One almost wants to be at the Langham after a fine high tea or brunch before one settles down to watch the documentary “Tea with the Dames.” That’s particularly true if you have a taste for champagne as do these four octogenarian widows, Eileen Atkins, Judi Dench, John Plowright and Maggie Smith, all who have been honored by Queen Elizabeth II with the rank of Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE)–Eileen Atkins in 2001, Judi Dench in 1988, Joan Plowright in 2004 and Maggie Smith in 1990.
American audience will likely be most familiar with Maggie Smith for her imperious Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Grantham in “Downton Abbey” and in the Harry Potter films as Professor Minerva McGonagall (Smith admits, “Alan Rickman and I just ran out of reaction shots.”) or with Judi Dench for her role as M in the Bond movies (which she took because her husband always wanted to be with a Bond girl) or portrayals of British queens.
You might also find the documentary under its original title–“Nothing Like a Dame,” but none of these actresses has a strong association with Rodgers and Hammerstein, “South Pacific,” or musicals. Instead they are best known for their work in theater and there’s plenty of clips from their past theatrical and cinematic careers. The DBE is only one of many awards collected by these dames.
Plowright (88) has two Golden Globe Awards for “Enchanted April” and HBO’s “Stalin” (both in 1992) and a Tony Award in 1961 for “A Taste of Honey.”
Atkins (84) also has a Best Actress BAFTA, a supporting actress Emmy and three Olivier Awards. With Jean Marsh she created “Upstairs, Downstairs” (1971-1975) and “The House of Elliot” (1991-1993). She wrote the screenplay for the 1997 “Mrs. Dalloway.”
Smith (83) has two Oscars for “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” (1969) and Best Supporting Actress for “California Suite” (1978), four BAFTA Awards, a Tony for “Lettice and Lovage” in 1990, and, for her role as Lady Violet Crawley, three Emmys and three Golden Globes. Smith hasn’t watched “Downton Abbey” yet, but adds, “They gave me a box set. I shall have to hasten otherwise I won’t last long enough to see the wretched thing!”
Dench (83) has one Oscar (Supporting Actress for “Shakespeare in Love”), six British Academy Film Awards, four BAFTA TV Awards, seven Olivier Awards, two Screen Actors Guild Awards, two Golden Globe Awards, and a Tony Award.
The set up is this: “From time to time four old friends, all extraordinary actresses, meet up in the English countryside to gossip, to remember and to laugh. This time they let the cameras in…” The foursome appear on inset screens as they warm up with vocal cords above and orchestra similarly tuning up.
The documentary begins outside with the women sitting on a verdant lawn as the lighting, reflectors, sound and hair are being arranged and the set photographer is being bossed around by the women. Director Roger Michell intersperses that with flashes of archival black and white photos and film of the younger versions of these ladies. From time to time, you hear him prompting them to talk about certain things.
Dench recalls unkindness from a director and kippers under the table. Atkins relates a story about a flirty landlady. None of these were considered great beauties They discuss undertaking the role of Shakespeare’s Cleopatra. Dench was so surprised, she asked, “Are you sure you want a menopausal dwarf to play this part?”
One might think these women would be confident in their acting endeavors, but that isn’t so. Smith admits that “all days are scary” but that doesn’t mean these women can’t be scary.
The shadow Plowright’s husband, Laurence Olivier, looms in the background. He was the founding director of the National Theatre, and Plowright was his third and last wife. The foursome admit they were intimidated by him, but Smith adds, “I think I scared the wits out of him from time to time.” and that their times on stage was “a merry war.” Besides “Master Builder,” we get to see Smith as Desdemona to Olivier’s black-face Othello.
There’s talk about how some of their own naturalistic acting style now seems dated. That’s a bit of karma. But Plowright doesn’t feel the false hedging within Shakespeare that is now the vogue isn’t a good direction because “Shakespeare is poetry, and it does have a rhythm,” and by pretending one is searching for words by adding hesitations “ums” and such “you bring it down to you and your size, instead of reaching up to it.”
Plowright wasn’t always impressed with Olivier’s acting. As a young child, she wrote a fan letter to him but preferred Michael Redgrave’s portrayal of Hamlet. The others talk about their husbands and children. Then there were escapades together–getting perhaps too drunk to find one’s hotel room.
With age, there’s a struggle to stay working. Smith, Atkins and Plowright kid Dench with Plowright saying that her agent has promised to look for a suitable cameo that Dench hasn’t got her “paws” on.
When asked about what advice they would give to their younger selves, Plowright advised, “Get in touch with yoga or mindfulness at quite an early age and learn about the brain and what influence it has upon the body–all those things I’ve come to be interested in later on in life and could have done with doing earlier.”
Atkins felt her advice was similar. She would try “not to be so very bad-tempered and confrontational and listen more.”
Smith channeled Violet Crawley and said, “When in doubt, don’t” and we’re provided with the Latin for that (cum dubito desist).
Dench said, “Try not to be so susceptible to falling in love” which caused a bit of a stir.
In the end, we’re left with a touch of Shakespeare and a tongue-twister that thoroughly defeats Smith.