Nothing Like a Dame
“Us women are so fucking useless sometimes,” says Helen Mirren. “We irritate me.” Not exactly queenly locution, coming from one who’s been crowned with laurels for a slew of royal performances, from Lady Macbeth and Titania onstage to Nigel Hawthorne’s supportive Teutonic consort in The Madness of King George (which earned her her first Academy Award nomination), to her Emmy-winning turn as Elizabeth I. Now in Stephen Frears’ justly acclaimed The Queen, she plays Elizabeth II coping with a monarchy in crisis exacerbated by the death of Princess Diana.
At this moment, though, Mirren is not talking about any of the queens she’s played. She’s administering feminist tough love to the woman readers who failed to support Mirabella magazine, which died of poor circulation several years after it ran my profile of Mirren timed to the enormously successful Prime Suspect television series, in which she played the hard-nosed detective inspector Jane Tennison. (The seventh and final installment of the show, focusing more on Tennison’s struggles with herself than with the criminal element, airs on PBS this November.) Though always well to the left politically (I can’t imagine the feisty Mirren I interviewed back in 1991 identifying as warmly with the British monarchy as she does today), Mirren has never been a knee-jerk feminist, especially when the agenda is roles for women of a certain age.
“I’ve always said don’t worry about roles for women,” she says. “Well, do, but don’t. Put your energy into creating great roles for women in life. We have a young, black secretary of state, whatever you think of her politics. It means that a little 4- to 5-year-old black girl can watch television and there’s this good-looking black woman in a position of power. If you have that, then the roles will follow. But don’t let’s say we have to keep on being queens to have good roles. There’s plenty of other good stuff out there.”
There certainly has been for Mirren, who, rather uncommonly for any actor, has never been out of work since her sensational debut with England’s National Youth Theater at age 18, playing the Queen of Egypt in Antony and Cleopatra. Mention her name to any randomly chosen male, and watch his eyes light up with discreet lust. Prior to Prime Suspect, Mirren was the thinking man’s pinup, thanks to her instinctively sensual turns as Bob Hoskins’ moll in John Mackenzie’s The Long Good Friday (1980), opposite Malcolm McDowell in Lindsay Anderson’s
O Lucky Man! (1973), and as an older woman involved with a young Irish terrorist in Pat O’Connor’s Cal (1984). At 61 years of age, Mirren is still no slouch in the department of carnal appeal, and not just because she gamely bared her breasts as recently as 2003 in the unmemorable Calendar Girls.
Mirren sees her sexual allure as more Simone Signoret than Brigitte Bardot, more Anna Magnani (“My goddess of acting”) than Claudia Cardinale. No matter how primly the actress perches with a cup of tea on the edge of a Four Seasons hotel couch at the end of a grueling day doing TV spots for The Queen, there’s still a restrained whiff of sexual challenge coming off that trim body, clad in a yellow jacket threaded with shiny bits and an above-the-knee skirt revealing gams a much younger woman would kill for. There’s a small tattoo on one of her wrists, but I’m not close enough to see what it is and I don’t dare ask, for despite her ready guffaw and chatty accessibility, there’s something steely and private about Mirren that quietly suggests you not go too far. Her drama-school diction, peppered with the third-person “one,” owes nothing to the down-market English resort town of Southend-on-Sea where she grew up, daughter of a line of butchers on her mother’s side and White Russian aristocracy on her father’s.
That blend of patrician reserve and straight-talking candor serves her beautifully as the notoriously held-in Elizabeth II, reluctantly dragged by her disapproving subjects and a media-savvy Tony Blair into a public display of grief for a daughter-in-law she never liked or understood. Mirren had met the queen “for all of 20 seconds,” presumably when she was made a Dame of the British Empire. “She was sweet and utterly charming and twinkly and a little bit funny, and easy and formal at the same time,” recalls Mirren. “She pitched it exactly right, and I was very taken with her.” She also believes the royal family got royally shafted by public hysteria over the death of Diana, who was “neurotic and manipulative, and very, very difficult.”
“They deserved their privacy; they’d just lost somebody in the family,” she says indignantly. “Diana had been really cruel to the royal family, and they had probably been pretty cruel to her. I think if you lose someone with unresolved issues like that, it’s really devastating.” All of which made Mirren nervous about playing Elizabeth in a movie by a director not known for his love of the upper crust. “I would have been very unhappy if I’d found myself high and dry in a film full of cheap shots,” she says, adding that she does take issue with the depiction of Elizabeth as a chilly mother who preferred her beloved corgis to her whiny son Charles. But onscreen, moving not more than two facial muscles tops, Mirren takes the full measure (drawing, surely, on her introverted housekeeper in Robert Altman’s Gosford Park, for which she got her second Oscar nomination) of a complex woman at once full of dry wit and uncomprehending horror at being roped into a media circus that ran counter to everything she’d been trained for. Until, that is, she bounces back and, to the admiration of “my 10th prime minister,” does the minimum necessary to survive the crisis.
Mirren’s sly, subtle portrait put me in mind of Prunella Scales’ wonderful HMQ in John Schlesinger’s excellent 1992 telefilm A Question of Attribution, based on Alan Bennett’s play about the queen’s relationship with her art adviser (and, on the side, Soviet spy), Sir Anthony Blunt. I doubt whether Her Royal Majesty would take umbrage at either portrait, but Mirren, endearingly protective, remains nervous. A copy of The Queen has been shipped to Buckingham Palace, but Mirren has no idea whether the royals will actually sit down and watch it. “Robert Lacey, a wonderful writer about the monarchy whose book I used substantially in my research, was asked the same question,” she says, and smiles wickedly. “And he said, ‘I think she would say, “Well, that could have been worse. I think it’s time for a gin and tonic.”?’?”
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