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The reigning queen of understatement

By Christopher Andreae / April 5, 1999



I can't be certain, of course, since my invitation to the Academy Award ceremonies must have vanished somewhere between Hollywood and Glasgow. But I suspect that when Dame Judi Dench was presented with her Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, nobody mentioned her definitive 1972 rendering of "First Field Mouse," "a Brave Stoat," and "Mother Rabbit."

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Dame Judi has, after all, progressed to mightier matters. The Oscar was for this English actress's impressive (but very brief) portrayal in "Shakespeare in Love" of a Queen Elizabeth apparently modeled on the formidable Red Queen in "Alice Through the Looking Glass."

Dame Judi herself was the personification of modest dignity as she accepted her award. But afterward she did muse philosophically that now she may become a little better known in America. It seems that in Hollywood she kept being asked what else she had done apart from "M" (in the 1995 Bond movie "GoldenEye"), Queen Victoria (in 1997's "Mrs. Brown,"), and Queen Elizabeth.

She could have mentioned her animal roles in "Toad of Toad Hall" (the stage dramatization of "The Wind in the Willows"). But in surveying the broad sweep of her remarkable achievements over a period of four decades in classic theater, on TV and, yes, even in films (she has done 17 to date), she may have overlooked her "Mother Rabbit."

From here in Britain, it seems a bit strange that an actress at the pinnacle of her profession, acclaimed for decades by fellow actors and critics as one of the greats, is so little known in the United States. But there is an insularity about British theater. It is based on a conviction that Britain is the center of the theatrical world - just as Hollywood is convinced it is the center of the film world.

Dench's recent biographer, John Miller, mentions her difficulty in understanding another British actor's desire to work in the US when he was already established at the epicenter. It might be said that Britain's attitude toward Hollywood - though some British actors have achieved recognition there - is not unlike our attitude toward languages other than English. Rather than learning to speak them, we continue to speak English in all its richness, variety, and usefulness, sure that in the end our language will be recognized by everyone as the best.

Absurd, naturally. But it works, doesn't it?

This is not just pure arrogance, but a question of being true to oneself. And "being true to oneself" is a phrase perfectly suited to the Dench approach to life and to acting. This does not mean she is no character actor. Indeed, she is. More than most, she has the capacity to entirely serve her part and disappear into it. Her Victoria and her Elizabeth, though both English queens, could hardly be more different. She has never sought to be the old kind of star who, whatever she played, was always primarily playing herself. In fact, in spite of an ambitious daring that persistently tries the untried, she has not gone out to be a "star" at all.

Miller's biography, compelling reading for anyone intrigued by actors and acting, shows Dench above all to be a "company actress." She has played hosts of leading roles. But she has a Quaker sense of family that applies to whatever group of actors she works with, no less than to her own family.

Her work in film has often been "supporting." But her willingness to take such apparently minor roles is characteristic. She was unforgettable in "84 Charing Cross Road" (1987) in a minuscule part as the bookseller's wife. She conveys deep emotion without a word in such a role. She understands - in ways that nobody can quite fathom - the potent communications of silence.

She has in Britain gained a largely new audience in recent years with two television sitcoms. The second, "As Time Goes By," has run for seven years, with audiences averaging 7.5 million. This understated series (it's on most PBS stations in the US; check local listings for day and time) reduces plot to a minimum. Even the characters are of minimal interest - virtually stereotypes. She plays a woman of a certain age and class, that's all. The fascination lies in the quiet (mostly) subtlety of the acting. By that I do not mean "performance," at least not in any noticeable sense. This is her forte, even on stage. She seems "real," disarmingly untheatrical, down-to-earth, sensible, ordinary. With barely a look, scarcely a word, she can move others from one contrasting mood to another, like British weather. It sounds corny, but her moods change from laughter to tears and back as if it is you rather than she who is having these feelings.

I never saw her as Mother Rabbit. I wish I had. So much in theater is lost. But I bet she was the most sympathetic Mother Rabbit ever.

*Judi Dench will star in 'Amy's View' on Broadway. The show opens April 15 for a limited run.