Over a film and television career that began almost twenty years before I was born, Helen Mirren has brought the crowd to an awestruck silence, more often than not. Looking over her career now, with film roles ranging from somber dramas, to broad, stupid comedies, I can’t even fill a small matchbox with performances I didn’t care for. Diversity is one of the common considerations for greatness in actors and actresses. Mirren has that requirement covered a few dozen times over. The ability to elevate shoddy material, or at least, the ability to contribute a solitary bright spot to an otherwise uncompromising piece of shit, is another common consideration. She meets that one, too.
Mirren finally won her Oscar in 2006 for The Queen. She really didn’t become a well-known name until a few years before that. However, if you’re willing to go back to before she assumed the equal parts blessing and curse of being known as Hollywood royalty, you will find a wealth of great performances. Some of those performances are in movies that are infamous for one reason or another. Others are in movies that are clearly gunning for as many awards as their greedy hands can grab for. Then there are movies that are just inexplicable, in terms of her participation. The one certainty you can take from her entire career in film, television, and on the stage is the fact that she clearly likes to keep busy.
That she likes to keep busy is good news for us. At age seventy, Helen Mirren is better than ever. She retains the ability to authentic and appealing in just about any role she chooses. You could even put forth the argument that the best is yet to come. She continues to surprise. She continues to play a significant role in finally destroying the jackass notion that an actress’s best work has to be before their fortieth birthday.
1. Excalibur (1981)
Arguably, there has not been a film on the Arthur legend since Excalibur that has topped it. Although a little dated at this point, there is still much to enjoy in this lavish, ambitious story of King Arthur and the rest of the gang. One of the movie’s most enduring qualities comes from the performances. As you’re enjoying Nicol Williamson’s fantastic work as Merlin, and while you’re trying to keep up with the long parade of familiar faces, you’re bound to be impressed with Mirren as Morgana. This was one of Mirren’s biggest roles to date, and she doesn’t take that for granted. Generating pure evil comes so easily to her, it’s a little amazing that she wasn’t typecast in the aftermath. She finds a pitch-perfect performance that is as endlessly entertaining as the rest of the film, yet never becomes too ridiculous. This is the kind of character and story in which it is all too easy to go in that direction. She nails sublime, attractive, and chilling evil.
2. The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989)
If you haven’t seen this movie, strap the fuck in. Enormously controversial upon its release (Roger Ebert even mentioned it in an article that tried to plead for the establishment of a viable adults-only rating), The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover has not lost a shade of its vicious, unsettling sense of satire. It also hasn’t diminished the absolutely breathtaking, flawless performance Mirren gives. As the wife of a sadistic mobster (Michael Gambon, who is pretty freaking great, too), one who desires (but completely misses the mark of) a life of culture and sophistication, Mirren is required to run across a seemingly endless gamut of highs and lows. She never misses a beat. From the life of a socialite, to the desperation of someone with only a fingernail digging into the rope, Mirren is breathtaking. As bad as things get in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, and sweet baby Jesus, do things get bad, Mirren remains unforgettable.
3. The Madness of King George (1994)
Although Nigel Hawthorne is very much the star in the title role, Mirren is every bit as commanding as Queen Charlotte. With a story that is keenly focused on King George’s descent into madness, there is a temptation to consider Helen Mirren’s role as a thankless one. Ignore that thought. Mirren shines in a role that is every bit as difficult as the one Hawthorne tackled. There is no doubt that she earned the Oscar nomination she took for this performance. One of the secrets to the powerhouse tone of this performance is the way Mirren manages to create an individual, singular character, yet also one who is very intensely connected to the story and development of George. It is a challenge that very few actors or actresses could stand up to. Mirren makes it look easy, which has been her M.O for a good deal of her storied, versatile career.
4. The Queen (2006)
Whether or not this dramatization of the events surrounding the death of Princess Diana is factual is fairly unimportant. Stephen Frears’ film seeks to speculate, and it desires to take Queen Elizabeth II and the rest of the royal family to the most realistic, engaging concept of humanity possible. It succeeds as entertaining speculation. It succeeds again in the humanity aspect. No one does a better job of that in The Queen than Helen Mirren in the title role. Mirren accomplishes the extraordinary feat of being one of the most recognizable actresses on the planet, yet continuing to prove that she can slip so easily into a character, we focus on the character, and not on the actress. The Queen is one of Mirren’s best examples of her ability to do this, even though it isn’t even the first time she’s played royalty.
Mirren won the Best Actress Oscar for this performance. Sometimes, when a talent of enormous stature is recognized by the Academy, there is a sense that the award is more cumulative than specific. What this means is that the award is for something in particular, but there’s a hint that it’s also kind of the Academy’s way of saying “Sorry for not giving you shit for a career filled with stellar examples of your craft.” Think Martin Scorsese’s Best Director Oscar for The Departed. That is not the case here. After decades of good work, Mirren continued that trend. The Queen is great acting, period, and she earned all of the accolades her performance received.
5. RED (2010)
Even after a career spent playing socialites, geniuses, villains, sociopaths, mothers, royalty, and so on, Helen Mirren was not a name you’d think of for an action movie. Even if the action movie is about a group of aging assassins getting the band back together, a fairly unique concept if there ever was one, you still wouldn’t immediately think of Helen Mirren as the best candidate. But why not? At this point, the list of personalities she is incapable of inhabiting and realizing as an actress remains a small one. Even in a cast that features Bruce Willis, Mary Louise-Parker, John Malkovich, Karl Urban, and Morgan Freeman, Mirren stands out. Of course she does. Her contract killer is easily the most charming of the bunch. She is instantly credible in RED, and instantly likable, as well. Every scene with her and Brian Cox amounts to a side plot that could easily be fleshed out into its own story. RED is a fantastic indication of the fact that ageism as it relates to actresses is absolute, unwavering bullshit.