Judi Dench Thinks She Can Do Better

Judi Dench | George Harrison | Tom Cruise 

Judi Dench Thinks She Can Do Better

Dame Judi Dench was in town last night for the premiere of her new film, Iris.

The actress — who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in Shakespeare in Love and has been nominated two other times for last year's Chocolat and 1997's Mrs. Brown — is admittedly a late bloomer. A theatre and TV star in the United Kingdom for years, the 66-year-old thespian has only recently vaulted to the unofficial title of "Best Actress of All" — a title held at various times by Meryl Streep, Katharine Hepburn and an elite group of others.

But Dame Judi — who looked stunning last night on her two-day break from performing in The Royal Family in the West End — said that she's trying to find ways to improve herself.

"I'm always trying to learn and be better at what I do," she said at the Iris premiere, where co-stars Kate Winslet (with new beau director Sam Mendes), Jim Broadbent and Hugh Bonneville were among the guests along with Glenn Close, Natasha Richardson and husband Liam Neeson, Blythe Danner and Gwyneth Paltrow. In a really unusual move, the stars and the screening audience gave Iris a standing ovation when it was finished.

Dame Judi also confided that until recently she wasn't so comfortable becoming a film star late in life.

"I've been learning about it, and now I know more," she said. "When Mrs. Brown happened, I was new at it. It took so long for me to break into films. But now I'm enjoying myself a bit."

And why not? In addition to Iris — for which she will undoubtedly be nominated for an Oscar, and may in fact win — Dench will return to the big screen next Christmas in the next James Bond movie as 007's boss, M. "They haven't even finished the script yet. I don't know what it's called or what I'm doing in it. But we start in the spring."

She also stars in Miramax's The Shipping News for Christmas and the same studio's The Importance of Being Earnest, which arrives next summer.

And British Dench fans will be happy to know that the actress — who's a certified TV star back home — will resurrect her popular series As Time Goes By for "four or five more episodes next year. We're going to wrap it up. We didn't want to leave people hanging."

The series celebrates its tenth anniversary in January.

George's Wake and Other Beatle Observations

I am told that George Harrison's family held a wake right after he died last week in Los Angeles. Even though Harrison was cremated, several of his friends — including Monty Python star Eric Idle — rushed over to the home of Gavin de Becker for a service honoring the late Beatle.

It is unlikely that any of George's three siblings or two former Beatle mates attended. His sister Louise, who lives in Illinois, reportedly had been estranged from the singer/guitarist.

Meanwhile, Beatle punditry seems to be at an all time high — even though it may not be terribly accurate. A life time friend of Harrison told me last night though that he and others have been amused at all the Beatle experts and historians who turned up on American TV over this past weekend.

"These are people who didn't know George and were kept out of the inner circle," this friend said. "The real friends certainly are not speaking to the press right now and wouldn't want to see their names there."

Tom Cruise Finally Says: I'm Straight

He sues people over it, and doesn't like to answer interview questions about it, but Tom Cruise has finally gotten to answer his critics and gossips. In his new movie, Vanilla Sky, Cruise insists to a strange little man who is not coming onto him: "I'm straight!"

It's only one of many odd moments in an odd movie set for Christmas release. Vanilla Sky is a remake of the Spanish film, Abre Los Ojos. If you haven't been following this story, then here goes: the Spanish film starred Penelope Cruz. She plays the same character in the American version, except with her usual uncertain, broken English.

The original movie was directed by Alejandro Amenabar, who wisely declined to remake his own film and instead made the more successful The Others starring Cruise's ex-wife Nicole Kidman.

Cameron Crowe, one of my favorite directors (Almost Famous, Jerry Maguire) took this project on as a favor to Cruise, who really wanted to make the movie. It was not a good idea, as it turns out.

Already the buzz from screenings is that Vanilla Sky has been scratched from the Oscar race. Until I saw it on Friday, I didn't understand what these naysayers were braying about. Cameron Crowe doesn't make mistakes. But by sticking faithfully to the original film, Crowe paints himself into a corner and can't get out.

Think of Vanilla Sky as Charlie's Angels, with Cruise as Farrah Fawcett, Penelope Cruz as Jaclyn Smith and Cameron Diaz once again portraying Kate Jackson. Indeed, even with a stunning make-up job so that he looks disfigured from a car accident, Cruise has never looked better in any movie. His hair is colored a deep chocolate and waves while he moves. Critics have discussed Cruise's locks in previous outings, but this time he's having a follicle fantasy. Kudos to Sharon Doran, who colored and maintained Tom's mane. They may have to start an Oscar category for her.

For the first hour or so, Vanilla Sky is a pleasing story of romance, love and loss. Cruise plays a very rich kid who has inherited his father's publishing company. But he's also inherited a board of directors — The Seven Dwarves — that he claims hate him and want him ousted. As David Ames, Cruise confesses that he's been "snowboarding" through life. Nevertheless, he's now an advocate of Reading with a capital "R" — even though you never see him pick up a book or discuss books or meet with writers. None of this publishing stuff is accurate or plausible, but hey — why quibble?

If the publishing subplot doesn't make sense, at least David Ames's personal life is fun. He's sleeping with Cameron Diaz, but doesn't love her. He treats her like trash, so she becomes obsessed with him. At the same time, Ames/Cruise is such a loyal buddy to his best friend, a pop writer played by Jason Lee, that he steals his new girlfriend (Penelope Cruz) right out from underneath him.

In short order — I won't tell you how — Ames becomes hideously disfigured. He also watches a lot of commercials for cryogenic freezing. After a year or so out of commission he reappears. Sometimes he wears a latex mask to cover his wounds. Sometimes he doesn't. Is this a clue to something? Hard to say. Mostly, in this American version, you wonder how this mask stays perfectly clean all the time. You also worry about Tom's facial hygiene underneath the mask. Or why no one in public questions the fact that he's wearing it at all.

Meanwhile, Cruz — who's been part of a real life hype machine with Cruise for months — is a mess. A true beauty in real life, here she loses the battle for screen presence with Tom instantly. And, because of her hesitation speaking English, her lines are delivered haltingly and awkwardly. The one time she looks comfortable is when she says something in Spanish.

Diaz, in the Fatal Attraction/Glenn Close role, is pretty much wasted, as is the gifted Tilda Swinton. Tom's first cousin, William Mapother — now getting positive notices in In the Bedroom — makes his usual cameo appearance in a Cruise vehicle, this time in a nightclub. He's become to Tom Cruise movies what "Al" and "Nina" are to Hirschfeld caricatures.

What can be said about Cameron Crowe here? He fell into a trap. There is almost no good way to translate European films into American. Americans are literal, specific, impatient. Europeans can accept dreamlike states, ambiguities and languor. American characters confront each other. Think of John Cusack in Say Anything or Cruise as Jerry Maguire or Patrick Fugit playing Crowe's alter ego in Almost Famous. These people want answers, and don't tolerate any nonsense.

But the only way to accept Vanilla Sky is to suspend disbelief, and Crowe just can't do it. The original movie didn't make much sense. Amenabar was okay with that. But American audiences are not apt to go for such an idea. Freezing someone cryogenically didn't work in Forever Young and doesn't work here. The first thing that comes to mind is a Walt Disney joke. I'm sure there were a lot of them on the set.