06 May 2006
  dame judi dench, feminist icon?
in the shipping news, she plays the lesbian foil to cate blanchett's selfish whore. when kevin spacey, a hapless loser has been used by women almost to the point of his own demise, dench, his aunt, appears to save him from his downward spiral. she is the first strong woman ever to appear in spacey's life and she takes him to his ancestral home in newfoundland where she teaches him how to be a father, but more importantly how to be independent.

in shakespeare in love, she plays the virgin queen, elizabeth i. of course, elizabeth is legendary in part as one of the strongest female leaders in european history, a woman who famously said the she had the body of a weak and feeble woman, but the heart and stomach of a king. in this fictional movie, her brief performance presides over the tale of a woman who subverts the patriarchy of renaissance theater, becoming one of the first females to perform on stage.

in iris, she enters the character of the famously bisexual writer and lesbian icon iris murdoch. murdoch was a writer whose most famous works were produced in the 1960s and 70s and were eminently popular with the hippie generation. she often included gay characters in her works who were different than any who had ever before been portrayed in literature. in iris, dench portrays the author as an incredibly self-confident proud woman, as she embarks on a unlikely romance with an awkward male colleague.

in mrs. brown, she plays queen victoria, probably the most powerful woman who ever lived. in the movie, dench, as queen victoria who famously orchestrated the creation of the british empire in the 19th century, is depressed after the death of her husband. however, partially because of a scandalous relationship with a male friend, she is eventually able to regain her former stature and return to her position of immense power.

in goldeneye, tomorrow never dies, the world is not enough, die another day and the upcoming casino royale, she plays james bonds' headstrong, immovable boss M. although these movies center upon the womanizing, hyper-masculine bond, dench is always there to ground the double-o, essentially showing him who is boss. this is especially evident in die another day, when she is miffed by bonds' apparent release of information to the north koreans, putting him in shackles in a hospital until she finds out he is clean.

in mrs. henderson presents, she performs as the recently widowed wwii era socialite who refuses to fulfill her expected female social role, instead choosing, scandalously, to become not only an entrepreneur, but one involved in the promotion of a suspect creative venture. this is perhaps dench's pinnacle moment as onscreen feminist. she not only blatantly refuses to acquiesce to her male colleagues' demands, but she actively manipulates christopher guest and bob hoskins to acquiesce to hers'.

i was reading about the dame the other day and i came across an interview with her from the advocate in 2001, where she said that she was essentially unaware of her iconic status in the gay community, but was flattered by the attention. dench isn't really a media darling, and her social life and political views aren't well publicized but it is hard for me to believe, judging by the film roles she has chosen, that the dame is not staunchly feminist. moreso than any other actress, the dame has brought a series of strong female characters to the screen, and i think that she will be remembered in history as someone who has provided so much character and self-importance to female roles in a hollywood era that is dominated by romantic supporting and depressing shrewish roles for women.

dame judi dench is not my favorite actress and her movies, although i enjoy them, aren't really at the top of my list. but she is definitely the contemporary actress i most admire. i can' t wait to see her later this year in notes on a scandal, where she performs in yet another movie about female empowerment and will probably win her second academy award.
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