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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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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.

5. Win an Oscar

It’s an impeccable cameo performance, to be sure. But there’s also no doubting the fact that, when “Shakespeare in Love” arrived one year after Dench’s breakout role, Hollywood really wanted to reward her. Accepting the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her eight-minute performance, it was clear that 65-year old Judi Dench had arrived. But the list of actors whose careers peak with an Oscar win is long, and Dench had so far made her name through British productions. Would Hollywood have any use for her?


6. Have Hollywood fall in love with you

The answer is a resounding yes. Over the next seven years, Dench racked up a further four Oscar nominations (which, following this year’s Best Actress nomination for “Philomena”, brings her total to seven, with her BAFTA tally stretching across Film and TV categories to a positively hilarious 10 wins from 27 nominations). Turning up in everything from “The Shipping News” to “The Chronicles of Riddick”, she nonetheless turned seventy still taking supporting roles more often than not. But even that was to change.


7. Demonstrate your box office pulling power

2006’s “Notes on a Scandal” was the first time that Dench took top billing in a feature and followed it up with some serious gross receipts. Of course, Cate Blanchett as Dench’s co-star can claim some of the credit, but a large part of the film’s unexpectedly large $49 million worldwide gross can surely be attributed to the public’s by-now-significant appetite for watching Dench play just about anyone (a repressed lesbian stalker, for example). Despite the film’s success, another leading role was not forthcoming for the rest of the decade - perhaps a sign of the paucity of decent scripts out there for older women even of Dench’s calibre. But when it finally arrived, it did so in style.

"The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel."

8. Have a bona fide blockbuster hit

Producers had been chasing the grey pound before 2011, but there was a marked change in the weather when “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” snuck up on a phenomenal $134 million worldwide gross. In retrospect it doesn’t seem surprising, given the number of beloved actors in the cast and how underserved its audience traditionally is at the multiplex. But by all accounts, nobody was expecting such a windfall. Here, at last, was indisputable evidence that its 76-year-old leading lady was an A-list box office star to beat the best of them.


9. Leave the franchise wagon on a high

It is a sign of how far Judi Dench’s star has risen in the years since “Goldeneye” just how prominent her role in “Skyfall” turned out to be. The first billion dollar Bond, and currently the 8th highest-grossing film in history, nobody would attribute its huge financial success to Dench entirely. But, as the heart and soul of the film, there are equally few who would deny she played her part.


10. Get your own franchise

OK, so it’s currently just the one sequel, but at this point, who would bet against the “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” series spawning future editions, a theme park and a merchandise collection? Cate Blanchett hit the nail on the head when she took time in her Oscar acceptance speech to marvel that Judi Dench was absent that night “because at the age of seventy nine, her film was so successful that she’s in India doing a sequel. What a career that is!”. Quite.

Heroines of Cinema is a bi-weekly column written by Matthew Hammett Knott, a writer and filmmaker based in London. Follow him on Twitter.

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