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.

At 65, Helen Mirren has a new film coming out:  “Love Ranch,” in which she stars as the madam of a Nevada brothel in the 70s.  Her character manages the prostitutes with such an iron fist that her pig of a husband (Joe Pesci) screams at her, “Who do ya think you are, the Queen of fuckin’ England?”  (This line alone is the very best possible advertisement for this film, as far as I’m concerned.)  For a somewhat absurdly prurient interview reflecting on her long career being sexy, she posed nude in the bath this month for New York Magazine, and this seems to be a source for one of those “should she or shouldn’t she?” debates.  Honestly?  Someone out there is looking to tell Helen Mirren whether to strip?  I have no such hubris.  She has had a long career of being sexy, such that it put me in mind of something Tilda Swinton said recently about being knighted, to the effect that Sir Helen sounds much better than Dame Helen.  This entire conversation makes me realize that when journalists and the public don’t know what to do with an exceptionally intelligent, attractive, and successful woman, they turn the conversation into one about sexiness.

American viewers like me didn’t really get much of Helen Mirren until she was in her mid-30s, and I first knew her in the “Prime Suspect” series made when she was well into her 40s.  The first episode (1991) was a revelation to me, not least because it followed so quickly on the heels of Anita Hill’s allegations of sexual harassment against Clarence Thomas during his Supreme Court hearings during the Fall of 91.  As a result, Mirren’s version of DCI Jane Tennison — steely, professional, brilliant, occasionally abhorrent, and daily faced with men’s obstreperousness — seemed pitch-perfect for the age.  Her very body language showed a lifetime of keeping her body in check in a male-dominated world; she covered herself in unsexy suits and kept her face impassive.  She was sexy to us viewers because she was so exceptionally smart and real, not because she displayed any kind of prurient sexuality onscreen.  Women viewers could so many things into a closeup of Mirren’s face:  intelligence, weakness, self-loathing, pride, self-possession, and all that in a single look.  This was why she was so appealing to us, not because she took off her clothes.  Let’s also not overlook the fact that for a woman actor to achieve such international fame only starting in her mid-40s is well-nigh unprecedented.

It was similar with her acting in “The Queen” (2006), in which again she could be utterly despicable and absolutely sympathetic in rapid succession from one scene to the next.  It was those scenes of her locked away at Balmoral during the English national mourning for Diana’s death — her personal dedication to a certain tight-lipped version of reality, and her slow realization that she was sadly out of touch — that made Mirren appear again so compelling as an actor.  In an era when women are loath to let themselves be bitches (and I speak for myself and every other female college professor out there, and likely for everyone else over 30 too), Mirren’s characters display how one can be bitchy and appealing at the same time.  It made her all the sexier to me, and I wonder if American women could learn something from the mix of hardness and softness:  in an ideal future the antifeminist conversation we’ve been having about what makes a woman sexy, feminine, or bitchy simply cannot hold, such that a new version of femininity is due to arrive that celebrates a considerable degree of intelligent steeliness.  Her performance in “The Last Station” (2009) was similar:  her take on the histrionic Sofya showed her to be highly emotional, yet also far more astute about the nature of marriage than her idealistic husband, Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer).  “Why should it be easy?” she demands from him in one of my favorite scenes.  “You are the work of my life and I am the work of yours.  That’s what love is.”

In the new film as the queen of the brothel, her character deals with her horrible husband and a cancer diagnosis by undertaking a torrid affair with a young boxer thirty years her junior (online photos of the actor Sergio Peris-Mencheta make him look like an even more Hollywood-ready version of Rafael Nadal, if such a thing were possible).  Despite the titillating account in the New York Magazine article, I doubt Mirren took this part because it allows her to look like a 65-year-old cougar.  In this regard the article is inherently weak and reveals in its very quotes from her that its overall portrayal of Mirren as a sexpot is flawed.  Take the following:

As Mirren explains it, she struggled to get a handle on her own sexuality in order to use its power to accomplish her ambitions.  “The Playboy Mansion, coke, and the rise of all that — Guccione and Hefner always pushed it as liberation, but it didn’t seem like that to me,” she says.  “That was women obeying the sexualized form created by men — though maybe we always do that, because we want to be attractive.  But I was kind of a trailblazer because I demanded to do it my own way.  I’d say, ‘I’m not having it put on me by someone else.’  I didn’t want to be the sort of puritanical good girl with a little white collar who says, ‘Don’t shag until you get married.’”

The resulting phony “debate” about whether Mirren should have stripped for the magazine’s photo shoot reveals that we’re trapped in a pornified conversation about women and sexiness.  In this quote she criticizes the terms of that very conversation, but the magazine can’t quite grasp what might lie outside it, so it offers her up as some kind of GILF (for example, it reminds readers of the paparazzi photos of a couple of years ago showing her looking pretty goddamn awesome in a red bikini).  Oh for fuck’s sake.  Sexing her up allows writers to take her a little less seriously as one of the most stunning actors of her generation.  But in doing so they overlook her real appeal, and that just makes me tired.