As SBS Viceland screens John Boorman’s Excalibur in its cult classics season, all eyes will be on Helen Mirren’s wonderfully beastly performance as the evil sorceress Morgana. It’s one of the roles that made the world take notice of the young actress from Hammersmith, London. Let's recount other roles in which she ruled the screen.
Michael Chapman’s gritty 1980 British drama Hussy was one of our first glimpses at the Helen Mirren we know and love. Exuding sass appeal, she plays Beaty Simons, a high-class prostitute working at a sleazy London cabaret who falls for sound/lighting technician Emory (John Shea). Throw in dodgy drug deals, the daily grind of the sex trade and the jealousies that rage when your new partner works as a call girl, and Hussy, with all its kitchen sink earthiness, is a great vehicle for the actress. Mirren is the heart and soul of the film, giving her all in a revealing role.
In Peter Greenaway’s lavish The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover she plays the wife of a bullish and violent gangster Albert Spica (Michael Gambon), who is driven to an extreme act of violence. Spica owns high-class Le Hollandais Restaurant, run by French chef Richard Boarst (Richard Bohringer), every night, he and his men frequent the establishment. When he discovers that Mirren’s Georgina is having an affair with bookworm and restaurant regular Michael, played by Alan Howard, he kills him. Distraught and filled with rage, Georgina persuades the chef to cook Michael. The cooked corpse is presented to Spica who chows down (fun fact: the penis is a delicacy, apparently).
Mirren’s first film role was as the frequently naked teenage muse of James Mason's ageing artist in Michael Powell’s Age Of Consent (shot in Australia). She followed it with dual roles in Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man! But it was later in life when the sex symbol tag started to stick.
There’s a moment in John McKenzie’s iconic British gangster flick The Long Good Friday when Helen Mirren’s Victoria is riding a lift up to her apartment with one of her partner and gangland boss’s goons Jeff (Derek Thompson). The pair share an awkward glance. The man who stands between them, metaphorically speaking, is Harold Shand (the late great Bob Hoskins). Jeff takes his chance, leers at Victoria and utters the immortal phrase "I want to lick every inch of you." Suddenly Mirren became a sex symbol.
And then came Caligula. “An irresistible mix of art and genitals,” that’s how Mirren described Tinto Brass’s much-maligned mega-budget pornographic folly. Amongst a star-studded that included Peter O’Toole and Sir John Gielgud, she played Caesonia, to Malcolm McDowell’s Emperor Caligula. She and her cast members were nude but she didn't participate in Bob Guccione’s hard-core porn segments (commissioned to 'spice up proceedings'). “Everyone was naked in that,” she joked to People magazine. “It was like showing up for a nudist camp every day. You felt embarrassed if you had your clothes on in that movie.”
In later years Mirren has picked up automatic weaponry in the seniors-on-a-mission actioner Red and played Jason Statham’s Mum in The Fate Of the Furious but the actress has thrilled us with her tough roles that have showed us Helen Mirren kick’s arse.
The moment, for many, when Mirren became a household name was when she took on the role of Jane Tennison in Lynda La Plante’s Prime Suspect. Tennison was the first female Detective Chief Inspectors in Greater London's Metropolitan Police Service. She rose to Detective Superintendent in the boys club that was known as the British Police Force and in turn, gave British cop shows, normally a testosterone loaded the Sweeney and The Professional a much needed feminine touch. The show was huge, was remade in the United States, and gave Mirren powerful and important role to sink her teeth into.
When John Boorman cast Mirren as King Arthur’s evil half-sister Morgana in his epic telling of the Arthurian legend Excalibur he knew what he was doing. There was no love lost between Morgana and Merlin and knew there was tension between Mirren and Nicol Williamson who he wanted to play he magician. Seven years previous, the pair had performed in Hamlet together and they had been on less than friendly terms ever since. The tension between the two is palpable. She told The Hollywood Reporter, “I said I didn’t think I could do it then, because we had this horrible relationship. John convinced me that he would help to make it work, and of course, being greedy and wanting the role, I said ‘Fuck it. I’ll just put up with it.’”
Mirren won the 2006 Best Actress Oscar for her role in Steven Frear’s The Queen. All of her trademark sass and sexiness corseted tightly into the restrained figure of Elizabeth II. The actress lending grace and poise to Peter Morgan’s brilliant script. When the casting choice was announced many eyebrows were raised but after watching her play the reigning British monarch, you cannot imagine anyone else handling the crown and sceptre which such stately aplomb. She told Vanity Fair, “The Queen doesn’t need to smile! Or make us think how charming or beautiful she is. She’s not at a permanent red-carpet event.”
The British Queen wasn’t the first royalty that Mirren has been a member of. In brilliant adaptation of Alan Bennett's neo-Shakespearean play The Madness Of King George she played Queen Charlotte opposite Nigel Hawthorne’s King George III. It’s a beautiful performance by Mirren. At once heartbreaking and tragic, Mirren imbues her Queen with a remarkable inner strength.
We already mentioned she won an Oscar but Mirren also bagged BAFTAs galore including three consecutive wins between 1992 and 1994. And she’s a Dame! At the age of 71, Mirren remains an expert at picking the perfect role. Throughout her career, she has juggled theatre with brilliant work on screen on films like The Mosquito Coast, Calendar Girls, Teaching Mrs Tingle and Gosford Park, all the while happy to pay the odd bill by appearing in nonsense like the Arthur remake and National Treasure 2: Book Of Secrets. And she has just finished shooting gun-toting spookfest Winchester in Melbourne with Aussie siblings the Spierig brothers. Mirren remains a funny, witty and engaging talent, who adds class to whatever project she is performing in.
Let’s hear it for the Dame.
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