Legends Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Eileen Atkins, and Joan Plowright in ‘Tea With the Dames’ Are the Balm You Need Right Now
Hi! Things are rough lately. They’ve been rough for a while. And they’re probably going to continue to be rough, if we’re being really honest. Yes, we can all hope for Election Day, but I remember having to attend a work conference the day after Election Day two years ago, and going into the bathroom numerous times throughout the presentation to cry in a stall, and listening to other women around me in other stalls also crying, and basically what I’m saying is don’t you want some enlightening anecdotes and words of advice from some acting dames to get you through these difficult times? Don’t you? DON’T YOU?
The documentary Tea With the Dames has been rolling out in limited release around the country, and if you want something very soothing and very low-key to watch with your friends or your female relatives or just whoever, it’s a good choice. Director Roger Michell (of Notting Hill) gathers together four dames—Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Eileen Atkins, and Joan Plowright—at Plowright’s cottage in the English countryside to drink tea, talk about their careers, and rib each other and laugh and offer up advice and compliment each other’s breasts. (Atkins very lovingly says of Dench “You have very pretty tits there,” when they’re watching footage from one of Dench’s performances in her 20s, and it is an amazing moment.) It’s a great time!
So do you need a life pick-me-up? The dames are here for you. I’ve compiled some of my favorite quotes from the women featured in the documentary and listed some of their credits that I think are particularly noteworthy below. And see Tea With the Dames if you can—consider this a preview meant to prod you along.
“I haven’t seen it yet. They gave me a box set, but I haven’t got time. … I won’t last long enough to see the wretched thing, will I?” Smith says of Downton Abbey.
“How ghastly,” she murmurs of the stage makeup they used to wear, in shades like “Dark
Egyptian.” (The women also briefly touch on the times they played people of different ethnicities, which they treat with a certain sort of stiff British bemusement that is, yeah, not great: Dench resignedly murmurs “Of course you did” when Smith shares that she once played a “Chinese boy in an opium den,” and none of them seem fazed discussing how Laurence Olivier, Plowright’s husband, played Othello in full blackface.)
And, my favorite: “Lord almighty, leave me alone.”
“Never let him see you cry,” Dench says of the advice given to her by fellow actress Peggy Ashcroft as they worked for tyrannical director Michel Saint-Denis.
“Fear is the petrol, isn’t it? It generates such an energy, fear. If you can somehow channel it, it can be a help.”
“Fuck off, Roger,” Dench says when the director prompts from off-camera, “talk more about getting old.”
“I’ve never not known an Antony complain, because I think they find out that really it’s Cleopatra’s evening, rather more than Antony’s. The men never know until they’re in the middle of doing it,” Atkins muses of the Shakespeare play and the weight of the role of Cleopatra, which the women discuss as simultaneously intimidating and fascinating.
“I don’t think you and I needed the ’60s. We behaved pretty badly,” she jokes to Judi.
From Dame Joan Plowright, of even more theater productions and British TV films, Equus, Enchanted April, the version of The Scarlet Letter with Gary Oldman and Demi Moore (what???), and The Spiderwick Chronicles
“My mother who sent me off said, ‘You’re no oil painting, my girl, but you have the spark. Thank God you’ve got my legs and not your father’s!’” Joan remembers her mother’s advice when she was getting started in the theater, and she’s saying this in her own cottage, in front of an oil painting portrait of herself. Joan Plowright is straight killing it.
“Well darling, it’s quite difficult when you’ve got two titles,” Joan jokes to Maggie. Plowright is a baroness because of her marriage to Laurence Olivier and a dame for her own work.
“We’ll look around for a nice little cameo that Judi Dench hasn’t already got her paws on,” Joan says, quoting her American agent. All the other women laugh, but Judi is aghast, and the contrast is great—and the frankness with which the women talk about professional competition and their varying ambitions is honestly very refreshing, and a key part of the vibe between the women in Tea With the Dames.
Header Image Source: IFC Films