Oscar 2006: Helen Mirren for Best Actress

The Queen Premieres at Venice Fest. It opens Sept 30 after NYFF

As of late August, Helen Mirren emerges as the frontrunner in the Best Actress Oscar category for her astonishing performance as Queen Elizabeth II in Stephen Frears' terrifically entertaining, socially poignant “The Queen,” a chronicle of the tumultuous, shifting relationship between the monarch and prime-minister Tony Blair in the week after Princess Diana's 1997 tragic death.

In 2003, Helen Mirren became a Dame of the British Empire, the highest prestige accorded to an actor in the U.K. However, this year seems to be Mirren's big year on the big and small screen. She just won an Emmy for HBO's “Elizabth I,” and stands a wonderful chance to earn her first lead Oscar nomination, and perhaps the Oscar itself, for playing Elizabthe II in “The Queen.” It's hard to think of a recent film that's so entirely shaped and dominated by a solo performance like Mirren's.

It's about time that the Academy honors Helen Mirren, one of the most accomplished, most respected, and most versatile actress in the English-speaking world. In a career that spans stage, screen and television, she is renowned for tackling challenging roles and has won many awards, but not the Oscar, for her powerful performances.

Mirren's Former Oscar Nods

Helen Mirren has been nominated twice before, both in the Supporting Actress category. The first time was, Surpirse! for playing a monarch too, Queen Charlotte, in Nicholas Hytners “The Madness of King George” (1994), which was nominated for Best Picture. It's the only time Mirren has played a monarch on the big screen before “The Queen,” a role for which she won the Best Actress Award at the Festival de Cannes. As the title suggests, that movie belongs to the king, splendidly played by Nigel Hawthorne, who did receive a Best Actor nomination.

The second Supporting Oscar nomination Mirren received was for Robert Altman's period thriller, “Gosford Park,” in which she played a member of a different class, the housekeeper. It was a major achievement due to the fact that all the “Who's Who” of the British theatre and cinema were in the picture, including Maggie Smith, who garnered a Supporting Actress nomination as well. Unfortunately, in the final voting, Mirren, who earlier won the New York Film Critics Award for “Gosford Park” (and other films), and Maggie Smith cancelled each other out, and the Oscar went to Jennifer Connelly for “A Beautiful Mind.”

Tackling the Queen

How do you play a living monarch who's been both revered and reviled for the past half a century The films role was made up of a real, living person with well-established persona, not to mention legacy to protect. As director Frears notes: “The trouble is that we already think we know these characters so well and theyre so familiar, so the cast had to find a kind of collective line to ride in being human without being ridiculous.

No role in “The Queen” poses as many potential pitfalls as that of Queen Elizabeth, a woman who, as a largely ceremonial yet protected symbol of a once imperial England, has never been depicted so intimately or humanly on screen. Resisting impersonation, and with meticulous attention to detail, Mirren tackles admirably an almost impenetrable character, a Queen who has reined for over half a century (45 years, to be exact, by 1997, when the story is set. Mirren not only has the right appearanceshe looks like the Queen–but also the talent and courage to take on a demanding role that dominates the film; she's in almost every scene.

Obviously, for Mirren, playing the lead is an irresistible offer, realizing that the story is delicate, even dangerous material, as she says: “You have to be confident that the people you work with have the intelligence and ability to put a story like this on screen without a cheap betrayal of the subject.

Still, Mirren seems acutely aware that she's stepping into a potential minefield by playing a person as famous and mysterious as the monarch: Given the iconic status of the Queen, I was terrified. I was probably more nervous about this role than any other role Ive ever done.

To set herself at ease in the role, Mirren worked from the outside in, starting with the Queens uniquely upper-crust speech and then getting closer to her essence as a mother, grandmother and national figurehead. Mirren's work with dialogue coach Penny Dyer proves invaluable.

What may have helped Mirren is her self-image as a portrait painter. Like all good portraitists, she brings her own perception of the subject, and then reproduces the Queen through her personality and psychology. To that extent, Mirren carefully treads that razor-thin line between giving a human portrayal and tipping over into caricature.

Resisting a technical impersonation, the kind that Philip Seymour Hofman essayed last year as Truman in “Capote, for which he won the Oscar, Mirren gives a more naturalistic performance, neither based on imitation nor on stylised theatricality, instead asking the viewers to embark on an imaginative journey with her. Hence, in Mirren's interpretation, the Queen emerges as flesh-and-blood.

To create a real sense of the Royal family, Mirren gathered all the actors playing her family members (James Cromwell as Prince Philip, Alex Jennings as Prince Charles, Sylvia Syms as the Queen Mother) at her house so that they get used to the sound of each others voices as family, and wouldnt feel like a group of people talking in funny voices. Mirren's greatest achievement is in treating the Queen as a woman rather than a cut-out of a sovereign

Late Screen Bloomer

Having made her mark in the theatre and TV, Mirren is not exactly a late bloomer, though for a long time, she played small, secondary roles on screen, including Peter Hall's version of “A Midsummer Night's Dream” (1968), the suffragette mistress in Ken Russell's “Savage Messiah” (1972), Lindsay Anderson's “O Lucky Man! (1973), both Gertrude and Ophelia in the short, disappointing version of “Hamlet” (1976) by Celstino Coronado.

Self-Effacing

Born in 1946, a decade or so younger than Vanessa Redgrave, Maggie Smith, and Judi Dench, all terrific actresses, honored by the Academy with Oscars, in the lead and/or supporting leagues, Mirren is just as accomplished, though may be too modest and self-effacing for her own good.

Let me explain. Unlike Maggie Smith, she has no overtly technical wizardry (or mannerism, for that matter). Unlike Redgrave, who had arguably benefited from her family lineage early on and controversial politics later on, Mirren is not a movie star in the conventional sence of this term; there's no gossip about her and/or gifted husband Taylor Hackford, who received his own first directing nomination for 2004's “Ray.” years ago. A “cleaner” actress, Mirren is much less theatrical than Judi Dench

Gutsy Choices

Taking risks more than other British actresses, Mirren played a nymph in Michael Powell's Age of Consent” (1969), Cesonia in Tinto Brass's “Penthouse Caligula” (1979), and then what may be arguably her gutsiest, full-frontal (nude) performance in Peter Greenaway's controversial “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover” (1989).

Mirren's breakthrough role was in John Mackenzie's “The Long Good Friday” (1979), a still underestimated gem in which her performance as Victoria, the tough, sexy mistress of Bob Hoskins volatile cockney gangster, had critics hailing a major new screen star.

Her film career took off after “Long Good Friday” and she starred in numerous acclaimed films, including John Boormans fantasy adventure “Excalibur,” and Pat O'Connor's Irish thriller “Cal” (1984), Mirren's portrayal of an older woman in love with a younger man in the latter film earned her Best Actress at Cannes.

Mirren continued to push boundaries in Peter Weirs “The Mosquito Coast,” opposite Harrison Ford; Charles Sturridges “Where Angels Fear to Tread”; and in an extremely moving performance in Terry Georges political melodrama, “Some Mothers Son,” which she also co-produced. A natural actress, who researches meticulously her parts and then disappears deep inside them, Mirren was brilliant in Paul Schrader's chilly noir, “The Comfort of Strangers” (1990).

More recently, she received a Globe nomination for Nigel Coles “Calendar Girls,” in which she again shines as one member of a female troupe, including Julie Walters; and starred as Robert Redford's confused wife in “The Clearing,” a dull thriller in which she is good in an underwritten role.

Prime Suspect

Up to “The Queen,” Mirren has not had a lead role as the femme cop in “Prime Suspect” (1991), the project for which she is best-known, a status that will change if and when she wins the acting prize in the Venice International Festival, where “The Queen” world premieres. In the groundbreaking Emmy and BAFTA award-winning TV series “Prime Suspect,” Mirren starred as detective chief inspector Jane Tennison. Nor have her movies, up to “The Queen,” offered her a chance to develop a full-bodied, multi-nuanced portrait as an attractive woman, disillusioned by her professional career.

Mirren followed the first segment with “Prime Suspect 2,” directed by John Strickland, and “Prime Suspect 3,” by David Drury; both aired on British TV in 1993, and later in the U.S. Mirren has recently completed shooting the fourth and final “Prime Suspect,” bringing this iconic role to its conclusion.

Mirren's Other Credits

Mirren's American TV title roles include “Losing Chase,” for which she won the 1996 Globe Best Actress, “The Passion of Ayn Rand” (Emmy Best Actress Award), “Door to Door” (Globe, Emmy and Screen Actors Guild nominations), “The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone” (Globe, Emmy and Screen Actors Guild nominations), and the C4 and HBO co-production “Elizabeth I,” which was received with glowing reviews in the U.K. and U.S., and swept the 2006 Emmy Awards on August 27.

Space doesn't permit me to dwell on Mirren's equally impressive theatrical career. Amongst her acclaimed performances in the 1970s was “Teeth n Smiles,” at the Royal Court, and “The Seagull” at the Lyric. She has received critical accolades for “Anthony and Cleopatra,” opposite Michael Gambon, Arthur Millers “Two-Way Mirror,” “Orpheus Descending,” “A Month in the Country,” which marked her Broadway debut for which she received a Tony nomination, and “The Dance of Death,” on Broadway opposite Ian McKellen. Most recently, Mirren starred in “Mourning Becomes Electra” at the National Theatre for which she was nominated for an Olivier Award.

For the record:

Purist fans of Helen Mirren should know that she also lent her lovely voice as the queen in the animated feature “The Prince of Egypt” (1995).