Photo: Jim Smeal/BEImages.
When I watched Helen Mirren walk onto the red carpet at the 2007 Oscars, it was love at first sight. But, if you stick with me here, you'll understand why I admire her even more, seven years later. I should start by clarifying a couple things. First, I believe love at first sight is the fortunate circumstance of having your first (swooning, starry-eyed) impression of someone turn out to be absolutely right. Second, Mirren was wearing a Christian Lacroix gown as dazzling as her stripper heel-loving, rule-breaking soul.
That year, Helen was nominated for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II (Will and Harry’s corgi-loving grandma) in The Queen. She swept the major awards, leaving her mark on history, and on me. After seeing her stun on the Oscars red carpet and thank Queen Elizabeth in her acceptance speech (during which she was endearingly awkward and short one earring), I watched The Queen, transfixed. This sexy, vivacious woman lived up to all the hype — and then some. She had somehow muted her boisterous spirit to embody this withdrawn, aseptic monarch. I studied her filmography like a textbook. There, I discovered decades of impressively varied film, TV, and theater work, and each role was surprising, unique, and complex.
Mirren bared it all in 1979’s X-rated (and much-maligned) Caligula. She took on the gender-charged role of a top female detective in the British series Prime Suspect — winning four BAFTAs over seven seasons. She dug her teeth into the part of Tolstoy’s divisive counterpart in The Last Station, showing audiences that despite working in an industry where youth and beauty are valued most, a woman can grow stronger and more vibrant with age.
She’s as unconventional in her personal choices as her professional ones. She's gone on the record saying she has “no maternal instinct whatsoever," and once publicly vowed she’d never marry. Years later, without any statement to the contrary (because whose business is it but theirs?), she married director Taylor Hackford. The two have no children together.
“You never know why the trajectory of your life has led you to any particular point, whether it was glorious success or disastrous failure – I’ve experienced both,” Helen expressed. “Struggle is a part of the process.” After more consideration than I should probably admit, I've discerned Mirren's secret sauce. It's valuing the lows as much as — if not more than — the highs. Embracing moments of rejection and unpopularity creates the freedom to do what feels right, regardless of public opinion. For someone in the spotlight to live so openly and unapologetically, to manifest her own path so fearlessly, is a constant reminder that it can be done — gracefully.