The exceptional Mirren exception

7 March 2011

Helen Mirren is the exception. At 65 she’s getting a ton of work, is widely recognized as a top-notch actor (and “national treasure” in the UK), and has just as many online photos of her in a bikini as Mila Kunis. Moreover, she’s getting work that’s fantastic, and not just a bunch of queens. Julie Taymor converted one of Shakespeare’s canonical male roles into a woman, Prospera, for last December’s The Tempest; then there’s R.E.D.‘s Retired, Extremely Dangerous killer Victoria; Sofya Tolstoy in The Last Station (2009)…. Remember how the peevish Ellen in the wonderful show Slings and Arrows used to talk about an actress’s career as going from the ingénues to the queens to the “dreaded nurse” parts? Mirren has gone from queen to kingand people online call her a GILF. (People online are jackasses. But if I had my chance…) In contrast, I remember reading something about how Meryl Streep had “let herself go.” People online are jackasses.

But rather than simply hoover up all the best parts, pull up the ladder after herself, and show up in flattering gowns to awards events, Helen Mirren speaks openly, frankly, and eloquently on the complexities of age and gender onscreen. Here she appears truly exceptional: she acknowledges that she’s an exception to the rule. My favorite is her speech accepting the Sherry Lansing Leadership Award in December. But she’s appeared in many other interviews just recently now that The Tempest is due to appear in theaters in the UK; see here for an interview in The Guardian — many thanks for that link, JE — as well as on the Film Weekly podcast. In that latter interview she discusses the career problems faced by her young female co-star in The Tempest, Felicity Jones, who’s dying for a part in which she doesn’t have to cry prettily. That’s one problem for young actresses, Mirren opines: “you’re always sniveling in a corner somewhere” onscreen.

I have a colleague who’s a golden boy — he can’t seem to do anything wrong, according to my senior/important colleagues. I tried to talk to him one time about how white male privilege works in my department and he got angry, as if I’d implied he didn’t deserve the plaudits he’d received. No, all I mean is that if you’re the exception, you’ve got to be exceptional and not act as if it’s the very least you deserve.

6 Responses to “The exceptional Mirren exception”

  1. Hattie Says:

    Well I’m pretty beaten down and have come to realize that my accomplishments will never gain me the recognition a man of comparable abilities would have earned. And over and over again I have seen how I and other women are blocked whereas men are expedited. I don’t see any change in this basic pattern, for all women are supposed to have been “liberated” since the 60’s.

    • Didion Says:

      I go back and forth between feeling beaten down and inspired by the voices of so many who object to those patterns.

  2. rhulshofschmidt Says:

    Thank you for this wonderful celebration of a true star. Helen Mirren is an amazing actress and human being. My husband (an ardent feminist as am I) has included her in his Women’s History celebration as today’s post on International Women’s Day. Thanks for the inspiration!

    • Didion Says:

      The three of us are on exactly the same page about her — and I’m very glad to know about your terrific site, too. Many thanks!

  3. tamcho Says:

    DO you know that the “Ads by google” underneath your article is…

    What Attracts Men
    9 Dangerous Mistakes Women Make That Men Find Totally Unattractive


    Do you have some control over what ads appear?

    • Didion Says:

      There are ads on this site? I’m mystified. I certainly don’t do this for money and I didn’t think WordPress used sites like mine for ads, either. Maybe they sell ads for other devices –iPhones, etc? I only use a laptop and it looks ad-free to me.

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