Reading the text and savoring the many pictures in the Judi Dench memoir, “Behind the Scenes” (St. Martin’s Press), often feels like going through one of the the actress’ scrapbooks with her sitting by your side commenting on each page.
It’s a delightfully casual book that takes us from Dench’s early days as a struggling stage actress in London, through her rise to theater stardom in that country, and then her wonderful, belated emergence as a film star at the age of 63.
The book is an update of “Scenes from My Life,” which was published 12 years ago.
As the actress notes in her preface, the period from her late 60s to her late 70s has been very busy, with two forays to India (for “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” and its sequel); her final and most dramatic appearance as James Bond’s boss “M” in “Skyfall”; her first film shot in Hollywood (Clint Eastwood’s “J. Edgar”); an Oscar-nominated performance in “Philomena”; and four major stage productions (including the 2012 London hit, “Peter and Alice” – below).
Dench gives a lot of the credit for her rise to stage prominence to the great actors she worked with in the late ’50s and early ’60s, John Gielgud and Peggy Ashcroft among them.
Opposite a picture of her as the “first fairy” in a 1957 production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is the caption, “Every night at the Old Vic I watched each play in the season from the wings. I learnt so much from watching others.”
The young performer also saw the value in being part of a tight ensemble:
“The best work, in my experience, is always done where there is a genuine company spirit.”
John Neville who played Hamlet opposite Dench’s Ophelia in 1957 (right) taught her the importance of a “star” leading a company: “He was brilliant at teaching you basic things that I don’t think young actors are taught anymore — the whole business of getting in on time, being prepared, and not taking up the director’s time while you sort out the problem of what is actually your homework. He had a great sense of fun, which is terribly important, and there’s no doubt that if a company is led like that it comes over to an audience that it is a unit which works together. It’s something you can’t manufacture.”
Dench recalls a night when she had the flu and “went to pieces” on stage and Neville told her “If you can’t do it, let your understudy. Don’t go on and show something that’s nothing to do with Ophelia.”
Despite her growing stage and TV fame during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, Dench avoided movie work until “Mrs. Brown” scored such a hit in 1997, including an Oscar nomination for best actress.
Incredibly, the actress was fearful about doing movies because of a stupid thing a film producer had said to her back in the 1950s — “Miss Dench you have every single thing wrong with your face.”
Luckily for us, Dench finally put that comment behind her and became as celebrated on screen as she had been on stage.