Lincoln Center pays tribute to a great Dame, Helen Mirren
Having won an Emmy and Golden Globe for Elizabeth I, a Tony, Olivier and Oscar as Elizabeth II (The Audience and The Queen) and an Oscar nomination as Queen Charlotte (The Madness of King George), Dame Helen Mirren certainly had her own coronation coming—and finally she got one April 30, courtesy of The Film Society of Lincoln Center, at an Alice Tully Hall packed to the rafters with adoring subjects.
“She’s played more queens than RuPaul,” cracked last year’s recipient, Robert De Niro, shortly before the 72-year-old English actress, glamorously gowned by Valentino, glided out of the audience onto the stage—regality in motion—to accept the 45th annual Chaplin Award from The Film Society. Named for its first recipient, Charles Chaplin, the prize has gone to fellow Brits like the director whose wife she played (Hitchcock) and co-stars who’ve been her husband (Michael Caine in Last Orders) and romantic rival (Laurence Olivier in Harold Pinter’s The Collection).
“This is what happens when we have weak immigration laws,” De Niro drily quipped with a helpless shrug, lightly leading into some heavy political ax-grinding. He and Mirren have never worked together—“except in my dreams,” she later asterisked—but all the other presenters who punctuated her film clips had prior Mirren history.
They were a pretty eclectic lot, too—a reflection of the jaw-dropping range and versatility the actress displayed in the assembled film footage. Even the honoree herself mentioned that the evening’s parade “seemed like one of those fantasy dinner parties with Cleopatra and Elvis or President Trump and Stormy Daniels.”
Dame Helen, like the American Streep and the Australian Blanchett, is game for any genre and can immediately, miraculously, make herself right at home, whatever it is.
Jeremy Irons, an Emmy-winning Earl of Leicester to her Emmy-winning Virgin Queen, attested to her royal attitude and altitude. “She’s always pushed boundaries and never worried about glass ceilings,” he said. “She’s always hovered above them.”
Vin Diesel, who came with his mother, credited Mom with matchmaking him and Mirren. She’d seen the actress on a talk show, confessing a crush on her son, so she suggested he take a meeting with her and talk up a film. Diesel did just that, properly braced for a little Mama-promised billing-and-cooing. Instead, Mirren was in a snappish mood. “Get your act together, Vin!” she charged. “I’ve been wanting to be in that Fast and Furious series forever!” It was a queenly decree, and, he added, “a favorite day in my career. She made me feel valued and important and special.”
Needless to say, he welcomed a chance to “make magic with her,” and he credited that Mirren magic with making The Fate of the Furious the series’ top-grosser.
Morgan Freeman, who was promised but a no-show, would probably have seconded Diesel’s claim that Mirren has absolutely no problem fitting into a man’s world—the more muscular and action-oriented the better—citing the Red series where she played the elegant assassin on his and Bruce Willis’ killer team. Even De Niro muttered aloud that she might be stealing mobster roles from him.
Director Julie Taymor testified to Mirren’s effortless and credible gender-bending in The Tempest, detailing how the actress turned Prospero into Prospera without making an issue of it. The part had previously been filmed a decade earlier with John Gielgud, whose Oscar-winning role Mirren also took on in a remake of Arthur.
Mirren’s often-overlooked comedy prowess was applauded by Billy Crystal, who put in a filmed appearance, because “my lawyer, Mickey Cohen, advised me not to come.” His Exhibit A’s were some “Funny or Die” sketches where he and Mirren played aging vampires—or grandpires. He also praised her work in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover: “She was terrific in all four of those roles.”
Mikhail Baryshnikov first laid eyes on Mirren when she was playing Ophelia at the National Theatre during his first visit to the U.K. in 1971. “She was extraordinary and unorthodox and insanely beautiful—I repeat, insanely beautiful,” he recalled.
Fourteen years later, they were cast by director Taylor Hackford in the same film, White Nights. “My role would be a ballet dancer who had defected from the Soviet Union.” He paused for the laugh, got it and then nailed it down with “It was a stretch. As I got to know Helen, I was amused to learn that her real name was originally Illiana Lydia Petrovna Mironova. She was playing my character’s former girlfriend, Galina Ivanova, a fellow Russian. Which means, if I had a scene in there where I had to kiss her, I could be investigated for colluding with the enemy.” More laughs.
“Acting with Helen was something else. It was a thrill and an education, as it has been for anyone who has ever had [the] great fortune to share screen time with her.
“So, in the end, everyone got something out of White Nights. I got to know my fellow Russian and appreciate what a great actress she is. Lionel Richie walked away with an Oscar for Best Song [‘Say You, Say Me’]. And Taylor Hackford—well, he was the big winner: He walked away with the girl, bringing Helen to Hollywood where she turned it upside-down, earning the best roles and giving us some of the greatest performances of the past three decades.”
Hackford, who has been Mirren’s companion for 30 years and husband for 20, assured the audience theirs was not love at first sight. He walked into the White Nights audition late and bumped into her on the way out. “She was well pissed off because I kept her waiting,” he remembered. “I apologized profusely and asked her to come back inside. She did, but she made it clear she was not interested in polite small talk. She said sharply, ‘Are we going to read or not?’ She did three scenes and then she got up and walked out… Whether her anger motivated this brilliant reading or she was just plain brilliant, I didn’t know, but I gave her the part.
“Now, 34 years later, I can tell you she is just plain old brilliant—not only as an actress but also as my life partner. The intelligence, wit and charm that seem to pour out of her on those late-night talk shows—it does not come from a battery of writers. It is who she is. She has an unerring instinct. When she came into our life with my two sons, she immediately said, ‘I’m not going to try to be your mother. You’ve both got mothers, and they love you. I’m going to be your friend, and I’m always going to take your side against your difficult father.’ And she did.”
When she finally hit the stage, Mirren cleared her throat with the F-bomb—which was raucously well-received by the audience because, coming from her, it somehow seemed classy. Then she gave them a choice of which version of her life they wanted. They opted for the long version, which started at six, playing the Virgin Mary in a blue veil with stars on it that she remembers to this day. Then there was a life-changing [read: life-directing] trip to the theatre for a variety show called Out of This World. Her wake-up call to the hazards of the profession that was starting to form occurred when she went out for Four and Twenty Blackbirds at school, dreaming of being a princess in pink chiffon but winding up in black leotards and a yellow beak.
Eventually, she hit on becoming a Shakespearean actor and was “boringly serious about that.” One rainy day in Brighton, cinema opened up to her when she stepped into a theatre to get out of the rain and saw Monica Vitti in Antonioni’s L’Avventura. (For the record, her “great goddess of film” is Anna Magnani.) When that medium finally opened up to her, she was a 24-year-old sexpot vamping James Mason in 1969’s Age of Consent. Her sensuality hasn’t deserted her a half-century later. Her Emmy-winning Jane Tennison on “Prime Suspect” added intelligence and vulnerability to her acting palette. In real life, she hails from the English working class, but her great-grandmother was a countess, and that could account for her pristine poise.
Put them all together, they spell Helen Mirren, one of the most sublime performers of her day. Her next stop will be a snug fit: a TV series on Catherine the Great.
Photo courtesy of Daniel Rodriguez.