So the other night I was watching the second movie in the RED series, which is like the semi-thinking man's Expendables, and reckoning what fun it was to see a great serious actress like Helen Mirren mixing it up with an action star like Bruce Willis. And then I thought: "Hang on, when did Helen Mirren become a great serious actress?"
Well, somehow she did. Dame Helen, as she now is, is having a rather good March, having just opened in the Broadway production of her West End hit, The Audience (playing the Queen, again), and with a new movie out this weekend, Woman In Gold, in which she plays an elderly Holocaust survivor taking on the Austrian government. She is the grande dame of British Equity, grander somehow than Dame Maggie Smith and Dame Judi Dench, if only because of the grandeur of the roles: She is the only actress to have played both queens Elizabeth, in successive years and with an Oscar, Emmy and Golden Globe to show for it. It's been an amazing Indian summer for someone who 15 or so years had become a bit of a joke as the aging underdressed totty of British cinema. I don't know how she pulled it off, given that for the previous three decades it was mostly her kit she'd been pulling off.
Even in newspapers. Until her surprise New Year nuptials 17 years ago Dame Helen had spent years explaining to People, Hello!, OK and other journals of record that she didn't believe in marriage, and her own arrangements were anyway far superior: she was the only contributor to those "day in the life" features in the Fleet Street Sunday color supplements whose morning routine began, not with Radio 4 and a bowl of organic muesli, but by setting the alarm clock an hour early in order to make love to "my chap".
After twelve years of wake-up calls, the chap in question, Hollywood director Taylor Hackford, appeared to be holding up remarkably well at the small Highland wedding on Hogmanay 1997. The bride wore ...clothes, which was still a sufficiently rare occurrence for Dame Helen as to make it front-page news. Previously, she had appeared nude in Caligula; she appeared nude in The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover; she appeared nude on the cover of the BBC's listings magazine Radio Times, which suggests a certain obsessiveness about the whole business. Sex had been central to her identity since the beginning. In her first film, Age of Consent (1969), she was a naked muse on the Great Barrier Reef for James Mason. In her first professional stage play Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs, in Sunderland, her big line was: "Will you shaft me?"
By her early fifties, it looked like it was Helen who was getting the shaft, whose alarm clock had exhausted its batteries. After decades as "the sex queen of the RSC", "the only Lady Macbeth who can turn you on" and a panting posse of critics slavering like Bernard Levin over "the opulence of her bosom", her big television drama, Painted Lady, was greeted with scornful cracks about how, even with the paint, she was far too old for the role. And, for all her unconventional views on marriage, she'd played the conventional role of subordinating her career to her man's, spending much of the year at Hackford's home in Los Angeles. The price she paid was the virtual end of her British stage career, but without the quid pro quo of any big-time Hollywood roles. By the turn of the century, her time in California hadn't netted her much more than the $3,000 Universal paid her and her chum Carinthia West for a sitcom treatment. The show, English Muffins, about two British girls flat-sharing in LA, never happened, and, when eventually Dame Helen did make it big on American television - well, okay, PBS - with Prime Suspect, and got nothing but praise ("the most sustained example of great acting in the history of television" - Esquire), she still wound up sitting around twiddling her thumbs in Hackford's house in Beverly Hills, with the added irritation of hearing at cocktail parties the latest rumor as to which younger woman was being touted for her part in the Prime Suspect movie - Michelle Pfeiffer, Uma Thurman, Drew Barrymore and a host of other names that automatically spring to mind when you think of a harassed, overworked, down-at-heel middle-aged British policewoman.
But she was playing a long game, very cunningly. She was born Ilyena Lydia Mironoff in 1945, the granddaughter of a wealthy Tsarist colonel who'd come to Britain to negotiate an arms contract and been left stranded by the Revolution. Her other grandfather was a butcher and horse dealer in the East End - which gives some idea of the decline in status Colonel Mironoff had to adjust to. Helen grew up in Southend-on-Sea "looking out the window at night at a particular configuration of stars, and I would see this huge letter A in the sky. It was enormous, and it was the last thing I would see before going to sleep. For me, it represented Acting, and it represented America".
She trained as a teacher, but playing Cleopatra with the National Youth Theatre brought her to the attention of the London agents and the Royal Shakespeare Company. Soon she was appearing every evening at Stratford and returning every night to a haze of "bongo drums and fiveskin spliffs" at a nearby aristocratic commune called "Parsenn Sally", run by Lady Sarah Ponsonby and numbering among its occasional guests Princess Margaret. Her boyfriend then was Prince George Galitzine, the first of a string of almost-famous escorts who seem to have taken up an awful lot of her time without ever doing very much for her career. There was a young actor from Ballymena she met on Excalibur (1981), whom she moved into her house in Fulham - Liam Neeson. She left him behind in England to go and chase fame and fortune in Hollywood, but the breakthrough parts never came her way, while he eventually landed Schindler's List. There were other reasons for leaving: Margaret Thatcher. "Her politics actually drove me out of England," she said. "England became too much like America" - which seems an odd reason to go to America.
As the years passed, critics forgot how serious the early work was - Lady Macbeth, Cressida, the Duchess of Malfi. But a British film actress has to be less picky and, on screen, she soon settled down into the usual art-house knicker-dropping. Hussy (1980), in which she played the title role, doesn't even make it onto her resume. Of those films that do, in Excalibur she seduces her brother for the express purpose of spawning a monster to succeed him; in Peter Greenaway's The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1990), she winds up getting her husband to eat her dead sweetheart; in Harold Pinter's The Comfort of Strangers (1990), she and Christopher Walken are a couple of creepy Venetians who ensnare Rupert Everett and Natasha Richardson in their web of sadomasochistic delights. And then there was Caligula, the world's first big-budget porn film. Bob Guccione, of Penthouse, and his director, Tinto Brass, offered her the role of the courtesan Caesonia over dinner. "I've got Malcolm McDowell, the best film actor," Guccione told her, "I've got Sir John Gielgud, the best stage actor, I've got Peter O'Toole, the best movie star, I've got Gore Vidal, the best screenplay writer. . . ."
At which point, Brass leaned over to her and finished the sentence: "To make the worst movie." He was right. But Dame Helen did it for the money and came out of it with enough for a hundred acres of Scottish woodland and a new Honda.
But then she dropped the igula and did the monosyllabic Cal (1984), in which, as a policeman's widow embarking on an affair with a young IRA guy involved in his killing, she gives a tender, touching performance - her hair an unfamiliar auburn, her sexuality not the usual exhibitionism but shy and gentle; and The Madness of King George (1994), for whom, in an Oscar-nominated performance, she was a charmingly devoted German consort, "Mrs King"; and, of course, Prime Suspect. She'd played a policewoman once before - opposite Peter Sellers in The Fiendish Plot of Dr Fu Manchu - but, by the time she got to DCI Jane Tennison, she'd been through enough to know that a drama about sexism in the police force was also a statement about the world of acting and the crummy sacrifices a woman makes to have any kind of career. Surrounded by doughey, veiny-nosed, sour-mouthed, plug-ugly male detectives, Helen Mirren, all parched skin and sour gaze, came into her own. The very absence of sex gave a sexual charge to the atmosphere, like (as one critic put it) "a cat on heat". In the next two decades, she aged better than most - and certainly better than most of her Beverly Hills neighbors - and, compared to the immobilized features of the average over-remodeled Hollywood actress, she glows with the real beauty that can only come with age. Her performance in The Queen was great, and in RED was great fun. And in this improbable Third Act a great survivor is having the time of her life.