There are few women in Hollywood -- young and old -- who both tantalize and impress the masses like Helen Mirren, and being a seductive sixty-five-year-old woman only sweetens the pot. Where other actresses seem to fade away with passing years, Mirren defies the idea that there is a "prime" age for success. First a British stage and television star, Mirren has worked in the business since the late '60s, evolving from old-school sexpot to Oscar-winning actress known as much for her stellar acting talent as she is for her allure. She easily volleys between the puritan and the provocateur, taking on British royalty just as easy as tawdry Penthouse epics.
Now she's gearing up to offer both in one package as Victoria, the B&B-running retired gun-toter in Summit's 'Red,' hitting screens next week. With her continuing fame, we've wondered if she's a cinematic anomaly, or the frontwoman in a shifting world for women in Hollywood. But maybe her ever-increasing star power isn't all that surprising.
Mirren began her career in theater with Shakespearian classics like 'All's Well That Ends Well' and 'As You Like It,' eventually being dubbed "Stratford's very own sex queen" in the seventies, telling one journalist: "All that getting sanctioned by authority, settling down and doing the right things -- well, I can't say it appeals much. What I really fancy is getting a bit notorious ... " [NY Magazine]
And that she did. Even with impressive stage credits under her belt, Mirren quickly found saucy work in cinema, her first role in the experimental 1967 film 'Herostratus,' seductively revealing a small leotard and fishnets under a bright pink coverup. She looked at the camera and asked: "Do you want me?"
It's the sort of project that could have set her up like Jane Fonda or Racquel Welch. Writhing about as the camera lingered on her breasts definitely didn't tell the world that she was a very skilled actress. The Royal Shakespeare Company member might have embodied Will's work on stage, but on screen, she was the object of affection, delighting in the male sexual fantasies of 'The Extravaganza of Golgotha Smuts' (TV), or being a muse for the 'Age of Consent.' Of course, her ties to sexy characters were immortalized in the epically plotted and epically panned Penthouse feature 'Caligula,' playing "the most promiscuous woman in Rome," Caesonia. Mirren calls the project the "extra spice" added to her stage career, spice that continued with 'Hussy,' making Shirley Temple's "Good Ship Lollipop" seem sexy with 'The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu' or even the evil Morgana in 'Excalibur.'
But the tone of her media career started to change in 'the '90s. As Supt. Jane Tennison in the procedural drama 'Prime Suspect,' the firm, tough and talented side of Mirren became known to a wider audience. By the time she entered Kevin Williamson's world of 'Teaching Mrs. Tingle,' she was the older, venerable British performer who started to make strides into the spotlight. She'd received one Oscar nomination in 1995 for 'The Madness of King George,' earned another in 2002 with 'Gosford Park' and finally won in 2006 for 'The Queen.' (One more nomination followed this year with 'The Last Station.')
We know where Mirren's career has taken her in these last few years. 'Calendar Girls' came in 2003 to remind us of her sexual braveness. We were reminded of Caligula with the 2005 short, 'Trailer for a Remake of Gore Vidal's Caligula.' By the time "bodacious paparazzi shots" of Mirren in a bikini hit, we weren't allowed to think of her as the stodgy queen or one-note old and graceful woman. Dame Helen has made it clear that sexuality doesn't die with age.
But is it all that shocking? Thinking over her past -- especially the experimental work in the '60s -- one thinks of the likes of Fonda or Welch. The former may have reinvented herself so many times that 'Barbarella' is a distant memory, but Welch is still seen as the sexpot at the age of 70, much like Sophia Loren at the age of 76. The difference is that Mirren refused to fade, moving throughout the acting world, from stage, to television, to big screen.
She still revels in her ability to seduce, which NY Magazine described as: "She says nearly everything with a mischievous twinkle, like a naughty teenager appending ' ... in bed' to the end of every sentence." Where older women like Cloris Leachman and Betty White use frank sex jokes to shock, Mirren always makes it natural, even when joking about cups and balls playing beer pong with Jimmy Fallon.
In fact, she seems much like Fonda, balancing classic B fare with Oscar-winning roles. Mirren just found the Academy-loved gigs a few decades later. This does, in no way, dampen her accomplishments, but it does make them more relatable, seeming less like a fluke or the dawn of a new day, and more like cinema's appreciation of talent intermingled with female desire. And for that, she's certainly the Queen.