Dame Judi Dench is poised to have a very happy new year. She is certainly no stranger to awards, but there could be more in her immediate future. She’s had 6 Oscar nominations and one win as 1998 Supporting Actress for an eight minute role in Shakespeare In Love. There are also 11 Golden Globe nominations and two wins. And then the British superstar can also boast of an astounding 25 BAFTA nominations and 10 wins split between her film and television work — the most recent coming for her final appearance as M opposite James Bond in 2012’s Skyfall. So what does she need another one for?
The fact is she’s back in awards contention in a big way again this season in Philomena, another signature role as Philomena Lee, a true life story of a woman who had to give up her young child for adoption in the Irish orphanage where she worked — only to search for him 50 years later and discover some startling truths along the way. She’s already racked up SAG, Globe and Critics Choice Movie Award nominations for the crowd-pleasing film (which also has a Best Drama Picture bid at the Globes too) and seems a sure thing for another go at the Oscars when nominations are announced January 16th. This would be her fifth nod (in addition to Mrs. Brown, Iris, Mrs. Henderson Presents, Notes On A Scandal) as actress in a leading role , quite a feat for a performer at any age but particularly one who just turned 79 years old earlier this month. A win would make her the second oldest ever (after Driving Miss Daisy’s Jessica Tandy) to nab the Best Actress Oscar.
Dench has battled some health issues in recent years including knee surgery earlier in 2013. There has also been some age-related macular degeneration — an eyesight problem that makes it difficult to read scripts — so someone actually reads them to her. But she’s not going blind as some press reports speculated. In fact for the role in Philomena, it was co-writer, co-producer and eventual co-star Steve Coogan who read his script aloud for her. After that she couldn’t resist the role. Coogan plays Martin Sixsmith , the journalist who helped Philomena in the search for her son. Like Dench , both have gotten raves in the Stephen Frears-directed film which is being released here by The Weinstein Company after it bought the movie during the Cannes Film Festival in May. And though Weinstein is sporting a long list of contenders this year including Fruitvale Station, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom and August: Osage County, I think it is the more modest charmer Philomena that represents their strongest shot to compete again in the Best Picture race in which TWC always seems to have a horse or two. I have talked to numerous Academy voters and this is one they all seem to agree on. It’s a tough year, but I’d be surprised if the film is left off the list. In any event Dench is a certainty.
Coogan is the one who has tirelessly been on the awards circuit promoting the film since its Venice Film Festival premiere in early September (Dench attended after recovering just enough from the knee surgery), but Dame Judi was more than willing to get on the phone from England earlier in the week to discuss the film, the challenge and responsibility she felt in portraying a real-life person who is still very much around to judge the authenticity of the project. “She is completely something else, really an extraordinary woman,” Dench said. “This is someone’s very personal story and she was very private about the story. She said to me she never even dreamt it would be a book, much less a film. So we felt a huge responsibility in order to tell it in her way, a way she would think is right and correct and not overblowing it into anything that it isn’t, but not underplaying it either.” She added that she met Lee when she first went for a makeup and wig test and had lunch with her in order to be sure she was getting it just right.
“I just wanted to come face to face with the person I was going to play. You can read one thing and you can interpret the script in the entirely wrong way and I just wanted to get the sense of her, and hear her and listen to her and watch her and take her in, hear the words in her own mouth,” Dench said, indicating it was an invaluable meeting. Dench says they were understandably very nervous about Philomena’s reaction to the film and said she was quite numb the first time she saw it. But the spry 80 year old who has her name in the title has seen it several times since, and Dench says she is very pleased with the way it has turned out. Though some UK press in particular tried to say it was a polemic against the Catholic Church, the star says that’s the last thing it is about. She believes ultimately it is a move about unshakeable faith.
Dench has high praise not only for Coogan (“he does it all”) but also her director Frears, who is not a guy who appears very verbal. “He’s a man of monosyllables — that’s Stephen,” she said. “You feel a movie is like a huge liner on the sea and you know somebody is on the bridge with their hands on whatever it is you steer with. I have worked with Stephen four times now (including her Oscar-nominated Mrs. Henderson Presents) and you just feel he’s in charge. It’s extremely pleasurable. He’s terribly funny. He’s more monosyllabic than he’s ever been but he’s just a joy to work with. At the end of a shot he might say ‘Do you want to do it again?’ which means he’d like to do it again. I know that now. I love it that he underplays himself,” she laughs.
Another good-luck director for Dench is John Madden (Mrs. Brown, Shakespeare In Love) and she leaves Saturday to re- unite with him and the original cast of 2012’s surprise international hit The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel for the sequel. Who ever dreamed there would be a Best Exotic Marigold Hotel with a 2 in the title??? It grossed over $135 million — not bad for a movie with a very senior cast. She’s very excited to revisit it. “It didn’t get very good notices here (England). They were rather sniffy about it but it has gone so wonderfully well. I am thrilled that it has. We’re there with a lot of friends, and John Madden, and it’s India and it’s winter here. Not much to complain about, is there?” she said. After that the busy Dench will co-star with Dustin Hoffman in Esio Trot, a comedy based on a Roald Dahl story. She won’t be in the next Bond film, though, (SPOILER ALERT!) after being shockingly killed off in Skyfall. She played M seven times beginning with Goldeneye in 1995 and said it was good fun. “It was very very good to have so many gadgets and things like that which are totally beyond me but I could pretend for a moment that I could work it all, ” she laughed.
If anyone can “work it all” it would seem to be Dame Judi Dench.