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Heroines of Cinema: How Judi Dench Became a Box-Office Phenomenon In 10 Easy Steps

Photo of Matthew Hammett Knott By Matthew Hammett Knott | Indiewire April 3, 2014 at 10:49AM

In the week "Philomena" crosses $100 million worldwide, Judi Dench once again confirms her status as a true box office draw.
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Skyfall Judi Dench

All last month, box office headlines were rightly trumpeting the success of “Frozen” in becoming the first $1 billion dollar animated movie (and the first woman-directed film to hit ten figures). But at the same time, there was a quieter and arguably even more spectacular milestone being crossed. As confirmed by Ben Roberts, one of the film’s production executives, “Philomena” has now crept over the $100 million mark in worldwide theatrical grosses. Following “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”s stunning $134 million tally in 2011, this marks the second time in three years that a film with 79-year old Judi Dench in the lead role has become a bona fide blockbuster. And that’s to say nothing of 2012’s “Skyfall”, another $1 billion-grossing film built around Dench’s character almost as much as its iconic hero.

It’s safe to say that no actress in history has held the box office clout beyond the age of 70 that Judi Dench currently possesses. But how did she get there? While it’s clearly a gross simplification to reduce it to ten easy steps, it is nonetheless apparent that Dench’s staggering popularity is the result of a slow and steady accumulation of exposure and acclaim. Instant stardom be damned - this is how you build yourself an audience:


1. Become a respected stage and television actor

Dench made her professional London stage debut in 1957. By the 1970s she was widely considered one of the most talented actors of her generation, but rather than follow contemporaries such as Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson to Hollywood, she remained dedicated almost exclusively to British television and theatre roles. And while this may have kept her practically unknown to international audiences, her success hardly went unnoticed.


2. Be appointed a Dame

Let’s be honest, the British honours system is a ridiculous institution, but there's no denying the sense of gravitas it bestows on its hallowed recipients. Usually when a British actress is awarded a DBE, it is considered something of a lifetime achievement award, though Dench was hardly nearing retirement when she became Dame Judi Dench in 1988 at the age of 53. Still, her next move was something of a surprise.


3. Launch a film career

It’s not that Dench hadn’t appeared in any features before 1995. She pops up in “A Room with a View” and even narrated Derek Jarman’s “The Angelic Conversation”. But when she was cast as the newly female M in “Goldeneye” in 1995, it’s fair to say it was a major step up in terms of audience exposure. The film was a success, but with most eyes on Pierce Brosnan, there was little sign of what the role would eventually become for Dench. And at the age of 60, few could have predicted what would happen in the meantime.


4. Have a breakout hit

1996’s “Mrs Brown” was originally made for British television. But when Harvey Weinstein saw it, he had other ideas. Launching the film at Cannes, it became an unlikely success, grossing $13 million worldwide, and gaining Judi Dench the Golden Globe and BAFTA Best Actress awards and her first Oscar nomination. Quite the triumph - but she was just getting started.

This article is related to: Heroines of Cinema, Women, Women Directors, Judi Dench