By CELIA McGEE -- DAILY NEWS FEATURE WRITER -- April 28, 2005
There is nothing like figuring out how to address a dame.
Unless it's two at the same time.
Do Dame Maggie Smith ("Gosford Park," "Harry Potter's" Professor McGonagall) and Dame Judi Dench ("Shakespeare in Love's" Queen Elizabeth, 007's M) answer to "Dame" plus first name, "Dame" plus last name, a first name without "Dame," a last name with ... ?
You get the picture. The two sit together in a hotel room overlooking Tribeca and its film festival, where their movie "Ladies in Lavender" first screened here before opening tomorrow.
The default technique: Stare intently at each while saying "you," and hope neither 70-year-old takes highly well-bred British offense.
In "Lavender" they star as elderly sisters who find a handsome young Pole cast away on their Cornwall beach just before the outbreak of World War II. Each plays true to type - Smith the flinty, secret softy; Dench cuddly yet formidable.
Dench's Ursula, a gentle spinster, falls in love with the stranger. Smith's crusty Janet, who lost her husband in the Great War, has to help her through her infatuation.
"I always hoped it made [Ursula] understand Janet better," Smith says with abrupt tenderness.
After 50 years as friends and occasional co-stars, Dench and Smith have their pick of roles, but chose these parts in a first movie by actor and fellow "Gosford Park" alum Charles Dance.
"We did it because Charlie's a dear, dear friend," says Dench warmly. "And because they're two good parts and a good story," Smith tartly adds.
They agree they may have influenced each other in the course of different collaborations. "You can't help but watch each other," Dench says." You're forced to," teases Smith.
They pulled pranks together almost as soon as they met in 1957 sharing a dressing room at the Old Vic. "Remember when we locked ourselves in the loo" (to get away from a gentleman's unwanted advances), Dench giggles.
But it was Smith who scandalized English society when she had a child by a married man, the well-known actor Robert Stephens. They eventually married and their two sons, Chris Larkin and Toby Stephens, are successful actors.
"They are occupied," their mother says.
Yet there are still things the Dames don't know about each other. Smith is shocked, shocked to learn that Dench recently recorded the voice of M for the James Bond video game.
"Sammy loves it," Dench explains, cheerfully blaming her 6-year-old grandson. "Though not as much as football."
Though she also chairs more than 100 charities, as soon as she gets back to England she'll start shooting a movie based on Zoe Heller's best-selling novel "What Was She Thinking: Notes on a Scandal."
Smith claims to be "up for grabs."
Not for long.
A Special Thank You to Betty (Super Sleuth) B, USA for bringing this article to my attention
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