Dame Judi Dench, Glenn Close, and Annette Bening bring their unrivalled talents to TIFF 2017.

By Rita Zekas

The Toronto International Film Festival promises to clog traffic and incite celebrity selfies and stalkers. But glitz, glamour, and clamor aside, this year heralds a near-record number of new directors—30 percent—coincidentally about the same percentage of films made by women directors in this year’s Canadian roster.

In addition, TIFF and the CBC Breaking Barriers Fund have partnered to help bankroll under-represented filmmakers. The TIFF-CBC Diverse Screenwriters Grant offers $10,000 to selected screenwriters who are female, Indigenous, belong to visible minorities or identify with a disability.

That said, there is no shortage of women tearing up the screen—if not the screenwriting. Charlize Theron kicked so much male butt in Atomic Blonde, she has been floated as the new Bond, opposed to the traditional Bond Girl/arm candy. And Dame Judi Dench, who played Bond’s boss M, is one of three formidable and trailblazing film femmes—alongside Glenn Close and Annette Bening—due at TIFF.

Judi Dench

There is nothing Oscar winner and seven-time nominee Dame Judi Dench (Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire) can’t do and hasn’t in her 60-year career. She can be imperious: she won a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her bravura six-minute performance as Queen Elizabeth 1 in Shakespeare in Love and is at TIFF playing Queen Victoria in Victoria and Abdul, in which the monarch develops an unlikely friendship with a young Indian clerk. She also played Victoria in her Oscar-nominated Mrs. Brown, in which the grieving queen sought solace after the death of adored husband Albert with a servant named Brown.

Crowning glories aside, she can be heart-breaking, giving up her child in Philomena and dealing with Alzheimer’s in Iris, and whimsical as one of the beleaguered retiree residents in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Touted for “playing dignified, strong-willed women in positions of authority who are often opposed or criticized by those under her,” in Dame Judi Dench: A Biography by Claire Shefchik, she can also tart it up royally. Dench created the role of salacious Sally Bowles in the London premiere of the outré musical Cabaret and she pulled off those torn fishnets and racy garters with attitude.

Despite her gigantic number of awards, theatrical, film, and TV credits—how much did we love her in the Britcom As Time Goes By?—diminutive five-foot-one-inch Dench is astonishingly self-deprecating. When director Peter Hall wanted her to play the Egyptian queen in the 1987 National Theatre production of Antony and Cleopatra, she protested “You are setting out to direct Cleopatra with a menopausal dwarf.” Hall prevailed and the production and his leading lady were triumphs.

Alas, Dench, who turns 83 on December 9, has macular degeneration and learns her lines aurally. But long may she reign.

Glenn Close

There are many memorable Glenn Close encounters, but arguably her most indelible was the deranged bunny boiler in her Oscar-nominated Fatal Attraction where she proved much more effective preventing husbands from straying than the threat of STDs. She wins the Oscar equivalent of the Susan Lucci Award for the most Academy Award-nominated living actress (six nominations, from 1982 for The World According to Garp to 2012 for Albert Nobbs) without the hardware.

This could be her year. Close is due at TIFF in the titular role of The Wife, based on the Meg Wolitzer novel about a writer who decides to leave her husband while he’s en route to receive a prestigious award.

She played a libidinous New York tabloid editor in The Paper in which she ad-libbed a delicious piece of business when she absent-mindedly pinched the skin on her wrist and decried that it didn’t spring back like it used to. Nothing does honey, when you are over 50. Incredibly, Close turned 70 on March 19.

Ageism in female film stars reared its sagging face this year in the Broadway revival of Sunset Boulevard, in which she reprised her Tony-Award-winning role as faded star Norma Desmond. Close  has two other Tony Awards: one for The Real Thing and one for Sunset Boulevard.

Close has archived her Sunset wardrobe along with all her film costumes and donated them to Indiana University. Everything from her lush Marie Antoinette-esque gowns in Dangerous Liaisons to the flamboyant finery of Cruella de Vil in 101 Dalmatians in which she chewed up the scenery like it was milk bone. Not so exotic are her duds from Albert Nobbs, in which she was buttoned-up as a woman posing as a man in 19th century Ireland to secure a position as a butler in Dublin’s swankiest hotel—Close and a cigar.

Annette Bening

Annette Bening has a respected acting resumé and is celebrated for her patrician looks (she is on the cusp of 60 yet appears annoyingly wrinkle-free), but she is probably more renowned for taming Tinseltown’s notorious aging lothario Warren Beatty. They clicked on the 1991 film Bugsy, in which Beatty played the Vegas mobster Bugsy Siegel and Bening was wise-cracking glam moll Virginia Hill.

Bening and Beatty wed 25 years ago and collaborated on four kids and four films: Bugsy, Love Affair, the doc Forever Hollywood and Rules Don’t Apply where Beatty portrayed eccentric mogul Howard Hughes and Bening had a supporting role as the mother of one of Hughes’ putative “protégés.”

Bening is at TIFF playing actress Gloria Grahame in Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, based on the memoir by Peter Turner about his relationship with Grahame in the last years of her life after being diagnosed with terminal cancer. Play misty-eyed for me.

Bening is a cinematic chameleon: she can be sex on legs in roles like seductive con artist in The Grifters scaring the pants off John Cusack. She can flex her comedic chops as an inept adulteress in American Beauty and as an aspiring actress with a penchant for a malapropism in Postcards from the Edge, boldly proclaiming she was “in it for the endorphin rush.”

Bening also gives good earth mother. In the terrific 20th Century Women she is an irrepressible ’70s Southern Californian mom who recruits two women to help raise her teenage son.

Lest we forget, she played the lead in the TV-movie Mrs. Harris, about the socialite who killed her lover, Scarsdale Diet doctor Herman Tarnower. Never come between a woman and her carbs.