After four decades winning acclaim and applause on the London stage, Dame Judi Dench has shown movie audiences that she is a class act on screen as well.

She is nominated for an Academy Award for her portrayal of a lonely Queen Victoria in "Mrs. Brown.""Lots and lots of people who've never heard of me have written to me," the actress said one recent afternoon, her inimitably husky voice bearing traces of a lingering cold and cough.

"I get a huge amount of stuff from America saying, `I've never heard of you; will you send me a biography? I only knew of you in `Goldeneye' and `Mrs. Brown.' And now," she adds mischievously, " `Tomorrow Never Dies,' if they're lucky and quick and don't blink too much."

While contemporaries such as Vanessa Redgrave, Glenda Jackson and Maggie Smith were regularly traveling to Hollywood, picking up Oscars along the way, the Yorkshire-born Dench was making her name as a brilliant actress whose physique somewhat belies her success on stage.

"She's 5-foot nothing, and yet she's got sex and wit, wit and sex," said Sir Peter Hall, who directed her bravura performance as Cleopatra to Anthony Hopkins' Antony in the Shakespeare tragedy at the National Theater in 1987.

Dench has performed Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekhov and Oscar Wilde, as well as new plays such as David Hare's "Amy's View," in which she currently stars at the Aldwych Theater on the West End.

So beloved is she in English theater circles that one scribe once wrote that to pan Dench in a play was "like strangling a dog."

In the early 1980s, producer Cameron Mackintosh, composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and director Trevor Nunn tapped her to be the first Grizabella in a then-iffy project called "Cats." Injury forced Dench to leave the production before it opened, only to find the role reconceived as a vehicle for belters like Elaine Paige and Tony-winner Betty Buckley.

Dench never had anything so lofty as an Oscar in mind when she and co-star Billy Connolly set out for Scotland to make "Mrs. Brown," a small-scale love story in which passion is communicated by glances and feeling rather than by shedding clothes.

The movie was originally intended for the BBC. "It's very surreal," Dench said. "This is a film that was going to be done on TV." Now it has two Oscar nods, one for makeup design.