Regal thesp in her prime

'Queen' perf crowns remarkable career

At her first costume fitting, before she stepped in front of the camera to begin filming “The Queen,” Helen Mirren gazed at the tweed skirt, the thick sweaters, the clunky, sensible shoes, and the iron gray wig of Queen Elizabeth II, and began to cry.

“I can’t do this,” she said.

Was she fearful that, as one of the most accomplished and respected actresses in movies, television and the theater, both in the U.S. and the U.K. — where she’s just been given Variety’s U.K. Film Achievement Award — she wouldn’t be able to penetrate the institutional veneer of one of the most famous and inscrutable of living public figures? And if she couldn’t locate an inner life, would she veer off into melodramatic simplification or cheapening satire? Certainly that could be any fine artist’s worry. But as it turns out, none of the above applies.

“It was vanity,” Mirren says. “I didn’t want to look older than myself. I love beautiful clothes. I didn’t want to be unglamorous. But she’s a woman without vanity.”

When Mirren let go of her own pride, she found the common ground she needed to portray the queen.

“I did my homework,” Mirren says. “I studied the way she walks and holds her hands. I learned to set my face and hold my head in a certain way. I invited the cast to my house for tea so that we’d all be on the same page, speaking the way the royals speak.”

The result is not just a meticulously detailed characterization, but a disarmingly moving performance that makes her an Oscar front-runner for best actress. (She’s been nominated twice before in the best supporting actress category, for “Gosford Park” and “The Madness of King George.”)

Mirren’s fear of appearing dowdy, however brief, was natural. Most people cup the memory of youth against the ravages of time, and hers was particularly sumptuous.

Born Helen Lydia Mironoff (and called Ilyeana at home) in suburban working-class Essex, she has patrimony that reaches back to the Russian aristocracy before it was overthrown. Early photos show a pliant, sensuous beauty with a Slavic cast of eye and cheek and a characteristically bee-stung Russian mouth — early Anna Kournikova.

Jaws dropped at the Royal Shakespeare Company when the 22-year-old Mirren, completely inexperienced as a professional (though a star at the National Youth Theater), auditioned in a wide-mesh see-through top. In two years she was one of the RSC’s top players.

Over the years, she’s become one of England’s — and, increasingly, America’s — top players as well, carefully dividing her time among stage (where she’s played numerous classical roles in her 29-play resume), movies (45 in number, “The Mosquito Coast” “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover” among her best-remembered in the U.S.) and television, where she won an Emmy (her third) for 2005’s “Elizabeth I.”

Vulnerability and determination

Of television, Mirren says, “It’s the best medium for taking time to fill in the tapestry.” And television is where she gained her greatest fame, as Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison in “Prime Suspect,” which earned her an Emmy in 1996. She was the only one the producers wanted for the role, and it was the show’s executive producer, Andy Harries, who came up with the idea for “The Queen.”

As Tennison, Mirren’s isolated, careworn, timeworn vulnerability, her determination, the thousand and one shocks of standing her ground in a man’s rough world and witnessing firsthand the grotesque, appalling horrors that human beings are capable of, altogether won her the admiration not just of professional women, but of anyone who saw in her melancholy silence the deep unhappiness of the human condition. The carefree beauty of youth had pared down to the hard-earned beauty of wisdom.

“She’s a sheer pleasure to watch,” says Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Phillips. “She doesn’t work to get your attention. A whole list of fine performances bubbles up where you see not just her intelligence and inner truth but a subtle sense of humor. No one can judge the meaning of a single gesture onscreen better than Mirren. You can’t talk of her as a type. And don’t tell me she isn’t as gorgeous as she once was. She doesn’t have what I call ‘the Zamboni forehead,’ where every actress thinks she needs a cosmetic makeover by the age of 45.”

As for her Lifetime Achievement Award, Mirren says: “It’s very difficult to know what to feel. Recognition is always gratefully received, of course, but the thing that drives you is the feeling that you haven’t achieved, that you constantly have to live with failure.

“(Awards) do come at the obvious moment, not after you’ve had a couple of flops. Fame goes right over my head. I don’t notice.”

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