Meet the Queen
Hers is not a household name, perhaps never will be. Her non-Hollywood looks may not turn heads, but her talent penetrates, commanding admiration and respect. While fellow Brits Judy Dench, Maggie Smith, and Vanessa Redgrave, have etched their place on the international arena of film and fame, Helen Mirren has struggled for decades without achieving that status.
Helen Mirren Up to the royal challenge
This, despite a scintillating career in her native England, which started four decades ago and is still going strong, stronger than ever. From stage to TV to screen, she is constantly trudging along, year after year, immersing herself in every role, winning accolades and awards, but not superstardom. Now at 62, the tide may have turned for Helen Mirren. Last week at the Golden Globes, she won two Best Actress Awards for portraying two British monarchs, Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II, rather satiric, since she has always considered herself anti- monarchist.
Born Ilynea Lydia Mirinoff in London, 1945, to a White Russian aristocratic family who emigrated to England during the Russian Revolution, she knew she wanted to act by age of six. Her parents preferred the teaching profession, and in an effort to please them, Helen enrolled at a teacher's college, but gave up shortly thereafter and joined the National Youth Theatre. Her regal airs earned her the coveted role of Cleopatra in Shakespeare's Anthony & Cleopatra, for which she earned critical acclaim. Her stage career now thriving, she made her screen debut in the fogettable Herostratus (1968). Films proved more challenging. Her film career did not take off for another two decades, when she appeared in Neil Jordan's Irish thriller CAL (1984), where she portrayed an older woman in love with a younger man, for which she won Best Actress at Cannes Film Festival. She continued to push boundaries, always willing to go beyond safe conventionality, appearing in TV's Caligula, a porn offering from Penthouse, and the sexually charged The Cook, The Thief, and Her Lover (1989). She earned two Oscar nominations for her work as Queen Charlotte in The Madness of King George (1994) and Robert Altman's Gosford Park (2001). Her regal demeanour, her polish and poise, made her a perfect candidate for "queen" roles, but she shamelessly revealed all in risqué roles without blinking an eye. She did it again at 58, in the quirky Calendar Girls (2003), which featured her as a middle-aged woman raising money for a woman's institute. Her provocative poses also raised more than a few eyebrows. That same year she became Dame of the British Empire. A 2004 thriller, The Clearing, with Robert Redford went nowhere. Mirren had to wait for another regal role, or two, fully clad in both modern and 16th century opulence, to make the world notice.
Mirren tackled the Virgin Queen in HBO's mini-series Elizabeth I, not only as a seasoned ruler, but also a woman with a heart that can beat as hard and as fast as the rest of the human race. It is, however, the sublime rendition of the current Queen of Britain that revealed the royalty of her talent. The film deals with one of the most disturbing public events of recent times, the sudden death of princess Diana, 1997. Behind the public façade waged an intensely private battle of wills between the Royal family and the newly elected British Government, on how to respond to the tragedy. Director Stephen Frears could see no other in the part than Helen Mirren. "She's the queen of British drama and she even looks a bit like the Queen."
It was an irresistible offer. She plunged head on, working with a dialogue coach to grasp that upper-crust speech pattern, watching films of the Queen from childhood on to the present time. She needed to tread softly, impersonating a sitting monarch, distant, mysterious, authoritative, an impenetrable symbol of a more imperial England, now caught in a human, intimate, tragic plight. "Given the iconic status of the queen, I was terrified. I had photographs of her in my trailer and watched tapes all the time," confessed Mirren. She had to get so many things right, from her outside appearance to her intricate inner struggle, the hair, the stance, the hands, the walk, and of course, the inimitable voice. The result; a great and bewildered, troubled queen, who could never abandon her stoic, even stodgy appearance. Her performance was worthy of a Best Actress award at Venice Film Festival, and a Golden Globe win. Certainly, an Oscar nomination follows.
At the news of Diana's death, the global population was sent reeling into shock, and the global media into a frenzy, while the British Royal family responded with a deafening silence. They continued their holiday activities at their Scottish retreat in Balmoral, disregardful of public sentiment. It took a savvy new Prime Minister, Tony Blair, brilliantly played by Michael Sheen, to shake the very foundation of royal ritual and protocol, deftly guiding the royals through a more human and emotional response. The script by Peter Morgan ( The Last King of Scotland ), courageously depicts a monarchy in jeopardy, forcing the conservative monarch to submit to the display of love and grief from her subjects, for the dead princess.
Mirren's virtuoso performance never misses a beat. She even manages to give the queen an unmistakable sense of humour, while still retaining the regal restraint. This thoughtful and intelligent production is directed by Britain's gifted filmmaker Stephen Frears ( Dangerous Liaisons, My Beautiful Launderette ). "We are dealing with enormously powerful figures, seen in the most ceremonial of situations. Here we see the queen in her bedroom, in bed, watching television, and out driving her car, through the Balmoral Estate," explains Frears. Mirren gave it a humanistic, layered approach, swaying between the stultified royal and the sometimes relaxed charm of a mother, mother-in-law, and doting grandmother.
With so many queens in her theatrical career, Mirren has become adept at mimicking their grand gestures of nobility, never forgetting the value of the human being who also happens to be queen.
The glowing reviews may have finally transformed "The Queen" into a superstar.
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown
Henry IV (part 2)
(1564 -- 1626)