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After being honored with every acting award imaginable for her role in The Queen, it's tempting to think of Helen Mirren as prim and ever so proper. But those who have followed her career prior to her Oscar winning role tend to regard her as a sex symbol."No British actor has ever done sex quite like Helen Mirren," The Guardian said, adding that she has appeared without clothing more than any actress of her generation, including in 1995 when, at age 50, she appeared nude on the cover of Radio Times magazine.

"Flesh sells," Mirren says in explaining her frequent nude appearances. "People don't want to see pictures of churches. They want to see naked bodies." Still, she claims not to understand her sexy reputation. "I don't see it," she said, "and I don't get it, but it's been around me long enough."

Although her ancestors were not actors, there was plenty of drama in her family tree. Her great-great-great-great grandfather was a hero of the Napoleonic wars. Her grandfather, Pyotr Vassilievich Mironov, was a Russian nobleman who found himself  stranded in Britain when he was negotiating an arms deal during the Russian Revolution. He stayed in the U.K., and on July 26, 1945, his granddaughter, Helen, was born in West London. She was the second of three children born to a Russian father and an English mother. In the 1950s, her father changed the family name from Mironov to Mirren.

She attended a Catholic girls school where she became obsessed by the works of William Shakespeare and dreamt of being an actress. She was particularly smitten with  Shakespeare's portrait of Joan of Arc in Henry VI. "She was portrayed as the wicked witch. I loved her for that."

Not surprisingly, Mirren's parents did not think acting was a sensible career path for their daughter. With their encouragement, she enrolled in London's New College of Speech and Drama with plans to become a teacher. This was never her ambition, however, and her stay at the college would be short-lived. An acting career beckoned, and she auditioned for the National Youth Theatre when she turned 18. She was accepted and there was no turning back. Two years later, she was on the stage of the Old Vic playing Cleopatra in a production of Antony and Cleopatra. She was an immediate hit, and soon had a talent agent working on her behalf.

Mirren was soon a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company. In 1966, she played Castiza in The Revenger's Tragedy. Two years later, she was Cressida in Troilus and Cressida. In an interview at this time, she was unusually candid for an actor when explaining her drive to succeed.

"All my ambitions are based on jealousy," she said. "When I was a little girl and went to the theatre, I was always jealous of that girl on the stage. Now I'm jealous of people who can do as well as me."

As a girl, she also promised herself that if she became successful, she "wouldn't be just good. I wouldn't be just brilliant. I would be the greatest thing that there ever was."

Despite her success, she does not remember the early years of her career as being especially happy.

"Your twenties are torture," she would say, "because you don't know what you are going to be or whether it's all going to work out, and you are supposedly an adult but haven't really learnt anything."

She certainly learned enough by 1969 to cross over into films. Director Michael Powell took note of both her acting talent and her sex appeal by casting her in Age of Consent in which James Mason played an artist whose inspiration is reignited by his relationship with a girl 40 years his junior, played, of course, by the young Mirren. The film reinforced her sexy image and caused a mild sensation when released.

She returned to the stage to take the title role in Miss Julie in 1971, and in 1972-73, toured North Africa and the United States with Peter Brook's International Centre for Theatre Research. Visiting an Indian reservation in Minnesota, Mirren agreed to be tattooed with a symbol representing equality between her left thumb and forefinger. She calls it a "reminder that I was sometimes a bad girl in the past."   

She remained a bad girl when returning to the stage opposite Nicol Williamson in 1974 production of Macbeth at the Royal Shakespeare Company. As Lady Macbeth, one critic noted that she "plays everyone else off the stage." She was something of a bad girl offstage, too. In a letter to The Guardian, she criticized the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company for lavish productions that benefitted neither the plays nor the performers.

"The realms of truth, emotion and imagination reached for in acting a great play have become more and more remote," she said, "often totally unreachable across an abyss of costume and technicalities."

If such remarks ruffled feathers, that might have been one of her objectives. As she would later admit, she was not interested in "getting sanctioned by authority, settling down and doing the right things." She admitted that she preferred being "a bit notorious."

Notorious is the best way to describe Caligula. Scripted by Gore Vidal and produced by Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione, Mirren joined a cast of esteemed players that included Peter O' Toole, John Gielgud, and Malcolm McDowell for the historical epic that turned out to be more Penthouse than Vidal. The acerbic scribe fought to have his name removed from the film, and condemned it along with the critics, many of whom found it pornographic.  Variety spoke for many when it said that the film "will have to be seen to be believed. Malcolm McDowell as the sick and/or insane emperor runs the gamut of cardboard emotions from grand guignol to hapless pathos."   Mirren emerged from the mess unscathed, and continued to rack up further triumphs on stage. She won the 1976 Plays and Players Best Actress Award for her role as the rock star Maggie in David Hare's Teeth and Smiles, played Nina in The Seagull with the Lyric Theatre Company, and was described by The Guardian as "stirringly voluptuous" in The Bed Before Yesterday.  She played Queen Margaret in Henry VI and Isabella in Peter Gill's production of Measure for Measure. Of her performance in the 1981 production of John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi, critic Francis King wrote that "Miss Mirren never leaves it in doubt that even in her absences, this ardent, beautiful woman is the most important character of the story.

Mirren also continued her film career. Other than the fact that it would be the last film for Peter Sellers, 1980's The Fiendish Plot of Fu Manchu was unmemorable, but the same year's The Long Good Friday with Bob Hoskins was a success. Roger Ebert hailed it as "a masterful and very tough piece of filmmaking." As Morgana in 1983's Excalibur, Mirren seduced King Arthur, and played a Russian cosmonaut in the next year's 2010: The Year We Make Contact, a conventional sequel to Stanley Kubrick's 1968 science-fiction epic.

In 1985, she played D.H. Lawrence's married lover in Coming Through, and also played Mikhail Baryshnikov's Russian lover in White Nights. The film is particularly notable for having been directed by Taylor Hackford with whom Mirren would begin a relationship that would culminate with their marriage on New Year's Eve 1997. Mirren, who says she never had any desire for children, is now a stepmother to Hackford's two children although she admits she is more of a friend to them. "I was never very motherly towards them."

She was motherly as Harrison Ford's wife in 1986's The Mosquito Coast in which Ford's eccentric inventor leads his family on a Robinson Crusoe style adventure. Variety noted that Mirren "plays archetypal Mother Fox with an eloquent, Meryl Streepish glow."

In 1989, Peter Greenaway's The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover proved almost as controversial as Caligula, but the X rated film was more successful with both critics and audiences. The highly erotic film did nothing to dissuade audiences that Mirren was one of the screen's sexiest actresses as she and co-star Alan Howard had sexual encounters in a variety of unlikely settings.

The same year found her back in England in a pair of Arthur Miller plays titled Two Way Mirror. The playwright praised Mirren and co-star Bob Peck for not being afraid of "the open expression of large emotions."

"I knew it was going to be a wonderful project," she said of 1994's The Madness of King George. "I love wearing crowns and fancy dresses. You may laugh, but it's true. I don't mind if I don't have any lines as long as I get to wear a crown, you know."

Mirren received an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actress for the film whose success "reaffirmed something I've always believed and say over and over again which is that the audience is constantly underestimated by the makers of entertainment. There is a substantial market for material that is not obvious."

That year, she earned raves for her performance as a woman in love with her child's tutor in Ivan Turgenev's A Month in the Country at the Yvonne Arnaud Theater in the West End. Critic John Thaxter noted that with her "creamy shoulders bared, she feels free to launch into a gloriously enchanted, dreamily comic self-confession of love." Reprising the role on Broadway a year later, Mirren won a Tony nomination and more raves, with Vincent Canby's observing in The New York Times that she was "bigger and more animated" than she was in the original London production.

In 1999, she lent her voice to the animated Prince of Egypt, and added more awards to her mantle by winning both an Emmy and a Golden Globe for her role as the strong-willed Russian author of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged in the television production, The Passion of Ayn Rand. In 2000, she played a psychologist trying to diagnose Jack Nicholson's obsessed detective  in The Pledge, Sean Penn's second directorial effort, and tackled the role of Lady Torrance in Tennessee Williams' Orpheus Descending on the London stage.

One of her greatest successes at this time came on television as star of the acclaimed Prime Suspect series that aired in the U.S. on PBS. As the assertive, chain smoking detective Jane Tennison, Mirren would reach her largest audience yet.

"You do a bit of TV and more people know about you," she said. "I've always had a pretty high profile even though I was doing stuff like Shakespeare at Stratford-on-Avon. I've always been quite in the public eye."

In 2001, she joined the cast of Robert Altman's GosfordPark, earning a second Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actress, and winning the Screen Actors Guild Award in the same category. She also earned her second Tony Award nomination starring opposite Ian McKellen in August Strindberg's Dance of Death, a production that was in rehearsal during the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York.

In The Clearing, a 2004 kidnapping thriller in which she was cast as Robert Redford's wife, Mirren was praised by Peter Travers in Rolling Stone for her ability to "do more with a glance than most actresses could do with pages of dialogue . . . ." 

Despite an upbringing that she described as "very anti-monarchist," in 2003 she accepted an offer to become Dame Helen Mirren, though not without some reservations.

"In England, it's a big deal," she said. I do feel it's a great honor, but I had to think about it quite seriously for a couple of weeks. It does sort of squash you into the establishment thing. In the end, my baser feelings got the better of me. I succumbed to pride."

In 2006, Mirren would have a lot to be proud of when playing a figure who epitomizes the establishment. The Queen would become her greatest triumph to date.

Mirren was determined to play the role as respectfully as possible.

"I would feel very bad if she didn't like the way I played her. I certainly don't want to stick a knife in her," she said.

In The Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert hailed Mirren's "masterful performance, built on suggestion, implication and understatement," while Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian observed that Mirren "achieves an eerie transformation . . . . "

Mirren headed into awards season like a tank, mowing down all competition. Her performance was honored with awards from the Broadcast Film Critics, the National Board of Review, the Screen Actors Guild, and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA), not to mention dozens of critics' groups.

"It has been the most incredible year," she said. "You do the work and then . . . ."

At the Golden Globes, Mirren made history by scoring three separate acting nominations. She was cited for her roles in the TV productions Elizabeth I and Prime Suspect, and was named Best Actress for The Queen. Accepting the award, she said, "I honestly feel this award belongs to (Queen Elizabeth II), because I think you fell in love with her, not with me."

Mirren was considered a virtual lock for the Best Actress Oscar in a year when the other categories were considered too close to call. She won, as predicted, and cheerfully accepted filmdom's highest honor despite her belief that the Oscars are "the crem-da-la-creme of bullshit." She once observed that "All you have to do is to look like crap on film and everyone thinks you're a brilliant actress. Actually, all you've done is look like crap."

Although she's been anointed by Hollywood, she says "I don't work there." She describes the system as "terrifying because it is seen just as a commercial venture and actors and actresses are seen as just a commodity. That's an accepted reality in Hollywood. That's why I don't work there. I can't accept that and they can't accept me. We don't fit."

Nonetheless, she followed her Oscar victory with a role in National Treasure: Book of Secrets, a blatantly commercial sequel to the successful adventure starring Nicolas Cage.

In answer to a question about her choice of roles, she said, "They pick themselves, they reveal themselves through circumstance and accident and coincidence. Then, of course, I always look at the last page of the script to see if my character is there. If she is, I'm content."

And if Mirren is content, her millions of fans will be, too. When speaking of Queen Elizabeth II, Mirren might just as well have been describing her own appeal:

"I think she's a person who is genuine, she refuses to be fake."


--by
Brian W. Fairbanks

To find out more, pick up a copy of Ms. Mirren's new book, IN THE FRAME!



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