8 Milestones in the Evolution of Helen Mirren

In this weekend's release, Arthur, Helen Mirren reprises the role John Gielgud made famous (and won an Oscar for) by playing Arthur Bach's (Russell Brand) now female valet, Hobson, in the remake of the 1981 comedy classic. How did Helen Mirren transform herself from British film-and-TV stalwart to Oscar-winner to mainstream American comedy and action star?

You can always trace a direct line through a handful of important roles -- not necessarily her best, mind you -- to illustrate what led to an actor's current success. So, let's look at eight performances -- including her first-ever movie appearance -- that trace the evolution of one Dame Ilyena Lydia Vasilievna Mironov.

Herostratus (1967)

Mirren's first film role, Herostratus is, in a word, odd. Produced on a shoestring budget and requiring five years to complete, the movie features Mirren in a bit part in the story of a young poet who wants to create a spectacle around jumping off a building to his death. Both the director, Don Levy, and the star, Michael Gothard (best known for playing Locque in For Your Eyes Only) would eventually commit suicide.

Age of Consent (1969)

After starring opposite fellow UK up-and-comers Ian Holm, Judi Dench and Diana Rigg in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Mirren scored her true breakthrough in director Michael Powell's penultimate film. Playing the young Australian woman Cora, she befriends an aging artist (James Mason) who takes her on as a model and eventually causes a stir with her underage nude portraiture. (Mirren was 23 at the time.) Age of Consent failed to make much of a rumble at the box-office, and the critics weren't terribly kind (even Powell was disappointed), but it did propel Mirren's career into the echelon of lead actresses.

White Nights (1985)

By the mid-1980s, Mirren found herself hustling through a string of middling American films. She followed up the disappointing 2010: The Year We Made Contact with this thriller co-starring Mikhail Baryshnikov, Gregory Hines and Isabella Rossellini; in it, Mirren plays a Russian ballerina working for the KGB. (Coincidentally, Mirren's father is Russian -- hence her original surname, Miranoff). Perhaps most significantly, the role introduced Mirren to director and future husband Taylor Hackford, to whom she remains married to this day. One can only hope that Lionel Richie's "Say You Say Me" was their wedding song.

The Mosquito Coast (1986)

At the time, Mirren's best known role to mainstream American audiences. Mirren played "Mother" Fox, wife to Harrison Ford's brilliant yet slightly insane Allie Fox, who forces his family to leave civilization in order to survive what he believes is the upcoming nuclear holocaust. A box-office bomb (but critically mixed, with very staunch defenders), the film gained momentum of sorts with repeated play on American cable channels. After The Mosquito Coast, Mirren would return to British films and acclaim with roles in films such as Peter Greenaway's infamous sex-and-cannibalism opus The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover.

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  • Philip Boniello says:

    Excellent article, but there should have been ten milestones......We can't forget "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover", and "2010: The Year We Make Contact". Helen Mirren is so hot.....

  • Mike Ryan says:

    To be fair, both of those are mentioned.

  • CiscoMan says:

    By coincidence, I watched The Long Good Friday yesterday, in which Mirren is Bob Hoskins gangster-going-straight girlfriend (wife?). Pierce Brosnan has a bit role, along with the dude that played Belloq in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Everyone looks way younger except Hoskins, who looks exactly the same.

  • miles silverberg says:

    Great subject for this series. I wouldn't contain Prime Suspect to "the early 90's" since it served as a connective thread through her rising career all the way to the final installment 4 years ago. It's a franchise that elevated her status as much as any movie blockbuster could have.

  • 2+2=4 says:

    let's also not forget epic Caligula with Malcolm McDowell and cult classic Excalibur. Both exceptional movies. And I agree, she was hot.

  • Quirky- says:

    The only time I've ever thought of or heard the word 'exceptional' in relation to Caligula, it's usually exception...ally bad.

  • sosgemini says:

    Her last scene in Gosford Park is probably her greatest acting achievement. I am getting choked up just thinking about it.

  • Dimo says:

    If I had a time machine...forget trying to stop 9/11...I'm going right to 1967 to get acquainted with Miss Mirren.

  • casting couch says:

    Was? She's a gold class GILF.
    Prime Suspect was her ticket to greatness.

  • 2+2=4 says:

    exceptionally bad? it's painfully watchable and quite remarkable in its insanity. Fellini on mescaline. try uncensored version, it's very violent and gory.

  • stwsr says:

    How could you miss Helen Mirren playing Morgana in Excalibur. I really expected to see that one listed here, but ....

  • Ranjeet says:

    Excellent article, but there should have been more milestones......We can't forget "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover", and "2010: The Year We Make Contact". Helen Mirren is so hot.....