it was kind of wonderful to see how she reached a much broader audience in the last 17 years when she was already in her sixties and at an age when most of her peers are probably starting to collect their pensions and prepare for retirement.  I liked her from the moment she debuted as "M" in "GoldenEye" (1995).  She gave the Bond movies respectability, and Bond returned the favor by giving her visibility.  What's interesting is how Judi Dench has maximized her opportunities since then to put herself in a position where she is offered the best roles available for an actress of any age.  She could've just done "Mrs. Brown" and the Bond movies and left it at that, but her continuing success appears to be boundless.  Whether it's luck, good instincts, or by design, she has done all of the right things to allow herself to rise beyond just being considered a respected character actress to being a true movie star.

And Dench is a movie star, whether or not she fits our stereotypical expectations of one.  Even though she is not tabloid fodder, her life and career represents the best aspects of what a movie star should be.  She is well-known and well-liked by critics and audiences.  Her name and image are always prominently on display, sometimes even above the title, in the advertisements of any films or shows she appears in.  You always see her doing publicity and interviews for every project she is in.  Unlike other actors with false modesty who shun publicity, Dench appears to realize that effectively promoting the project she has performed in is as important as acting in it.  She also does not disdain appearing at the Oscars.  In her interviews, she talks about how she still gets a little starstruck and excited at the people she encounters at the Oscar ceremonies, a refreshing counterpoint to English (or American, for that matter) "thee-uh-tah" actors who act like they're too good to attend such events, much less be nominated for the award.  And, even though she admits that the stage is where she is the most comfortable, she does not pooh-pooh the cinema.  Dench pays it the respect it is due, which keeps her in high esteem among movie aficionados like me.  What does not get discussed often is that she also has a subdued and understated elegance about her that is glamorous in its own unique way.  Her flattering and distinctive silver pixie hairstyle has become her recognizable trademark.  She looks absolutely stunning on the red carpet, whether it's at the Oscars or at a Royal premiere for a Bond movie in London.  And I genuinely believe that people like her to such a degree that they will see her in anything she is in.  As unlikely as it sounds, I believe she's got box office appeal and that her name is enough to attract people to see something they might normally have overlooked if she did not otherwise appear in it.

The success of "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" is a perfect example of this.  Even though it is a beautifully written and directed movie, everything about it went against the grain of what you expect a successful movie to be.  It was an ensemble piece, starring actors well in their 60s and 70s, about a group of pensioners from the U.K. who settle in a hotel in Jaipur, India because they are unable to keep up with the high cost of living in England.  Dench was the lynchpin of this movie.  Even though it had a wonderful ensemble, she was the lead character and the heart and soul of "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel."  She played a widow named Evelyn who comes to the painful realization that her late husband has made unwise investments and left her in a precarious financial position.  Evelyn is forced to sell her flat to cover her husband's debts and moves to the film's eponymous hotel in India so she will not become a burden on her family.  While there, she must start over again and face new and exciting challenges, which she keeps a daily record of on her blog.  Evelyn gets a job working at a call center where she can advise her youthful colleagues how to better understand and effectively interact with British customers.  She befriends and advises a young Indian couple she has gotten to know on the joys and pitfalls of relationships.  She even falls in love with one of her married neighbors at the hotel, a relationship which allows Evelyn to truly and openly share her feelings and emotions with someone in a way she never did with her late husband.  In Dench's skillful hands, Evelyn blossoms in this new environment, as she welcomes new friends and potential romantic interests into her life.  She really carries this movie on her shoulders and proves to be as lovely and romantic a leading lady as the cinema has ever seen.

I recently read Dench's memoir "And Furthermore."  I thoroughly enjoyed it because it was everything a memoir should be.  She told good anecdotes about the making of the films she appeared in, while at the same time opened up a bit about her life so that the reader had an understanding as to who Judi Dench is as a human being.  She didn't stint on the personal or the professional aspects of her life in that book.  One anecdote that sticks out in my mind is the section dealing with why she acted in the Vin Diesel vehicle "The Chronicles of Riddick" (2004).  She explained how another film she was slated to appear in fell through, Diesel showed up backstage at a play she was appearing in with a bouquet of flowers and asked her to appear in his film, and she agreed to do it because she liked him.  Even though it is probably the worse film she has ever appeared in, Dench never denegrates it or the experience.  She simply says that she never understood the script while they were filming, and still does not understand the completed movie, but she was impressed with the sets and enjoyed working with her colleagues, and would never trade the experience for the world.  It was so refreshing to see her not take the easy way out and trash the movie, a critical and financial failure, when she easily could have.  Many other, lesser actors, have not shown such respectful tact and restraint in discussing some of the projects they've chosen to appear in.

A good friend, who is the daughter of an actress who has worked a lot in movies and TV, recently reiterated in a phone conversation how she hates all actors because the ones she grew up encountering turned out to be unjustifiably pompous and snooty (especially the New York "theater" actors).  My friend said "I think the only actress who has the right to be snooty is Judi Dench, because she's earned it.  But, somehow, I don't think she would be snooty because you never sense an attitude from her."  I agree.  Dench deserves to be haughty if she wants to be.  The fact that she chooses not to be proves to be her most endearing quality.  There is something about Dench that evokes a sense of warmth and humility in a way that Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson do not.  (Only Maggie Smith and Helen Mirren are also able to inspire that sense of awe and accessibility with audiences as Dench does.)  Dench also seems like she is someone who would be a good sport.  I recall an appearance on a British telethon during the 1980s where Joanna Lumley was asked to take off her dress by a caller who promised to make a huge donation.  You can see it on YouTube here.  My understanding is that, after the caller's donation pledge was independently verified, Lumley agreed to drop her knickers on-air while Dench, who sat nearby, reacted by delightedly clapping and laughing in a good-natured manner.  Dench clearly wasn't uptight or fazed by Lumley's provocative gesture.  So, during this notable week for Judi Dench, I wish her a Happy (belated) Birthday and I hope she enjoys the attention and accolades that her latest nominations have brought her.  I also hope that the Oscars follow suit and recognize her work in "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" with another well-deserved nomination.  With the help of her co-stars, as well as the script and direction, she brings depth and gravitas to what could have been a "cutesy" role and movie if it had been in the wrong hands.  In her many transcendent close-ups throughout that wonderful movie, Judi Dench truly glows as only the best movie stars do.

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