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Judi Dench has long been considered one of the finest British actresses. Now 88, Dench has been acting since the late ‘50s, and she’s reached living legend status (she even has the honor of being a Dame to prove it!). Dench’s quiet intensity has long set her apart, and she brings instant gravitas to any movie she appears in. Only Dame Judi could play Queen Elizabeth (in Shakespeare in Love, the movie that won her an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress), and James Bond’s boss (her role as the mysterious M in eight Bond movies exposed her to a bigger audience than ever before).
Because Dench has been around for so long, and broke out in the US relatively late in her career, you may not know her origin story. Over her impressive six decades in show business, Dench has gone from a young ingenue to the (literal!) grand Dame of British cinema. Here’s a look back at Judi Dench young, and how she began her singular career.
Judi Dench’s early days
Before she was a movie star, Judi Dench established herself as a prominent stage actress. Born in 1934, she had her stage debut in 1957, playing Ophelia in Hamlet.
Dench became highly regarded as a Shakespearean performer, and went on to play Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, Lady Macbeth in Macbeth, Titania in A Midsummer Night's Dream and more. She's even written an upcoming book (available in the US in April 2024) about her long experience with Shakespeare, pithily titled Shakespeare: The Man Who Pays the Rent.
While Dench made her name as a serious, dedicated performer capable of playing some of the most iconic stage roles of all time, she's refreshingly unpretentious about her craft. You might expect her to have an elaborate description of her rituals as an actress, but nope!
As she writes in her book, "I need to be distracted and busy myself — play cards, go for a walk, swim, anything, in order to do the work. I need to leave it to my subconscious and trust that the internal engine is making adjustments and processing everything."
Clearly, Dench is a natural performer, and the fact that she's always let her subconscious do the work has made her one of the rare actresses who consistently delivers great performances without overacting.
She's also refreshingly honest about failure, writing, "I believe you need to give yourself permission to fail during the performance, and to take risks. You obviously can’t vary things so much that you unseat the other actors, and you have to remain within the framework created by the director, but you must be open to new things each night. Because it’s only through failure, and trial and error, that you discover your performance."
Judi Dench taking on the small screen
In the late '50s and early '60s, Dench began appearing in British TV shows and TV movies, often playing Shakespearean roles. While Dench has always excelled in Shakespeare plays, she also proved she could perform just as well in musical roles when she played the decadent entertainer Sally Bowles in Cabaret in 1968. Dench may have described herself as "not a singer at all," but the role helped expose her to a wider audience, and soon enough she'd start building up her movie career.
Judi Dench in the '70s and '80s
In 1971, Judi Dench married fellow actor Michael Williams. They had a daughter, Tara Cressida "Finty" Williams, in 1972, who would also end up becoming an actress. Dench and Williams stayed married until his death in 2001.
Dench kept acting in movies, TV shows and plays throughout the '70s and '80s, and while she was an acclaimed performer, she wasn't yet well-known to American audiences since the majority of her roles were in British productions.
More literary audiences began to recognize her through her parts in onscreen Shakespeare adaptations and prestigious films based on classic novels, like A Room With a View. While she already had an impressive list of achievements to the name, she wouldn't become a Hollywood star until the '90s, when she was in her 60s.
Judi Dench in Hollywood
When Judi Dench started acting in Hollywood movies and becoming more popular among mainstream audiences in the US, she already had decades of experience. In 1995, she played M in the James Bond movie GoldenEye.
This role won her broad popularity (even among viewers who didn't know their Shakespeare!) and she'd go on to act in mainstream movies like Shakespeare in Love, Chocolat, Pride & Prejudice, Notes on a Scandal, My Week With Marilyn, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Belfast.
Judi Dench is one of the rare actresses to achieve superstardom as a mature woman, and we love her for it. For decades, Dench has stuck to her signature pixie cut, and she's aged with incredible grace, bringing a quiet intelligence and authority to every role.
She's said, "I don’t want to be told I’m too old to try something... I want to see for myself if I can’t do it rather than be told you might have a fall or you can’t learn your lines. Let me have a go. Let us all have a go.” We think those are words to live by, and will happily watch her play a Shakespeare heroine, a James Bond character, a 19th -century literary character, a grandma, or just about anything else.
Read on for more about our favorite actresses!