The Invincible Stubbornness of Judi Dench

The face of Dame Judi Dench

Some consider her one of the grand dames of modern motion picture acting. But when it comes to her actual performances, this celebrated Oscar winner is decidedly one note.

The members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are no different from any of us. They have their favorites. And with good reason when you consider actors like Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson. Some actors can almost guarantee their seats in the Kodak Theater come late winter when they’re firing on all cylinders. But just like any of us, the Academy can be irrational in its fancies. No one better illustrates this than Judi Dench. Last week, Dench received her sixth Oscar nomination in a decade, and each one has been for giving almost the exact same performance.

From Queen Victoria to Queen Elizabeth, M to Mrs. Henderson, Dench is roundly praised for her gravitas and skill. But she never really changes her on-screen presence. In nearly every role, she plays the imperious frump. It’s not just a matter of typecasting; it’s a weighty arrogance she imposes on so many of her roles, regardless of their requirements. And she’s not always given a role in which she can get away with her same old posturing.

It shines through clearly in Iris, a layered work in which Dench’s flat style was entirely inappropriate. In it, she's the older version of the title character played by Kate Winslet. Where Winslet takes chances, laying the groundwork, Dench is too prone to her standard performance to capture the brilliance or dementia of the noted author and Alzheimer's victim. Of all the roles for which Dench has been celebrated, it was downright distracting to see her in Iris. She was a square peg in a round hole.

All of which makes her most recent celebrated performance so funny. Notes on a Scandal sees her reunited with Iris director Richard Eyre, and once again paired with an actress willing to put herself in much riskier and more challenging positions: Cate Blanchett. Except this time, instead of being two occupants of the same character, Dench and her co-star are positioned as opposing forces of differing philosophies. The result is a brilliant joke at Dench’s expense.

Dench’s Barbara Covett narrates the story as diary entries from a curmudgeonly schoolteacher, stuck in her ways, too arrogant to respond to calls for change in her approach or self-examination. She passes judgment on others, alienating and intimidating her colleagues, but is tenured and revered for her strength and stature. When Blanchett’s Sheba Hart, an open, daring, and ultimately vulnerable instructor arrives at the school, we watch — with Barbara’s narration in our ears — as she imposes her will and scorn on Sheba, simultaneously attempting to woo and destroy her.

The story is emblematic of Dench and Blanchett themselves, each representing separate schools of thought. Dench is the obtrusive monument of an actor, merely showing up and posturing the same way she does in every other role, while Blanchett adapts toward the vision of the larger project. The joke here is that the movie is built in such a way that Dench, by habitually not adapting or changing her standard performance, fits her role perfectly. And as a result, she unwittingly pokes great fun at herself. Yet once again, her turn is celebrated as one of the year’s great performances, it is nominated for an Oscar, and deemed another triumph from a great actress. Go figure.

It says a lot about movie audiences and critics that the same qualities that make Dench a less than stellar actor are the very elements that draw people to her. It’s indicative of the way we Americans view British actors, and of how the British view their own stage icons. The fact that her assumptive acting style is such a product of the theater, that she’s been around so long, and that she’s known as “Dame Judi”, not just plain old Judi Dench, seems to affect people’s judgment.

It’s the same thing that often happens with Sir Ian McKellan, or that happened to a previous generation with Sir Laurence Olivier, for that matter. Legends of the stage aren’t necessarily great screen actors. These actors are perennially praised for their film work for possessing great presence and majesty. But while McKellan has delivered strong work in select movies like Gods and Monsters, recent years have seen him give the same performance repeatedly. Take X-Men or Lord of the Rings. The man is essentially a walking, talking prop, now. We see much of the same phenomenon stateside with Morgan Freeman’s ironed-out mannerisms, and we love him for it. Stature often blinds us to actual quality. But Dench offers the least effort for her fame and import.

Movie snobs like to dismiss movie stars as being marketing vehicles, packaged personalities that carry their celebrity stature from project to project, corrupting any chance for art. Then they go to the year’s prestige pictures to see people like Dench lend their own prepackaged personae to notionally higher-minded material and never give it a second thought, even if someone like Dench is every bit as predictable as Julia Roberts. We’re all guilty of the same sin. Familiarity and fandom make us all look silly when it comes to judging actors. And the Academy is no different. This may be an indictment of performers like Dench, but not nearly as much as it is an indictment of how and whom we choose to honor and celebrate.

But this year, with Notes on a Scandal, at least we have a fun new way of looking at the same old Dench. As the best actress in a leading category comes up, we can watch Dench smile politely as she is denied her second Oscar win, most likely for Helen Mirren’s superior delivery of Dench’s own royalty routine. Then we can imagine her going home, opening her diary, and reliving her horror at the openness of Blanchett, Winslet, and the room's other nominees - like Forrest Whitaker. And she will write with great venom on the scandalous nature of actors who deign to actually act.

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