On December 9, 1934 a baby girl was born to Eleanora and Dr. Reginald Dench of Heworth Green, York. They christened her Judith Olivia. And as amateur actors, they nurtured her interest in performing from the time she was a snail in a primary school play.
“I remember I had a brown romper suit on and brown tights and my father made me an enormous shell,” Dame Judi revealed to the Hollywood Reporter a couple of years ago. “All I had to do was crawl across the stage under this shell.”
With that performance, she launched a stage and screen career that’s spanned six decades and earned her 11 BAFTAs, an Oscar and a Golden Globe. And although she’s just celebrated her 85th birthday – and her vision is gradually failing from macular degeneration – aging’s travails don’t keep Dame Judi from her beloved craft.
That’s not surprising, considering how she rebounded from the worst audition of her entire life.
At the time, she was a young actress with Britain’s Old Vic Repertory Company. Speaking of the film’s director in 2015, she told the Tonight show’s Jimmy Fallon:
“…and he said, ‘Well, it’s been very nice meeting you. But… I’m sorry, not this film. And probably not any film, because you have every single thing wrong with your face.’ Well, I got to do a few films after that, so I’m very pleased he was wrong.”
As are moviegoers everywhere! From her first modest role as an art gallery owner’s assistant in 1964’s The Third Secret, she slowly ascended the ranks of bankable stars until hitting the big time when cast as Queen Victoria in 1997’s Mrs. Brown.
That role led to her first Academy Award nomination. But her Oscar came the next year, for just eight minutes’ brilliant work in Shakespeare in Love! With the lines, “But I know something of a woman in a man’s profession. Yes, by God, I do know about that,” Dame Judi captured Elizabeth’s power and majesty as if she were born to the throne.
Her longest-running movie role – as M (the head of Britain’s fictional MI6 in Ian Fleming’s James Bond series) – spanned seven films from 1995 to 2015. She wept upon learning M was to die in Daniel Craig’s arms in Skyfall.
Since then, however, Dame Judi has worked through her loss with acclaimed efforts in the Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Philomena, Victoria and Abdul and Murder on the Orient Express. Her failing sight hasn’t sidelined her for a minute.
With adaptability only we aging ladies can appreciate, she’s stopped driving and relies on family or friends for transportation. And when she’s filming?
Her script pages are printed in extra-large font, she confesses, and she lets her acting talent do the rest: “On a film set you learn where everything is. It’s OK if you can get away with it. It’s all acting, after all. Fooling people. It’s what I do.”
Dame Judi continues to do it well enough to have landed the juicy part of Old Deuteronomy in the film version of the musical Cats, to be released December 20, 2019. It’s traditionally a male role, but that didn’t scare her.
After all, she does “know something of a woman in a man’s profession!”
What are your favorite Judi Dench films or stage performances? If you’re an older woman battling vision loss, how are you adjusting? Let’s have a conversation!