When Richard Rodgers wrote the lyric “There is nothin’ like a dame,” he likely did not have the stars of “Tea With the Dames” in mind. Or maybe he did.
Candid, insightful and unpredictable, Dame Eileen Atkins, Dame Judi Dench, Dame Joan Plowright and Dame Maggie Smith are not only acting legends but also great friends. And a treat to hang out with.
All in their 80s, these women apparently get together periodically to lunch and gossip, and it was the idea of director Roger Michell to record one of these sessions and see what happened. As he says in a director’s statement, “I didn’t want to stage anything, repeat anything, fake anything.”
Because he is a fine filmmaker in his own right (“Persuasion,” “Notting Hill” and others), Michell wanted to do more than just record. He has, for instance, woven in archival clips of the quartet’s work so we can see the rarely viewed television performances of their early years.
That includes Plowright playing Portia in a 1970 “The Merchant of Venice,” Dench and Atkins in the marvelous 1960 Shakespearean epic “An Age of Kings,” even a newsreel clip – which the actress herself had never seen – of an 18-year-old Dench appearing in the York Mystery Plays.
But, of course, the main lure of this brisk and entertaining film is the four women and what they have to say. Because they’ve known each other so well for so long, we get to see them as people, not stars, as they tease one another, tell old war stories and make one another laugh.
Though their discussion takes wide-ranging turns – including Dench recommending a filmed press conference by Soviet double agent and master of duplicity Kim Philby as something “every actor should look at” – some common threads emerge.
For one thing, because, as Atkins says, “we all thought we were going to be theater people,” stage fright is a recurring issue. The actress recalls she would frequently ask herself, “Would you like to be run over in a massive car accident on the way to the theater or go onstage?” with “go onstage” narrowly winning out.
Taking on Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra” unnerved all of them, with Dench going so far as to ask director Peter Hall when he offered Cleopatra to her, “Are you sure you want a menopausal dwarf to play this part?”
Another key player in the quartet’s professional and personal lives was Laurence Olivier, the great actor of his generation and the founding artistic director of the National Theatre.
Smith acted with Olivier many times – “I was more scared of him than the critics,” she cracks – and Plowright, who married as well as worked with him, thinks carefully before she calls the whole experience “a great privilege and a bit of a nightmare.”
The dames also talk about their contemporary work, with Dench saying she took the part of James Bond’s boss, M, because then-husband Michael Williams told her, “I long to live with a Bond woman.”
Smith is equally acerbic about her award-winning popular role as the Dowager Countess in “Downton Abbey,” talking about the huge hats she had to wear (“exhausting”) and revealing that she has yet to watch the show, though “I’ve been given a boxed set.”
Although the women steer clear of wild and crazy stories, personal temperament and rivalries do make appearances. Smith cracks that Dench always gets called first for juicy parts, while Plowright reveals her agent’s self-described search for “a nice little cameo that Judi Dench hasn’t got her paws on.”
Perhaps most poignantly, each of the women is asked what advice she would give her younger self. Atkins says, “Try not to be so bad-tempered and confrontational”; Dench says, “Try not to be susceptible to falling in love”; and Smith tartly concludes, “When in doubt, don’t.”
Lives well-lived can’t be compressed into a brief documentary, but “Tea With the Dames” is hard to resist nevertheless.
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