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.

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I want to be Julie Taymor.  Or am I in love with her?  As I eagerly anticipate her forthcoming movie, “The Tempest” with Helen Mirren as Prospera (and oh, how I swoon at the idea of a female Prospero), I’ve been remembering everything I’ve loved of hers recently and thinking how much warmth and drama she constructs with her wide-ranging work.  I love her for the highbrow quality of her directing (the operas “The Magic Flute” and “Grendel;” and all that Shakespeare, including the 1999 film “Titus”); I love her for “Across the Universe” (2007), the lovely Beatles music-inspired film; and I can only wish I spent enough time in New York to see her upcoming Broadway musical, “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” for which she co-wrote the book as well as directed.  She’s a marvel.  She’s audaciously dedicated to beautifully imaginative staging and design, but it’s not for the mere esoteric pleasure of looking; it’s a self-consciously theatrical directorial choice, but one that enhances our experience of the content.  She makes us fall in love with art in all her work.  Just look at these scenes from “Across the Universe” to get a sense of the way she loves to frame a shot, balancing the beauty of a face with a perfectly-timed version of “Hey Jude” that folds in other voices at just the right moments:

Before “Glee” started offering us new interpretations of hoary old favorites, “Across the Universe” nearly broke my heart with its slowed-down, careful versions of those classics.  It’s not just that the actors are so lovely, and that they have such beautiful, perfect voices (and that I’ll never be able to look at Jim Sturgess again without seeing his physiognomic combination of Paul and George).  It’s that by slowing down these songs and singing them with such love, the actors show me something new there that I haven’t heard in a long, long time.  In fact, I think “Glee”‘s recent (great) re-singing of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” is a nearly note-for-note ripoff of T.V. Carpio’s version from the film:

Combined with that breathtaking cinematography, Taymor heightens all your senses:  you find yourself rapt, trying to absorb all that detail and the big sweep of a beautifully constructed scene.  She raises us up to see art’s role in the lives we wish we were leading.  It reminds me of a line from Stephen Holden’s NY Times review of the film in which he commented, “Somewhere around its midpoint, ‘Across the Universe’ captured my heart, and I realized that falling in love with a movie is like falling in love with another person.”  Think about her work on “Frida” (2002), in which she somehow captures the experience of falling in love with the rebellious, transformative aspects of art and revolution.  It’s true that I don’t feel the same kind of tremendous, heartbreaking love for Shakespeare as I do for the Beatles or early 20th century Mexican art, but in “Titus” too, I find myself gazing at what she did with Jessica Lange’s and Anthony Hopkins’ faces — encrusting them with mud or gold paint to heighten our experience of the story as a whole. 

“Titus” was the most theatrical of her films, which makes me curious to see what she’ll do with “The Tempest.”  It’s audacious on its own to expect December movie audiences to go out to the cineplex for Shakespeare (I mean, we could go see the new “Harry Potter” instead), yet the early release of images from the film spark the same excitement that I experience watching that amazing car crash scene and animated hospital sequence from “Frida.”

There are many wonderful interviews with Taymor in which she explains her methods, but I was struck by this one from Subtitles to Cinema in which she explains that she tries to boil the central story down to an idiograph.  “It’s like in old Japanese paintings – if you were to paint a bamboo forest, you should be able to find its essence with only three strokes,” she explains.  In the same way, she seeks the essence of her tales with a visual image.  “Like a cubist painter, I want to open up the image and give you a fresh perspective.  That is my job.  And cinema makes it possible.”

Taymor directing Salma Hayek in "Frida"

December 10 — that’s when “The Tempest” is due out.  Helen Mirren could do with a good film after appearing in a series of duds this year (boy, it was depressing to see those reviews of “RED” and “Love Ranch” that, while giving Mirren her due, wrung their hands of the films), and I love the fact that the film nearly coincides with the opening of the “Spider-Man” musical on Broadway.  Yup:  I want to be Julie Taymor.  And just sit back and admire her from afar.