It’s not uncommon for a prominent British actor to be labeled British acting royalty. All types, from Laurence Olivier to Maggie Smith, have worn the label but nobody perhaps has literally worn that title recently to the extent as Helen Mirren. She has had a long varied career and has earned her place as one of the holders of acting’s triple crowns (winners of the Oscar, Emmy and Tony) by playing a variety of British monarchs.
Her Oscar came for playing the British Queen Elizabeth II in “The Queen,” which dealt with her reaction to the unexpected death of Princess Diana. She would revisit the role nine years later for a Tony on Broadway in the play “The Audience,” which dealt with Elizabeth’s relationships with the various prime ministers who have served under her. It was a different Queen, Elizabeth I, that would bring Mirren one of her four Emmys, when she starred in the TV limited series “Elizabeth I,” which interestingly was released the same year as “The Queen.”
It is hard to summarize Mirren’s career since she has taken on all sorts of characters, including period pieces (“Gosford Park”), action (“Red”), biopics (“Trumbo,” “Hitchcock”) and more. Like most British performers of her generation she started her career on the stage performing classics with the Royal Shakespeare Company. She then continued to perform in all mediums for many years but it wasn’t until the 90s that she became a household name in the United States. That was largely due to her work on the detective series “Prime Suspect,” which earned her four Emmy nominations and multiple BAFTA awards. Mirren’s career has continued to thrive in both her native country and the United States ever since. She splits her time in between the two countries with her husband director Taylor Hackford (“An Officer and a Gentleman”) whom she met when he directed her in the film “White Nights.”
Mirren’s latest film “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” has now debuted. That gives us good reason to create a photo gallery featuring her 12 greatest movie performances, ranked from worst to best.
12. THE MOSQUITO COAST (1986)
Australian director Peter Weir was on quite a roll in the eighties. After the film “Gallipoli” brought him to American attention, he directed Linda Hunt to a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for “The Year of Living Dangerously” in 1983 and his film “Witness” earned eight Oscar nominations in 1985. He and Harrison Ford teamed again the following year for this story of a man who uproots his family form the U.S. to live in the jungles of Central America. Mirren plays his wife who has to hold the family together while Ford’s mental state grows increasingly unhinged.
11.THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE AND HER LOVER (1989)
Mirren never shied away from controversial films and this was one of her most outlandish. She plays the abused wife of a gangster who finds a brief moment of happiness with a young lover she meets at a restaurant. Her lover’s death at the hands of her husband and her method of seeking revenge helped earn the film an X rating from the M.P.A.A.
10. EYE IN THE SKY (2015)
Mirren had a recent success with her role as a military colonel fighting terrorists in Africa. Her operation triggers an international incident which she is then forced to deal with. Mirren is one of the few actresses of her generation who has excelled in political and action thrillers and this is one of her best roles.
9. RED (2010)
Mirren had another key role in this action adventure thriller. The film was unique to the genre since it provided key roles for a bunch of older actors, including Bruce Willis and Morgan Freeman, who play former CIA agents who are roped back into action. It was a box office success and continued Mirren’s penchant for appearing in a variety of different film genres.
8. CALENDER GIRLS (2003)
Mirren has never shied away from nudity in her career, even at an older age in this film. Based on a true story the film tells the story of a group of woman in a small English village who pose nude for a calendar while doing household chores. Initially the women just hope to raise money for a local hospital but the calendar results in worldwide fame for them including a trip to Los Angeles to appear on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.”
7. EXCALIBUR (1981)
The story of King Arthur and his knights of the round table has been a frequent subject for films. There were versions of the story starring Clive Owen, Sean Connery and an adaptation of the Broadway musical “Camelot” starring Richard Harris but none rose to the level of this visually spectacular entry directed by famed director John Boorman. Mirren gives a powerful performance as the evil Morgana, a nemesis to King Arthur.
6. TRUMBO (2015)
Mirren earned a Supporting Actress Golden Globe nomination for this biopic of Dalton Trumbo, a screenwriter who was blacklisted during the McCarthy trials. Mirren has the juicy role of Hedda Hopper, who was a famed Hollywood gossip columnist who wielded quite a bit of power with her sometimes poisonous pen.
5. HITCHCOCK (2012)
Mirren received Golden Globe and SAG nominations for this film and looked poised to earn an Oscar nomination, but surprisingly that didn’t happen. The film tells the inside story of the making of the classic Alfred Hitchcock film “Psycho.” Mirren plays Alma Hitchcock, wife of the famous director who played an integral part behind the scenes of both Hitchcock’s life and films. Alma was often the peacekeeper on Hitch’s volatile film sets, and Mirren brings a warm dignity to the character.
4. THE MADNESS OF KING GEORGE (1994)
After a long career it wasn’t until this 1994 historical comedic drama that Mirren was finally recognized by the academy with a surprise Oscar nomination. Mirren plays Charlotte, Queen of England (one of many British monarchs she would go on to portray), who has to deal with the kings’s declining mental stability. She wasn’t nominated for precursor awards yet she somehow managed to slip in to the nominations, even above such favorites as Robin Wright and Sally Field from Best Picture winner “Forrest Gump.”
3. THE LAST STATION (2009)
Mirren received her second Best Actress Oscar nomination for this historical drama about Leo Tolstoy and the fight to control his work after his death. She manages to bring a great deal of humor to the sometimes dark subject matter as she deals with Tolstoy’s “graphomania,” which is a compulsion to constantly be writing. Christopher Plummer earned his first Oscar nomination for the film after a long career.
2. GOSFORD PARK (2001)
This ensemble drama from director Robert Altman assembles an all star cast for a whodunit set in a huge English manor house. The writer Julian Fellows would later spin off a similar setting of this film into the series “Downtown Abbey.” Mirren plays one of the servants in the film an earned her second Oscar nomination and won the SAG Award for Best Supporting Actress. Her final breakdown scene at the end of the film is one of the most riveting bits of acting Mirren has ever put on screen.
1. THE QUEEN (2006)
Mirren won an Oscar and just about every other award for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth and her reaction to the death of Princess Diana in a car crash. While the Queen herself was severely criticized for not showing enough public sympathy for Diana’s death, Mirren’s performance brings humanity to the role showing how the Queen was holding to tradition and trying to mourn in private and was caught off guard that public sympathy turned against her so rapidly. Mirren’s tentative reaction as a young girl approaches her is wonderfully restrained acting. Fearing the girl is about to criticize her as many others have she instead is pleasantly surprised to find the girl wants to present her with a flower.