These days, we think of Judi Dench as the Dame — a regal thespian who has commanded the stage, television, and cinema, winning seven Oscar nominations in 16 short years. In a movie culture obsessed with youth, she's a Hollywood anomaly: A woman who found lasting cinematic fame only after she turned 60. Her reputation is so entrenched that it's easy to forget that Judi Dench's cinematic work didn't begin with her Oscar-nominated turn in 1997's Mrs. Brown, nor even with James Ivory's A Room with a View in 1985. Indeed, as Dench prepares to vie for the Best Actress Oscar for the fifth time with her performance in Philomena, she is preparing to celebrate the 50th anniversary of her big screen debut in 1964.
Judi Dench became a professional actor when she was just 23, after signing with Britain's Old Vic Company in 1957. In two years, she had her first television work; in four, she would sign with the Royal Shakespeare Company; and three years after that, in 1964, she would finally make her film debut in the psychological mystery The Third Secret. It was one of only five film roles she held in the '60s, alongside Four in the Morning, A Study in Terror, He Who Rides a Tiger, and A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Though Dench's talents are palpable in her early films, her early success came largely from her work on stage and television. She appeared in 13 different television programs in the '60s, while launching a stage career that highlighted her versatility, seeing her shuttle from Shakespeare to Russian drama to the glitz of Cabaret. The variety didn't follow her to the big screen, however, and Dench would only appear in two more films in the 1970s, before her work in the '80s slowly began to put her on the cinematic map.
Superficially, Dench's early film work doesn't present anything altogether surprising. Each part is a supporting role to male leads, from icons like Sherlock Holmes to Shakespeare's fairy Oberon. All but one of her roles tasks her with playing a mother and/or caretaker of children. But each role possesses a thread of feminism that differentiates it from the norm, often portraying her struggling against a patriarchal hierarchy.
Each of Dench's early cinematic women also offers a taste of the power to come. Her young face sometimes tightens into the sternness we would later see as Queen Elizabeth in her lone Oscar win for Shakespeare in Love. She battles men with the assuredness that would make her James Bond's M for 17 years. It's difficult to watch her then without thinking about who she plays now: How the softness of her voice will age and sharpen, how her youthfulness and relatability with evolve into something both regal and engaging. Our point of view is framed by Dench as an aged, sage woman, and her early films are just rare enough that it's hard to imagine her as a 30-something living along the Thames.
The Third Secret, which premiered in February of 1964, begins with a murder. At first, it seems like a suicide. With his last gasp, a psychologist swears it is his fault he is dying, and the police believe that means he died by his own hand. But his young daughter is sure one of his patients murdered him, and sends one of them out to meet the others and uncover the truth. Dench plays a secretary-cum-curator at a gallery, working for an artist played by Richard Attenborough. She is an attentive young professional, nervous and slightly on edge. She lingers in the background, aiding passersby until Attenborough sends her off. Nervousness masks Dench's innate power. It is a modest start, but telling for how cinema would come to see her.
The Third Secret was directed by Charles Crichton, a filmmaker whose professional trajectory generally matched Dench's. Crichton began as an editor before moving on to filmmaking, taking on both drama and comedy, but tied mainly to British television (like the non-superhero series The Avengers). A success in Britain, he wasn't critically and internationally noticed for his filmmaking until the end of his career. At 78, he was urged by John Cleese into writing and directing A Fish Called Wanda — his final film and a comedy classic that would finally earn him two Academy nominations.
The similarities do not end there. Dench re-teamed with Crichton once more in the '60s for her fourth feature, He Who Rides a Tiger — a film that plays like a prequel to her Oscar-nominated Philomena. Like Philomena, He Who Rides a Tiger is loosely based on a real-life British story. This time, it's the life of burglar Peter Scott. Dench stars as Joanne, the girlfriend of Tom Bell's Peter. Joanne is a hardworking, yet slightly innocent woman looking for a husband and father for her child. Where Philomena lost her son in a system against single mothers, Joanne is more fortunate. Her son splits his time between her home and the orphanage she works at to support and keep him.
Tiger is a fascinating turn for Dench. Joanne embodies a classic female role, but she's also distinctly independent and fearless. She's torn over her relationship with Peter, as she's drawn to his kindness and warmth despite his less than moral work. It is a conundrum that lets Dench show the magnetic power that would make her a long-lasting star and Dame. "He's a notorious criminal," an investigator tells her about Peter. She looks him squarely in the eye as she retorts: "Is that all he is?" If not for her young face and the softness of her voice, this would be today's Dame Judi.
Two films, however, came before this — one an exercise of marginalized strength, the other a tease of untapped potential.
Dench's second film, Four in the Morning, finds her leading one of two tales set along the Thames. Dench's follows a young woman fed up with the solitude of new motherhood, and a parallel story follows a single woman navigating her life and passion. Both struggle, and the film offers a growing sense of doom as the pair are juxtaposed with a woman's corpse fished out of the Thames — cleaned and categorized at the morgue, now free of the passions that frustrate the two main characters.
Dench plays the young mother with perfect frustration. Her sleepless, child-screaming night is the opposite of her happy-go-lucky husband's drunken play. "I'm sorry, but that's the way society happens to be," is all her husband can say when she calls him on his frivolity and describes her unhappiness. "Do you think I like being like this?" she challenges. In half a film, Dench embodies a range of highs and lows, from glimpses of the woman who once was, to the woman this mother wishes she could be. Given the freedom to embody this character, Dench soared in her character's misery. The performance earned her first major film win: A BAFTA award for "Most Promising Newcomer to Leading Film Roles."
One can only imagine how her next role, in the Sherlock Holmes film A Study in Terror, would have played out in a different time or place. Dench handles her small role well as the good-natured worker at a soup kitchen, skirting the sidelines of the mystery surrounding Jack the Ripper. But it is below her talents, especially as the film offers a red herring or two. Someone saw a female figure at one of the crimes, Sherlock learns, which doesn't mean the killer is female (and she isn't) — but in a better version of the film, she could have been. It's no stretch, and no small amount of joy, to imagine her big scene: The soft empathy of Dench's character eradicated by the reality of a dark serial killer.
Our closest taste of her potential would be Dench's last film of the '60s. It came to her naturally as a veteran of Shakespeare: Titania in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Long before X-Men's Mystique bared her blue body, Dench's Titania ran through the forest nude, affixed with carefully applied fauna as she cares for a human child and provokes the ire of Oberon.
We would hardly expect it now, a Dench who is carefree, wild, and mischievous. Her eyes shine, and it is the one moment where the Dame utterly disappears, lost in a sea of green skin and iambic pentameter. No other film of her early career allowed for such an ideological and visual break.
By the time she'd get another chance at roster-bending work, like the James Bond series or Mrs. Henderson Presents, she would be in her sixties, and well beyond the realm of possibilities that might have been open to her at a younger age.
"It's thanks to Harvey [Weinstein] that I've got my film career," says Dench, since six of her seven Oscar-nominated performances were for Weinstein films. He brought her into the cinematic spotlight, and she continues to thrive as the world at large catches up to the commanding figure Britain has long been familiar with. But there is also a special pleasure into going back to the beginning, and basking in the power that was present half a century ago — and the woman who existed before the icon.