One expects a bit of elegant remove, a layer of upper-crust reserve, from 78-year-old Oscar winner Judi Dench. Rare is the story about her without the dusty phrase “England’s national treasure” attached to her name. But as she makes delightfully clear minutes after introductions, it turns out the Dame is more of a broad. Just wait until you hear the story about the time she got a tattoo on her bum.
It happened after her heartbreakingly restrained portrayal of Queen Victoria in the 1997 film Mrs. Brown, which earned Dench her first Academy Award nomination. The following year she took home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her searing eight minutes on screen as Queen Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love. Both films were muscled into public consciousness by indie mogul Harvey Weinstein, whom Dench credits for launching her movie career after decades in London theater. Before meeting Weinstein for lunch at the Four Seasons restaurant in New York one afternoon, she asked her makeup artist to paint a fake tattoo of “Thanks to Harvey” on her backside on a lark. “I showed it to him across the table,” she says with a delighted chuckle, “and I’ve never seen somebody more embarrassed.”
Now Dench is the affecting anchor of another Weinstein release, Philomena (rated R), which tells the moving true story of a guileless but resolute Irishwoman named Philomena Lee who searches for the son she was coerced into putting up for adoption 50 years before. Director Stephen Frears’ film, which premiered in August at the Venice Film Festival, has generated buzz that Dench might earn her seventh Oscar nod for her performance. “Maybe it’s time I just had ‘HW’ tattooed on my backside for real,” she says. “You never know.”
Dench was in her 60s when her film career took off. She got her start on the British stage, delivering powerhouse performances as classic leading ladies such as Ophelia and Lady Macbeth, as well as Sally Bowles in the original London production of Cabaret. By the mid-’90s, though, Hollywood had put her to fine work in everything from indie darlings (she racked up four more Oscar nods post-Shakespeare) to seven blockbuster James Bond films as 007’s imperious boss, M.
Just as Dench was becoming an A-list name, she endured her life’s great loss. Her husband of 30 enviably harmonious years, actor Michael Williams, died of lung cancer in 2001. Today Dench shares her home in Surrey, England, with her daughter, Tara Cressida (nicknamed “Finty”), her 16-year-old grandson, three cats, two guinea pigs, a dog, some ducks, a humongous goldfish, and a very small goldfish. Three years ago British gossip rags speculated that Dench had found love again with a dashing wildlife conservationist, David Mills, now 70. “The answer to that is yes,” she says with a laugh.
Dench is less amused by the hysterical headlines that followed her revelation last year that she was suffering from macular degeneration, a common age-related eye disease. “That was ridiculous!” she scoffs. “I’m not going blind! Hundreds of thousands of people have got the same thing, and you just get on with it.” But news of her diagnosis broke a few months before her character was killed off in the most recent Bond film, Skyfall, which heightened speculation that we might be seeing less of Dench on the big screen.