The Biography: Dame Judi Dench

Dame Judi Dench turns 82 today! Happy Birthday M, Queen, Philomena, Evelyn… Happy many returns Judi!!

Judi Dench was born in Yorkshire. Her mother, Eleanora Olive, was born in Dublin. Her father, Reginald Arthur Dench, a doctor, was born in Dorset, and later moved to Dublin, where he was raised. He met Dench’s mother while he was studying medicine at Trinity College, Dublin.

Judi Dench attended The Mount School, a Quaker independent secondary school in York, and became a Quaker. Her brothers were born in Lancashire. Her niece, Emma Dench, is a Roman historian and professor previously at Birkbeck, University of London, and currently at Harvard University.

In Britain, Dench has developed a reputation as one of the greatest actresses of the post-war period, primarily through her work in theatre, which has been her forte throughout her career. She has more than once been named number one in polls for Britain’s best actress.

Through her parents, Dench had regular contact with the theatre. Her father was also the GP for the York theatre, and her mother was its wardrobe mistress. Actors often stayed in the Dench household. During these years, Judi was involved on a non-professional basis in the first three productions of the modern revival of the York Mystery Plays in the 1950s. In 1957, in one of the last productions in which she appeared during this period, she played the role of the Virgin Mary. Though she initially trained as a set designer, she became interested in drama school and she attended the Central School of Speech and Drama.

In September 1957, she made her first professional stage appearance with the Old Vic Company in Liverpool, as Ophelia in Hamlet. Dench then made her London debut in the same production at the Old Vic. She remained a member of the company for four seasons, 1957–1961, her roles including Katherine in Henry V in 1958 (which was also her New York debut). During this period, she toured the United States and Canada, and appeared in Yugoslavia and at the Edinburgh Festival. She joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in December 1961 playing Anya in The Cherry Orchard  in London, and made her Stratford-upon-Avon debut in April 1962 as Isabella in Measure for Measure. That same year, she made her film debut in The Third Secret.

The 1966 BAFTA Award for Most Promising Newcomer to Leading Film Roles was made to Dench for her performance in Four in the Morning and this was followed in 1968 by a BAFTA Television Best Actress Award for her role in John Hopkins’ 1966 BBC drama Talking to a Stranger.

In 1968, she was offered the role of Sally Bowles in the musical Cabaret. As Sheridan Morley later reported: «At first she thought they were joking. She had never done a musical and she has an unusual croaky voice which sounds as if she has a permanent cold. So frightened was she of singing in public that she auditioned from the wings, leaving the pianists alone on stage». But she did it. Well. Very well.

After a long run in Cabaret, she rejoined the RSC making numerous appearances with the company in Stratford and London for nearly twenty years, winning several “best actress” awards. Among her roles with the RSC, she was the Duchess in John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi in 1971.

Dench was nominated for a BAFTA for her role as Hazel Wiles in the 1979 BBC drama On Giant’s Shoulders. In 1989, she was cast as Pru Forrest, the long-time silent wife of Tom Forrest, in the BBC soap opera The Archers on its 10,000th edition.

After the long period between James Bond films Licence to Kill (1989) and GoldenEye (1995), the producers brought in Dench to take over as the role of M, James Bond’s boss. The character was reportedly modeled on Dame Stella Rimington, the real-life head of MI5 between 1992 and 1996; Dench became the first woman to portray M, succeeding Robert Brown. The seventeenth spy film in the series and the first to star Pierce Brosnan as the fictional MI6 officer, GoldenEye marked the first Bond film made after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, which provided the plot’s back story. The film earned a worldwide gross of US$350.7 million, with critics viewing the film as a modernisation of the series.

In 1997, Dench appeared in her first starring film role as Queen Victoria in John Madden’s teleplay Mrs Brown which depicts Victoria’s relationship with her personal servant and favourite John Brown. Filmed with the intention of being shown on BBC One and on WGBH’s Masterpiece Theatre, it was eventually acquired by Miramax mogul Harvey Weinstein, who felt the drama film should receive a theatrical release after seeing it and took it from the BBC to US cinemas. Released to generally positive reviews and unexpected commercial success, going on to earn more than $13 million worldwide, the film was screened in the Un Certain Regard section at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival. For her performance, Dench garnered universal acclaim by critics and was awarded her fourth BAFTA and first Best Actress nomination at the 70th Academy Awards.

Dench’s other film of 1997 was Roger Spottiswoode’s Tomorrow Never Dies, her second film in the James Bond series. The spy film follows Bond, played by Brosnan, as he tries to stop a media mogul from engineering world events and starting World War III. Shot in France, Thailand, Germany, the United Kingdom, Vietnam and the South China Sea, it performed well at the box office and earned a Golden Globe nomination despite mixed reviews. The same year, Dench reteamed with director John Madden to film Shakespeare in Love (1998), a romantic comedy-drama that depicts a love affair involving playwright William Shakespeare, played by Joseph Fiennes, while he was writing the play Romeo and Juliet. On her performance as Queen Elizabeth I, The New York Times commented that «Dench’s shrewd, daunting Elizabeth is one of the film’s utmost treats.» The following year, she was nominated for most of the high-profile awards, winning both the Academy Award and the BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role.  On her Oscar win, Dench joked on-stage, «I feel for eight minutes on the screen I should only get a little bit of him.»

Also in 1999, Dench won the Tony Award for her 1999 Broadway performance in the role of Esme Allen in Sir David Hare’s Amy’s View. The same year, she co-starred along with Cher, Joan Plowright, Maggie Smith, and Lily Tomlin in Franco Zeffirelli’s semi-autobiographical period drama Tea with Mussolini. In 1999 also saw the release of Pierce Brosnan’s third Bond film, The World is Not Enough. This film portrayed M in a larger role with the main villain, Renard, coming back to haunt her when he engineers the murder of her old friend Sir Robert King and seemingly attempts to kill his daughter Electra.

In January 2001, Dench’s husband Michael Williams died from lung cancer. Dench went to Nova Scotia, Canada, almost immediately after Williams’s funeral to begin production on Lasse Hallström’s drama film The Shipping News, a therapy she later credited as her rescue: «People, friends, kept saying,’ You are not facing up to it; you need to face up to it’, and maybe they were right, but I felt I was – in the acting. Grief supplies you with an enormous amount of energy. I needed to use that up.»  In between, Dench finished work on Richard Eyre’s film Iris (2001), in which she portrayed novelist Iris Murdoch. Dench shared her role with Kate Winslet, both actresses portraying Murdoch at different phases of her life.Each of them was nominated for an Academy Award the following year, earning Dench her fourth nomination within five years. In addition, she was awarded both an ALFS Award and the Best Leading Actress Award at the 55th British Academy Film Awards.

Following Iris, Dench immediately returned to Canada to finish The Shipping News alongside Kevin Spacey and Julianne Moore.

In 2002, Dench was cast opposite Rupert Everett, Colin Firth and Reese Witherspoon in Oliver Parker’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Dench’s other film of 2002 was Die Another Day, the twentieth installment in the James Bond series. The Lee Tamahori–directed spy film marked her fourth appearance as MI6 head M and the franchise’s last performance by Pierce Brosnan as Bond. Die Another Day received generally mixed reviews by critics who praised Tamahori’s work on the film, but claimed the plot was damaged by excessive use of CGI.

In 2004, Dench appeared as Aereon, an ambassador of the Elemental race who helps uncover the mysterious past of Richard B. Riddick, played by Vin Diesel, in David Twohy’s science fiction sequel, The Chronicles of Riddick.

She followed Riddick with a more traditional role in Charles Dance’s English drama Ladies in Lavender, also starring friend Maggie Smith.

A major hit for Dench came with Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice, a 2005 adaptation of the novel by Jane Austen, starring Keira Knightley and Donald Sutherland.

Dench, in her role as M, was the only cast member carried through from the Brosnan films to appear in Casino Royale (2006), Martin Campbell’s reboot of the James Bond film series, starring Daniel Craig in his debut performance as the fictional MI6 agent. The thriller received largely positive critical response, with reviewers highlighting Craig’s performance and the reinvention of the character of Bond.

In April 2006, Dench returned to the West End stage in Hay Fever alongside Peter Bowles, Belinda Lang and Kim Medcalf. She finished off 2006 with the role of Mistress Quickly in the RSC’s new musical The Merry Wives, a version of The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Dench appeared opposite Cate Blanchett as a London teacher with a dedicated fondness for vulnerable women in Richard Eyre’s 2006 drama film Notes on a Scandal, an adaption from the 2003 novel of the same name by Zoë Heller. A fan of Heller’s book, Dench «was thrilled to be asked to play that woman, to try to find a humanity in that dreadful person.» The specialty film opened to generally positive reviews and commercial success, grossing US$50 million worldwide. The following year, Dench earned her sixth Academy nomination and went on to win a BIFA Award and an Evening Standard Award.

Her only film of 2008 was Marc Forster’s Quantum of Solace, the twenty-second Eon-produced James Bond film, in which she reprised her role as M along with Daniel Craig. A direct sequel to the 2006 film Casino Royale, Forster felt Dench was underused in the previous films, and wanted to make her part bigger, having her interact with Bond more.

Dench returned to the West End in mid-2009, playing Madame de Montreuil  directed by Michael Grandage as part of the Donmar season at Wyndham’s Theatre. The same year, she appeared in Sally Potter’s experimental film Rage, a project that featured 14 actors playing fictional figures in and around the fashion world, giving monologues before a plain backdrop.  Her next film was Rob Marshall’s musical film Nine where she performs the song “Folies Bergères”.

Also in 2009, Dench reprised the role of Matilda Jenkyns in Return to Cranford, the two-part second season of a Simon Curtis television series.

In 2011, Dench starred in Jane Eyre, My Week with Marilyn and J. Edgar. The same year, Dench reunited with Rob Marshall and Johnny Depp for a cameo appearance in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, playing a noblewoman who is robbed by Captain Jack Sparrow She made a second cameo that year in Ray Cooney’s Run for Your Wife.[80]

In 2011, Dench reunited with director John Madden on the set of the comedy-drama The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2012).

Also in 2012, Friend Request Pending, an indie short film which Dench had filmed in 2011, received a wide release as part of the feature films Stars in Shorts and The Joy of Six.

Dench made her seventh and final appearance as M in the twenty-third James Bond film, Skyfall (2012), directed by Sam Mendes. Critics called Dench’s Saturn Awards-nominated performance «compellingly luminous».

In 2013, Dench starred as the title character in the Stephen Frears directed film, Philomena, a filmed inspired by true events of a woman looking for the son which the Catholic Church took from her a half-century before.

In January 2014, principal photography began in Jaipur on The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel with Dench reprising the role of Evelyn. The film was released in March 2015. In October 2014 she began filming as Cecily, Duchess of York to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Richard III in the second series of The Hollow Crown.

From 24 April 2015 to 7 May 2015; Dench played a mother, with her real-life daughter Finty Williams playing her character’s daughter, in The Vote at the Donmar Warehouse.

She reprised her role as M in the 2015 James Bond film, Spectre, in the form of a recording that was delivered to Bond.

Dench was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1970 and Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in 1988. She was appointed Member of the Order of the Companions of Honour (CH) in 2005. In June 2011, she became a fellow of the British Film Institute (BFI).


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