- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 30, 2009

In the introduction to a lavishly illustrated autobiography, “In the Frame,” Helen Mirren recalls that a palm reader once informed her, “You will be successful in life, but you will see your greatest success later, after the age of 45.” She quips, “Not something you want to hear at the age of 23, but it turned out he was right.”

Miss Mirren was approaching 62 when “In the Frame” was published in 2007, not long after the crowning performance of her movie career, Queen Elizabeth II in “The Queen,” proved one of those rare foolproof achievements. It brought her an awards season hat trick: the Academy Award as best actress plus comparable prizes from the Golden Globes and the British Academy of Film and Television Artists.

Due in Washington on Sept. 17 to star in a National Theatre of Great Britain production of Racine’s “Phaedra” — booked at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall for 10 days — Miss Mirren had been on the Oscar radar for several years. She was nominated as best supporting actress of 1994 for “The Madness of King George,” cast as the Hanoverian Queen Charlotte; she was a finalist in the same category in 2001 for “Gosford Park,” playing a commoner who had acquired a formidable air of authority, the supervisor of the house servants at an English country estate.

The regal note will also be appropriate for “Phaedra,” which reunites Miss Mirren with the director of “King George,” Nicholas Hytner. The London company made an earlier trip this summer to the Greek amphitheater of Epidaurus. Actress and director are also familiar with plays about heroines tormented by adulterous passion for younger men: They collaborated on Tennessee Williams’ “Orpheus Descending” several years ago.

This is familiar emotional terrain from Miss Mirren’s stage, film and television career. Phaedra is obsessed with her stepson, Hippolytus. An acclaimed theatrical performance cast Miss Mirren as Natalya Petrovna in Turgenev’s “A Month in the Country.” The character is enamored of her son’s tutor, played on that occasion by Joseph Fiennes.

As Frieda von Richthofffen Weekley in “Coming Through,” the actress was seduced by Kenneth Branagh as D.H. Lawrence. In “Where Angels Fear To Tread,” she was a widowed, ill-fated Englishwoman infatuated with a young Italian. In the title role of “The Passion of Ayn Rand,” she claimed adulterous rights to a young admirer played by Eric Stoltz. She re-enacted Vivien Leigh’s role as a susceptible widow in Italy in “The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone.” While the attraction never went beyond fond glances and hugs, she even got to long for Kyra Sedgwick in the TV weeper “Losing Chase,” albeit while recuperating from a nervous breakdown.

Born Ilyena Vasilievna Mironov in London on July 26, 1945, Helen Mirren is the daughter of an exiled Russian father and an English mother. There was about a century of military aristocrats on the paternal side before her grandfather was stranded in London with his family by the Bolshevik revolution, while negotiating an arms deal with the British government.

Miss Mirren discovered that Muscovites tended to mistake her for a Russian when she first traveled to the Soviet Union in the early 1970s. She has played Russians on several occasions: an astronaut in “2010,” a ballerina in “White Nights,” the domineering yet needful Miss Rand and, later this year, the wife of Leo Tolstoy, opposite Christopher Plummer, in “The Last Station.”

Although a conspicuous film actress for at least 30 years, Miss Mirren needed to transcend a prolonged spell as an often naked provocation. She was a feral starlet in one of her earliest movies, “Age of Consent,” directed by Michael Powell along the Great Barrier Reef of Australia. Ostensibly an idyllic fairy tale, it suffers from excruciating comic interludes and the passivity of James Mason as the hero, a painter who recruits Miss Mirren as a natural wonder among the seascapes. Barely released in the late 1960s, the movie now enjoys some staying power as a souvenir of Helen Mirren’s sun-drenched physique at the age of 23.

I still cherish a studio bio of about 10 years later in which Miss Mirren is described as “Britain’s sexiest actress” in the first sentence and then as “the thinking man’s sex symbol” in the fourth. This phase included ornamental appearances in some of the most grandiose bummers ever made: “O Lucky Man!,” “Caligula,” “Excalibur,” “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover.” Some video distributor has even been caddish enough to revive Miss Mirren as the title character of “Hussy,” a coldblooded, frizzy-mopped hooker with sinister taste in consorts.

It was once a bit of a running gag to see Helen Mirren in a montage of orgasmic postures. This specialty act even survived into “The Passion of Ayn Rand,” premiered on Showtime 10 years ago, although the role was essentially serious and allowed Miss Mirren to sustain a commanding identity from start to finish, something that had eluded her in many previous credits. The director, Christopher Menaul, had been instrumental in earlier upgrades, since he also directed “Coming Through” for British television, not to mention the first season of “Prime Suspect,” which began its elevation of Helen Mirren as dedicated police detective Jane Tennison in 1992.

The movie business remains pretty ruthless, even in the age of botox and computer graphic touch-ups, about adhering to the age of 40 as a transition point from romantic roles to character roles for actresses. Some performers can finesse the prejudice. Meryl Streep, always a prestige property, and Susan Sarandon and Goldie Hawn have managed to defy the odds over the last generation in Hollywood.

Helen Mirren’s stellar credibility on the screen came relatively late, after her credentials on the stage and serial television were secure. It even reached the point where she could flash her breasts at the age of 58, in “Calendar Girls,” within a cleverly humorous and charitable context and seem all the more glamorous. There was no recoil from the “Caligula” or “Hussy” time frame, in which insiders were known to joke, “You need to pay her to keep her clothes on.”

Three or four Helen Mirren movies may be in circulation during the winter season. One, a Julie Taymor adaptation of “The Tempest,” will permit Miss Mirren, a recurrent Shakespearean on the stage for 40 years, to play one of the famous roles on the screen at long last: Prospero, feminized as Prospera. Let’s hope it has more in common with the prototype than her last sorceress, the fiendish Morgana in “Excalibur.”

I like to think the now decisively illustrious Helen Mirren dodged a bullet by not being cast in the Taymor film of “Titus Andronicus” 10 years ago. Her name must have come up before Jessica Lange got the role of Tamora, savage queen of the Goths. Miss Mirren had already paid heavy dues: One “Caligula” is enough for any career.

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