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The woman who could make men feel like boys

The woman who could make men feel like boys

Who is Helen Mirren? Looking back over her career, as she hits 75, it is tempting to see her as two separate people.

First, there was the outspoken young classical actor who fiercely resisted objectification, whether from newspapers (“Stratford’s very own sex queen” was a notorious Sunday Times headline) or TV chatshow hosts.

Then came the mature Mirren with a gift for playing monarchs (Elizabeth I on TV, Elizabeth II on screen and stage), for picking up every award going, and for being a great dame associated with excellent causes. Among many, she is an ambassador for Women International.

Within the aristocratic Mirren there has always been an adventurer up for any challenge

Yet I see no great gulf between the two Mirrens. Having followed her career for 50 years, several things strike me. One is that she has always been a dedicated, highly skilled actor. Another is that she is a perennial mix of the nomadic and the majestic: you don’t get to play Cleopatra, as she did for the National Youth Theatre when she was 20, without some inbuilt imperiousness.

Indeed, one of my few brief encounters with her took place around that time, when I went to a party hosted by one of her Youth Theatre contemporaries. My abiding memory is of a self-possessed young woman who made many of the men at the party feel like boys (and I, for one, was five years older).

Mirren in Anthony and Cleopatra 1965. Photograph: Helen Mirren Archive/Bulls/Mirrorpix
Mirren in Anthony and Cleopatra, 1965. Photograph: Helen Mirren Archive/Bulls/Mirrorpix

Where does that confidence come from? You could argue that it is partly genetic. It is well-known that she was born Helen Mironoff and that her paternal grandfather was a Russian aristocrat who fought in the tsar’s army and who was negotiating an arms deal in Britain when he and his family were stranded by the 1917 revolution.

One can make too much of this, but it is fascinating how many of the great British actors have foreign ancestry. John Gielgud’s stockbroker father came from a Slav family and Peggy Ashcroft’s mother was part Danish, part German-Jewish.

I suspect, in Mirren’s case, that her bloodline is significant. It’s no accident that, when she was at the Royal Shakespeare Company, Trevor Nunn referred to her as a “Russian princess”, or that one of her biggest TV hits was as the empress Catherine the Great.

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