The Reigning Queen of Understatement

By Andreae, Christopher | The Christian Science Monitor, April 5, 1999 | Go to article overview

The Reigning Queen of Understatement


Andreae, Christopher, The Christian Science Monitor


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."

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. …

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