In “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” Judi Dench and Maggie Smith take second place to no male actors and can certainly claim much of the credit for that quirky independent comedy’s $115, 745,000 worldwide box office gross (as of June 15.) In the movie and television world that thrives far beneath the tent poles of “Avengers” and “Transformers,” these two English actresses have become marquee names.
France has always embraced Females of a Certain Age, but Hollywood has put them out to pasture long before they were eligible for Medicare. Elderly male movie stars have thrived, from Edward G. Robinson, who co-starred as the detective partner of Charlton Heston in the sci-fi mystery thriller “Soylent Green” the year he died at the age of 79, to Jack Nicholson (75), Dustin Hoffman (74), Anthony Hopkins (74) who is in pre-production on four movies; and Harrison Ford (69), who is currently filming “Ender’s Game” and starring in “42” as Branch Rickey, the Dodger executive who broke Major League Baseball’s color line by hiring Jackie Robinson.
At the age of 77, Judi Dench has rarely been more in demand. And if James Bond would have taken his revenge in “Quantum of Solace” to a $586 million worldwide gross without Dench, casting that Oscar winner as the first female head of Her Majesty’s Secret Service in the Bond movies since “GoldenEye” in 1995 is “value added.” That fact has not been lost on the maker of Bond video games, since Dench was recruited to play the voice of M, the code name for every chief of intelligence, even in the 2010 video game not based on a movie, “Blood Stone.” And Acorn Media is trumpeting the release on DVD of her 1982 miniseries, “Love in a Cold Climate,” based on Nancy Mitford’s satiric novels about frivolous society girls whiling away the early 1930s at fancy dress balls and English country houses.
Maggie Smith, three weeks younger, has her own mini-series triumph in “Downton Abbey.” The third season of that Masterpiece Theatre blockbuster starts next January with Shirley MacLaine, who just turned 78 and has five movies in production or pre-production, joining the cast as a foil to Smith’s Dowager Duchess of Grantham. (Smith has her own voiceover resume, including 2011’s “Gnomeo and Juliet.”) Smith will next star as the new resident in a home for retired opera singers, a diva who disturbs the quiet rhythm of the house in the comedy/drama “Quartet,” which is now in post production and was directed by Dustin Hoffman.
Dench’s next Bond movie, “Skyfall,” is also in post-production, and she is currently filming “Better Living Through Chemistry,” in which a rather dull pharmacist gets pulled into a whirl of sex, drugs, and, possibly, murder. And she has just joined Jude Law and Daniel Radcliffe in a new London theatre company which aims to attract new young theatergoers by offering low priced tickets to a five-play season. Dench will star as Alice Liddell Hargreaves, the woman who was the real Alice in Wonderland in "Peter and Alice," a new play by John Logan, the Tony-winning writer of "Red."
The movies have now discovered that women in the same age range can mean serious box office. No one could ever claim that the $7.7 billion earned by the Harry Potter movies are due to Smith’s fierce defender of Harry, Hogwarts’ Professor McGonagall. But no one can deny the “value added” by the two-time Oscar winner, especially as she survives in the chaotic battle of “Harry Potter and the Deadly Hallows, Part 2.”
The value they add to the baby boomers who are now going to the movies in surprising numbers augers well for the hard-working major female movie stars coming up behind them –Helen Mirren, 67 ("The Queen," "The Debt," "Red"), Glenn Close, 65 ("Albert Nobbs"); Susan Sarandon, 65 ("Stepmom," "Jeff, Who Lives at Home"); and Meryl Streep, who will be 63 on June 22 ( "The Iron Lady," "Mamma Mia!," and 'The Devil Wears Prada").