- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 14, 2007


Four months ago, Dame Helen Mirren was thinking about giving up acting for good. Now those thoughts of early retirement are forgotten as the 61-year-old embarks on her most lucrative role to date, as Britain’s biggest female box-office star.

As expected, Miss Mirren, nicknamed the “sexy sexagenarian,” won the coveted best-actress award at Sunday’s BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) ceremony for her title role in “The Queen.” She also is the runaway favorite to win the best-actress Oscar Feb. 25, ahead of fellow Brit nominees Dame Judi Dench and Kate Winslet.

To cap it all, Miss Mirren has been invited to tea with the real Queen Elizabeth II, whom she says she has met previously for just 20 seconds at a polo match, and she is making plans to visit recently discovered relatives in Russia.

An Oscar win would send Miss Mirren’s career into orbit. Industry experts predict that her salary would rocket from $2.9 million to closer to $9.7 million, putting her in the same bracket as younger British stars such as Miss Winslet and Keira Knightley.

It also would demonstrate that Hollywood is waking up to the fact that older actresses can deliver at the box office and that the British film industry — which adores Miss Mirren — is booming for the first time in nearly 20 years.

Miss Mirren is also an experienced stage actress, and her new pulling power is likely to bring offers of leading roles in both London’s West End and on Broadway.

“Helen hasn’t announced a major project since September, and that is very significant,”says Fionnuala Halligan, international editor of Screen International, the influential trade paper.

“She is obviously fielding offers and deciding what to go for, but she won’t want to play parts she feels aren’t worth the effort. British films, which are doing well at the moment, are likely to be more interesting to her.”

However, the success of “The Queen” is not all that’s pushing Miss Mirren’s star ever higher. Her recent successes in PBS’ “Prime Suspect 7” and HBO’s “Elizabeth I” (for which she won an Emmy and a Golden Globe), mean that both producers and cinemagoers recognize her worth.

Julian Fellowes, the Oscar-winning writer who collaborated with Miss Mirren on his 2001 film “Gosford Park,” says a win for her would be very popular as recognition for an entire body of work. Her age would be no bar to great roles, he added.

“She is a great actress, of course, but she has also retained a sexual dimension, which makes her characters three-dimensional,” Mr. Fellowes says.

This sex appeal also means she could net a small fortune with commercial endorsements. Shortly after her triumph with “The Queen” at the Venice Film Festival, she landed a high-profile advertising campaign for the Gap clothing firm. Emma Soames, editor of Saga, says plans already are under way to put Miss Mirren on a future cover.

“Companies are now looking for women in this age group to endorse their products, and she is going to be an obvious choice in a way that she wouldn’t have been just five years ago,” Miss Soames says.

“She is now a complete icon. People admire her for the way she carries herself and for the way she wears her age quite lightly.”

Says Ann Powell Groner of the Helen Mirren Appreciation Society: “When we started in 1998 with 16 members, a lot of people didn’t really know who she was. The society is just pleased that people are now realizing what we knew all along, that she is absolutely fantastic.”

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