It’s funny quite how much joy it can bring to learn the titbit of information that Dame Maggie Smith’s friends call her “Mags”, while Dame Judi Dench is known as “Jude”. In Nothing Like A Dame, a documentary out now, that detail is just the beginning. Essentially, this is sitting down for a chinwag with four of the greatest actors in British history. And it’s utterly charming.
The film infiltrates one of the regular get-togethers of longtime friends Dame Joan Plowright, Dame Eileen Atkins and Dames Maggie and Judi. Apparently, these have been taking place for many years but, this time, we have the privilege of being invited to join them.
It’s rare that we see older women laughing or chatting in pop culture – or see them very much at all, really – and it’s rarer that we see a group of women with a collective age of 337 years on screen. From Amy Schumer’s sketch Last Fuckable Day to Angelina Jolie playing Colin Farrell’s mother in Alexander when she was just a year older than him, actresses who dare to age are generally punished by being sidelined and overlooked.
We see them playing mothers and grandmothers before they ought to as they become “invisible” to casting directors and audiences alike. Once over 40, women are, by and large, tossed the bones of scripts and expected to be grateful for the opportunity, all while their faces (and hands and necks and knees) are scrutinised for signs of age.
So, to be able to watch four women in their eighties dissolve into giggles, finish each other’s sentences, patch together half-remembered anecdotes and raise knowing eyebrows as they while away an afternoon is nothing short of joyous. They even occasionally – and wonderfully – swear. And when they’re bored or tired of talking, they jolly well say so.
It is an act of defiance to dedicate an hour and a half to women talking about whatever they feel like, unencumbered by the weight of speaking on behalf of their entire gender
The topic of men is touched upon a few times – what it was like working with their husbands (“Which one?!” says Mags) and the difficult brilliance of Laurence Olivier, Plowright’s late husband – but, for the most part, their roles as wives and mothers are only mentioned fleetingly, with Smith simply referring to their collective offspring as “small people”. More important is who was made a dame first, who has hearing aids and what exactly a mischievous Atkins and Dench got up to at the end of the 50s. You’d be hard pressed to find another film that passes the Bechdel Test with quite such flying colours.
Interspersed with the conversation are clips of old archive footage of all four women on stage, in interviews, on red carpets and in films. They begin in grainy black and white before jumping into technicolour, paralleling the stories being told in the present day, and highlight quite how extraordinary the subjects of the film are.
We all know how difficult it is to be a woman in show business; that these four women have not just survived, but thrived, is statement enough. If a woman has made it into her eighties and is still working, in any industry, she has displayed phenomenal stamina, resilience and tenacity.
There are hints of the difficulties they have faced – one conversation is about how each woman reacted to being asked to play Cleopatra, supposedly the most beautiful woman in the world. Plowright and Atkins declined, Smith did it in Canada where she hoped no one would see it and Dench eventually accepted with great trepidation and to public mocking. But it is not a hard-hitting film about the casting couch, institutional misogyny or gender pay gap. And that’s OK.
Much as it is essential that, in this #MeToo era, we encourage the telling of stories that have previously been untold, this documentary proves that they do not always need to amount to horror story. Like female comedians endlessly being asked whether or not women can be funny, these actresses are rich in conversation topics that transcend these issues.
A joke about how the others must wait for roles that Dench doesn’t snap up first is more poignant than it first appears. There is almost no footage of any of the women acting together, because those plays and films simply did not exist. They barely exist now. How many times, over the decades, have these women fought for the same roles? Or have taken the only female part in a cast of men?
They may be seen as trailblazers and icons, but this documentary shows that they were, more importantly, each other’s friends, sisters and confidantes. They have weathered decades of depending on each other, loving one another and enjoying each other’s company. And it is actually an act of defiance to dedicate an hour and a half to women talking about whatever they feel like, unencumbered by the weight of speaking on behalf of their entire gender.
On leaving the cinema, my best friend turned to me and sighed: “I really want to be a Judi, but I’m pretty sure I’m a Maggie.” She’s right – she’s absolutely a Maggie and I wouldn’t have her any other way. We have since concluded that it is, of course, an honour to be either.
Nothing Like A Dame is out now, and will appear on BBC Two on June 2, 9pm