The 78th Annual Academy Awards: The grand Dame vs this year's model

Judi Dench and Keira Knightley were pitted against each other when the Oscar nominations were revealed yesterday. Andrew Gumbel looks at Britain's contenders for best actress
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

They represent very different ends of the acting spectrum. But yesterday, the veteran star of stage and screen Dame Judi Dench found herself pitted against the young starlet Keira Knightley when both landed best actress Oscar nominations.

Another British star, Rachel Weisz, also received a nod for best supporting actress, sealing a successful day for homegrown female talent in Hollywood.

Their films - the Stephen Frears comedy Mrs Henderson Presents, Pride and Prejudice, and the John le Carré adaptation The Constant Gardener - picked up 10 nominations between them. Nick Park's first full-length Wallace and Gromit adventure, The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, also emerged as the hot favourite in the animation category.

An up-and-coming animator was nominated for the best short animation Oscar a year after leaving the National Film and Television School. Sharon Colman is up for her film Badgered, about a badger who wants the world to let him sleep in peace.

The British successes were among a handful of surprises in a field led, predictably, by Ang Lee's cowboy love story Brokeback Mountain, which picked up eight nominations including best picture, best actor (Heath Ledger) and best supporting actor (Jake Gyllenhaal). The other nominees for best picture were Good Night, and Good Luck, George Clooney's portrayal of McCarthy-era America; Capote, about the writing of Truman Capote's masterpiece In Cold Blood; Crash, an ensemble drama about racism in Los Angeles, and Munich, Steven Spielberg's film about the Israel response to the 1972 killing of 11 of its Olympic athletes.

Of these, the latter two were particularly unexpected. The Academy appeared to be rallying to Mr Spielberg's defence after a series of attacks on his film by American Zionists, the Israeli government and also the last surviving Palestinian leader suspected of involvement in the Olympic killings. Crash appeared far from the running until it picked up the Screen Actors Guild award for best ensemble cast on Sunday.

In the acting categories, Philip Seymour Hoffman is the favourite to win best actor for his turn as Truman Capote. Best actress is widely viewed as a race between Felicity Huffman as a transsexual in Transamerica and Reese Witherspoon as the country music icon June Carter Cash in Walk The Line.

JUDI DENCH, 71

So what's all the fuss about?

A definitive performance in the role of Mrs Henderson, a wealthy society woman who really did present nude revues at the Windmill Theatre in the Thirties and Forties.

Classical training or school of hard knocks?

The Central School of Speech and Drama, though only after abandoning early plans to be a designer. Noted for a rather small speaking voice, staff worked with her for a year to develop it. It has never been called " small" since.

Anyone likely to get thanked in speeches?

Her late husband, the actor Michael Williams, with whom she long starred in the TV series A Fine Romance, and her daughter, Finty. With grande dame magnanimity, Bob Hoskins, her Mrs Henderson Presents co-star, and its director Stephen Frears.

Breakthrough role

Ophelia in the Old Vic production of Hamlet in 1957. But wide public recognition came only with A Fine Romance in 1980. She was a pensioner by the time Hollywood took note of the new M in James Bond.

Career highs

Her 1999 Oscar for best supporting actress for her brief appearance as Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love. But there are others too many to mention. Theatre-lovers might cite productions with the Royal Shakespeare Company or the National Theatre such as her lauded Cleopatra to Anthony Hopkins' Antony which secured one of her half-dozen Olivier awards. On film, she won a Golden Globe as Queen Victoria in Mrs Brown.

Career low

Few and far between. The hard-hearted might cite A Fine Romance and its successor, As Time Goes By. All in all, the low point was probably her first known performance aged five. She played a snail.

Previous form with the American Academy

Winner in 1999. Other nominations for Mrs Brown, Chocolat and Iris. In a race against Keira, she wipes the floor. But may not get Oscar-voters' support against her American rivals Felicity Huffman, Charlize Theron and Reese Witherspoon.

Red carpet approach: Classically elegant.

What they say about her: "I'd work with Judi if I had to be a tea lady hovering in the back of the frame."

Kate Winslet

"I believe that railings should be built around her so that all may admire her in an orderly and respectful fashion."

Stephen Fry

What she says: "Fuck 'em, fuck 'em, fuck 'em." - as she embroidered on a cushion for the playwright David Hare on the subject of critics.

Odds: 33/1

KEIRA KNIGHTLEY, 20

So what's all the fuss about?

Her turn as that feisty heroine of English literature, Elizabeth Bennet, in a gritty new British adaptation of the Jane Austen classic, Pride and Prejudice.

Classical training or school of hard knocks?

Was accepted for the London Academy of Music and Drama but never went. Essentially learned at her parents' knee. Keira demanded her own agent at the age of three, was granted one at six and first appeared on television a year later. Attended the local state school in Teddington, Middlesex - where she was diagnosed as dyslexic - and came to public attention when it emerged she had played Natalie Portman's decoy in the 1999 Star Wars film, Phantom Menace.

Anyone likely to get thanked in speeches?

Mum, Sharman Macdonald, the actress-turned-playwright of When I Was a Girl I Used to Scream and Shout, and dad, the actor Will Knightley.

Breakthrough role

Football-playing Jules in Bend it Like Beckham, the low-budget 2002 movie with a big box-office return that won the hearts even of Americans who didn't understand football.

Career highs

After Bend It Like Beckham, her appearance alongside Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean has led to her involvement in two sequels, filmed back to back. Named Tatler's most desirable single woman in the UK two years ago and Glamour magazine's most glamorous film actress. Even more popular on UK front covers than Scarlett Johansson, who is often seen as her greatest rival.

Career lows

The based-on-a-true-story thriller, Domino, in which Knightley played an arse-kicking bounty-hunter, Domino Harvey. "Try not to laugh," The Independent warned. Reviews for King Arthur were not much better.

Previous form with the American Academy

None. But once bribed her way into a Golden Globe party with two packets of crisps.

Red carpet approach: Clinging and revealing. Pencil-slim, she has previously sported creations from Matthew Williamson and Valentino and designers will flock to dress her.

What they say about her: "There's no brighter star in the world today than actress Keira Knightley."

Stephen Gaydos, Variety

What she says: "In this business, fame lasts for a second. You can be blown up and be blown down. People keep losing interest in faces because new ones come along every single second. I'm one at the moment."

Odds: 25/1

And the nominations are

BEST PICTURE

Brokeback Mountain

Crash

Good Night, and Good Luck

Munich

Capote

BEST DIRECTOR

Steven Spielberg - Munich

Ang Lee - Brokeback Mountain

Paul Haggis - Crash

Bennett Miller - Capote

George Clooney - Good Night, and Good Luck

BEST ACTOR

Philip Seymour Hoffman - Capote

David Strathairn - Good Night, and Good Luck

Heath Ledger - Brokeback Mountain

Joaquin Phoenix - Walk the Line

Terrence Howard - Hustle & Flow

BEST ACTRESS

Judi Dench - Mrs Henderson Presents

Felicity Huffman - Transamerica

Charlize Theron - North Country

Reese Witherspoon - Walk the Line

Keira Knightley - Pride and Prejudice

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Rachel Weisz - The Constant Gardener

Michelle Williams - Brokeback Mountain

Frances McDormand - North Country

Amy Adams - Junebug

Catherine Keener - Capote

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

George Clooney - Syriana

Jake Gyllenhaal - Brokeback Mountain

Paul Giamatti - Cinderella Man

Matt Dillon - Crash

William Hurt - A History of Violence

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM

Don't Tell (Italy)

Joyeux Noël (France)

Paradise Now (Palestinian territories)

Sophie Scholl - The Final Days (Germany)

Tsotsi (South Africa)

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE FILM

Howl's Moving Castle

Corpse Bride

Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

Brokeback Mountain

Capote

The Constant Gardener

A History of Violence

Munich

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

King Kong

War of the Worlds

LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD

Robert Altman, director and writer

Comments