Great elders of the world: Judi Dench
Dame Judi Dench has lived a life as rich as her reeling list of awards. Her poise and eloquent voice onscreen are as recognisable as the legendary societies who have honoured her, such as the Royal Society of the Arts.
From the moment she could speak, Dame Judi was surrounded by a goldfield of talent and prestige. One way or another, she was destined for greatness.
A star among stars
Throughout her career, Dame Judi kept her birth name -- Judith Olivia Dench. Born in Yorkshire in 1934 to a Dorset-based doctor named Reginald, her parents met while studying together at Trinity College in Dublin.
In York, Dench became a Quaker as a child while learning at the Quakers’ independent Mount School. She says it still greatly influences her work, for instance:
Once during Arbuzov’s The Promise, she suggested to Sir Ian McKellen that they pretend God, Christ and the Holy Spirit were sitting in the front row. She says Sir Ian answered, “Surely we’ll only need one seat rather than three?”
Her brother Jeffrey, older by six years, seems to have begun his own acting career in George Bernard Shaw’s Cleopatra, before acting among the stars in the Royal Shakespeare Company. He sadly died in 2014 at a respectable 85 years.
Dench, like her brother, threw herself into theatre work with mighty ambition. She stood out from others by constantly acting and making herself known. In the 1950s, Alec McCowen’s father called her the Mighty Atom. He saw her as a source of inextinguishable energy that simply kept working.
When she made herself so present, the British theatre could not deny Dench. She soon began her professional career as Ophelia in the Old Vic Production Company’s Hamlet in 1957. After four years with the Old Vic, she began a 30-year journey with the Royal Shakespeare Company.
By this point, Dench had featured in five television series including a recurring role as Katherine, Princess of France in An Age of Kings. It was a precedent for the larger than life roles, and accolades, to come.
Dench’s first British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) award came when she played a wife in the 1965 film Four in the Morning. She was welcomed into the Order of the British Empire (OBE) five years’ later, with her reputation a fraction of what it would become. In 1988 she would become a Dame Commander.
Dame Judi was the silver monolith of talent that people came to know through Hollywood, and her reputation solidified itself after her damehood. From 1992 she worked her way quickly into international fame on the TV program As Time Goes By, acting as Jean Hardcastle for 13 years.
During this time, the world recognised Dame Judi’s atomic power. In 1996 she was the first person to win two Lawrence Olivier awards for Best Actress. She won her first Oscar for Shakespeare in Love in 1998. In 1999, she won a Tony Award for her stage work in Amy’s View.
Since then there have been a further seven Academy Award nominations, two Golden Globes, four Lawrence Olivier Awards and nine BAFTA awards. She received her Fellowship in the Royal Society of the Arts in 2006. The British Film Institute awarded her a Fellowship in 2011.
The year after receiving her OBE, in 1971, she married the actor Michael Williams. Like many Hollywood couples they were known for acting together, though their onscreen romance seems to have stayed in Europe. The British TV series A Fine Romance casted cast them as the couple Mike and Laura. In 1999’s Tea with Mussolini, Dame Judi took the main spot while Williams played a British consul.
Michael and Judi’s marriage produced one daughter, the actress Finty Williams.
A voice for change
With big roles and big accolades, her heart has grown accordingly. Dame Judi has spent a great amount of energy fighting prejudice against older actors.
Younger producers have a tendency to worry that their elders will forget lines or have a fall, Dame Judi told the Hollywood Reporter. She feels that this prejudice comes before the actors have time to prove themselves.
“I want to see for myself if I can’t do it ... Let me have a go. Let us all have a go.”
Celebrating her 84th birthday on December 9, she noted that a long time has passed since she felt conscious of her age, or saw it as a negative.
“I got really upset when I was 40, and I was all right after that. It’s that old thing: You are only as old as you feel.”
The effects of age have not stopped Dame Judi. Macular degeneration has caused one of her eyes to dry, so that she has to have her lines read to her. After this and a 2013 knee surgery, life has gone on for Dame Judi without incident.
Through charity work she supports oppressed people around the world, with a focus on Indians. This includes the large social class known as Dalit or ‘untouchables’.
Dame Judi is a patron of Women Against Lung Cancer. She supports organisations dealing with Alzheimer’s, leukaemia and women’s and children’s rights.
Queen of stage and screen
The Guardian once noted that Americans treat Dame Judi as an extension of the royal family. This can be seen in the way Hollywood positions her, as a Shakespearean monarch and the mentor to James Bond.
In 2017 Dame Judi played Queen Victoria in Victoria & Abdul. While most people at her age are settling down to enjoy their retirement, she naturally busies herself with a queenly sum of work.
Dame Judi has many similarities to the long-lived monarch. The most obvious are her tirelessness and long life, which have made her a respected elder to all types of actors. She has seen herself become a prolific force of history in her own lifetime. The other is widowhood.
After Michael Williams’ tragic death of lung cancer in 2001, Dame Judi did not remarry. She has been in a relationship with the conservationist David Mills since 2010, but says she made no attempt to find love. It seems to have found her.
After eight years, she and Mills are simply ‘chaps’. She refuses to call Mills a partner. Dame Judi seems content to live with her own name, a name bearing a crowded hoard of honours that hardly any man could match.
Currently Dame Judi’s niece Emma is a professor emeritus of Ancient Roman history at Harvard University. Her daughter Finty Williams has had a long career on stage, screen and radio.
In a Guardian interview, Dame Judi remembered her late husband’s advice to her.
“My Michael once said to me, ‘You can't ever be more than you are as a person. He felt that whatever anger, hate, lust and so on you presented had to come from within you’.”
At first, Dame Judi said, she strongly disagreed in her Victorian sense of independence. But she went on to learn that everything acted must come from personal emotions and a richness of personal experience.
Then, as the great Queen liked to do, she made a bawdy joke about it to the journalist. She once gave the author of her film Amy’s View a cushion embroidered with insults aimed at his critics.
Dame Judi’s story is centred around largesse. She was born into a family that simply excelled wherever they went. She has had a huge amount of energy since her beginnings, which has made hers a life of grandiose roles and recognition.
Dame Judi is one of those people who we know will be remembered forever, yet is available for us to observe while she’s alive. And how alive she is.
Main image credit: shutterstock.com
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