What a Dame!
As Helen Mirren starts filming her latest role as Alfred Hitchcock’s wife, Samantha Norman celebrates Britain’s leading lady
What is it about Helen Mirren? Could it be her glorious career that has seen her awarded a DBE in 2003, and gongs at the Oscars, the Emmys, the Golden Globes? Could it be her tireless, low key, charity work? Or the fact that this truly beautiful star could still give Marilyn Monroe a run for her money – at 66?
Could it simply be her charm, good grace and modesty? ‘I’ve never seen it,’ she said when asked to define her appeal. ‘I appreciate beauty, and I know that I’m not beautiful, so I know it’s not to do with that. I appreciate overt gorgeousness, sexiness – the Marilyn Monroe type of thing – and I know I’m not that, so I don’t see it, and I don’t get it, but it’s been around me long enough.’
Certainly part of her appeal is her ability to appear natural. Unlike many actresses of her generation, for example, she has had no ‘work’ done. It is an increasingly rare quality in an industry where even younger actresses, such as Frances Barber, who recently admitted to saving up for a facelift, feel under pressure to turn back time. Like her fellow dames, Maggie and Judi, Helen Mirren wears her wrinkles with an insouciant pride unplumped by Botox and fillers. But nor has she become a cosy National Treasure. She simply juts out that determined chin at the rest of the world and its cumbersome pursuit of eternal youth and shimmies on undimmed. But then she has always been different.
She was born Ilynea Lydia Mironoff in Chiswick, west London. Her paternal grandfather, a Russian noble and diplomat, came to England to negotiate an arms deal but, with the outbreak of the Russian Revolution, found himself stranded here permanently to raise the next generation of Mironoffs in rather more modest circumstances than he had been used to.
Her mother was one of 14 siblings and came from a family of butchers, and her father – who changed the family name to the more Englishsounding Mirren – was a taxi driver turned chief traffic examiner who fought against Mosley’s Blackshirts in London’s East End.
Perhaps it was from him that she inherited not only those imperious cheekbones but her liberal-left politics and the social conscience that has driven her to add her voice to a number of causes. These range from opposition to the military dictatorship in Burma to the plight of children in war-torn Uganda and, most recently, the London Ambulance Voluntary Responder Group, for whom she is now patron.
She took it on when a friend collapsed from a heart attack last year at the premiere of her film, The Debt. The fact that he survived was thanks to the intervention of Police Constable Alan Moore, himself a London Ambulance Voluntary Responder.
‘It’s very simple,’ Mirren said with a typically no-nonsense approach when asked why she took it on. ‘These people saved my friend’s life. In 10 or 15 minutes, he would have been dead if he had not had the good fortune of Alan being there. I just want more people to have this chance.’
Mirren hadn’t always wanted to be an actress. Indeed, when she left school, on her father’s advice, she considered a teaching career.
But then she auditioned for the National Youth Theatre, got accepted and by the age of 20 was stirring both the loins and intellect of the country’s foremost theatre critics. The Mirren Effect had begun.
Her first film success came in 1980 when she starred opposite Bob Hoskins in The Long Good Friday, and over the ensuing decades she has won an astonishing 65 acting awards of varying importance. In her time she has been the ‘sex bomb’ – an epithet she loathed, incidentally – of the Royal Shakespeare Company and an idol of national television as DCI Jane Tennison in Lynda La Plante’s Prime Suspect. She was 45 when she took that role and found it liberating. ‘It was a huge relief not having to play even a year younger than my age,’ she said.
In the last 15 years she has been nominated for an Academy Award – ‘the crème de la crème of bullshit’, as she calls them – four times, for her performances in The Madness Of King George, Gosford Park, The Last Station and Stephen Frears’s The Queen, for which she won an Oscar in 2007.
She was an absolute shoe-in for that – the bookies had her at 66-1 on – wiping the floor with rivals of the calibre of Judi Dench, Meryl Streep, Penélope Cruz and Kate Winslet. Afterwards, and with typical modesty, she was much given to crediting the real Queen for her success, claiming that it wasn’t so much her performance the audiences loved but the fact that the film itself had tapped into an underlying affection for the monarch that had been forgotten.
Well, up to a point, perhaps, but as one critic said, ‘It cut both ways. Mirren’s performance was quite astonishing. She did not simply portray the Queen – she became the Queen, and the warmth and sensitivity of her performance have done more for the image of the monarchy than the Queen herself could have accomplished, even if somehow she had managed to abolish income tax.’
Just at the moment, she’s in California filming alongside Anthony Hopkins, Scarlett Johansson and Jessica Biel for a biopic of Alfred Hitchcock, in which she plays his wife, Alma Reville.
Her success, she says, is due partly to the unwavering support of her husband and partner of the last 26 years, the film director Taylor Hackford, and a determined personal work ethic.
‘All my ambitions are based on jealousy,’ she says. ‘When I was a little girl and went to the theatre, I was always jealous of that girl on stage. Now I’m jealous of people who can do as well as me.’ For once, she can relax – there are very, very few of those.
Daily tip from the lady archive
"It is not always she who appears most kindly in her interest who is the safe sharer of sacred (maybe sorrowful) secrets! Charming manners do not always connote sincerity of heart!”The Lady. In Confidence. 4th April, 1918