This year Helen Mirren played the tart-tongued, hardbitten newspaper boss of investigative journalist Russell Crowe in State of Play, but she's better known as an investigator herself -- Inspector Tennison in seven series of Prime Suspect murder mysteries. After decades of glory on the British stage wider fame came late to Mirren, but when she finally hit, she hit big. Who earns an Oscar at 60? And still looks sensational in a bathing suit? Here are her best and worst moments on-screen.
The only thing better than the taut writing of Prime Suspect is Mirren's performance: sharp, touching, original. As addicted as we are by the murder mystery, we're more intensely curious about the brilliant, tormented soul of the sleuth. Inspired by the real-life exploits of one of Scotland Yard's four top female detectives, the show is so authentic Scotland Yard detectives gave it a standing ovation. The six sequel series are less good but still addictive.
Inspector Tennison says, "I like to be called Governor or The Boss. I don't like Ma'am. I'm not the bloody Queen." But she is the bloody queen, repeatedly. Her first break as a teenager was playing Cleopatra onstage, and she won an Oscar as Queen Elizabeth in 2006's The Queen. She shines as fiercely in HBO's 2005 Elizabeth I. Plus, she gave an emotional anchor to a chilly drama as the queen in The Madness of King George. Mirren's modern Elizabeth was realistic partly because she actually met the queen, whom she found sweet and utterly charming and twinkly and a little bit funny. Mirren thinks Diana was "neurotic and manipulative, and very, very difficult."
Though she only co-stars with Bob Hoskins, Mirren's greatest crime drama is The Long Good Friday, about a British Godfather out to rise in society and seize mainstream power. Mirren plays the upper-crusty lady (with the queenly name Victoria) who helps the rough-edged mobster make it big -- until Pierce Brosnan's gang tries to undo him.
In Robert Altman's last great film, Gosford Park, Mirren plays the housekeeper at war with the cook (Eileen Atkins) in a whodunit that exposes a murderer in the night and indicts the British class system circa 1932. It's an ensemble drama, so she has to share the limelight with many others, but Mirren is a genius in the chorus -- she's not just a solo diva.
It must be said that Mirren has gotten more major career mileage out of her figure than any great modern actress besides Susan Sarandon. You can see why then-unknown co-star Liam Neeson fell for her in John Boorman's King Arthur movie, Excalibur, where she's a bewitching, fishnet-costumed Morgana.
In yet another royal role, Mirren played Empress Caesonia in Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione's Caligula. This is the true test of a great actress: She's watchable even in a movie that's utterly unwatchable.
Lots of people think The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover is infinitely more unwatchable than Caligula, even though it's a highly regarded art film (by the infuriating maniac Peter Greenaway, who is never satisfied until viewers want to strangle him). Mirren's performance as the masochistically abused and much-shafted wife of a thug is brilliant, but we include this film on the bad list because it is so conspicuously mad, bad, and dangerous to show. A revolting spectacle only an intellectual could love.
Scream and Dawson's Creek creator Kevin Williamson made a disgusting, boring bomb, Teaching Mrs. Tingle, about smart, mean high-schooler Katie Holmes taking her evil history teacher (Mirren) prisoner in a plot to become valedictorian. (It was going to be called Killing Mrs. Tingle, but then Columbine happened.) Don't let this movie take you prisoner!
Mirren has a ball playing a pot-smoking hippie rock star in the miniseries murder mystery Painted Lady, but if she hadn't produced the show, they wouldn't have let her character impersonate a Polish countess involved in a way shady art-world scam. In a way, it's the opposite of Prime Suspect -- utterly undisciplined, unrealistic, self-indulgent. But I had to watch every episode anyway.
Nobody could possibly sit through Hussy, with Mirren as a hooker struggling to escape the druggy sluggish demimonde of a British strip joint. You'll long to escape, too. And if you want to see her naughty bits, rent Excalibur, Age of Consent, Savage Messiah, Cal, Cause Celebre, Pascali's Island, The Cook, the Thief ... , Royal Deceit, The Passion of Ayn Rand, Calendar Girls, The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, or Shadowboxer instead.