Helen Mirren is often touted as an anomaly. She is the 70-year-old actress who isn’t afraid to speak out about the iniquitous way Hollywood treats women, the septuagenarian who is considered a sex symbol, and an iconoclast who has taken on roles either traditionally played by men or originally written for them.
Then there is the reality check, the contradiction to that bit of entertainment journalists’ wisdom. Helen Mirren is like many 70-year-old women. She wears her silver hair in a no-fuss cut she claims is her own handiwork. Allure magazine might declare Mirren’s bob a styling “don’t,” but it never stops compilers of those lists of the sexiest stars in the firmament from including her. She is a proponent of furthering her craft. She is a willing and often vocal advocate and mentor to younger women, as well as those who are now facing the challenges of aging. This is especially relevant in a culture that is usually harsh to women who have the audacity to not only look their age, but embrace all that it entails.
Anyone who started their acting career as a buxom twenty-something might relish the thought of being seen as still having sex appeal five decades later. Last Saturday, Dame Helen admitted to Richard Godwin of the Radio Times she is more than just a pretty face. According to Mirren, being thought of as a sex symbol can have its drawbacks.
“I’ve always been tired of being called ‘sexy’. It’s annoying and irritating — I just have to put up with it.”
During the interview with Godwin, Ms. Mirren was asked what the best thing was about being 70.
“Oh, there are lots of great things. Not the least of which is the last 70 years of experience. I always feel as if I will be a few steps behind, but I’m very grateful to have witnessed the world without modern technology and then to have seen it arrive. I feel sorry for people who have never known the world without computers and social media.”
Still, it is in the arena of sexual politics that Helen Mirren remains as steadfast in her desire to see women overcome stereotypes and limiting roles as the establishment is committed to keeping such a mindset in place when it comes to casting.
Susan Sarandon, an American actor who seems to be bucking the ageist Hollywood system, credits Mirren with her approach to choosing roles. Vanity Fair’s Julie Miller spoke with Sarandon about her role in the Lorene Scafaria’s The Meddler.
“I listen to Helen Mirren, who told me, ‘I look and see where the character comes into the script, and then I go to the last page and I see if she’s still in the film at the end—and if she’s not, then I don’t even read it.’ I thought that’s pretty good advice.”
Mirren has gone on record as being a vocal critic of the inherent sexism and ageism in the way Hollywood casts its movies, especially when it comes to bigger budget films and those that are created with Oscars and other bits of congratulatory hardware in mind.
Earlier this month, in a chat with BBC’s Frances Cronin about her latest role as an army colonel pushing for permission to kill terrorist in the wartime satire, Eye In The Sky, Mirren stated that she thought women should seek roles that might have been originally written for men.
Mirren has stated in multiple interviews the sentiment she expressed in the Radio Times. Beyond the rare air of Hollywood’s dream factory, there is a global need for women to have economic and sexual agency. She sees women who are free to make their own choices as women who can move among different roles in society and leveling the playing field.
In the meantime, Eye In The Sky is getting a critical thumbs up in most corners. It has a 94 percent rating at Rotten Tomatoes, and Alexandra MacAaron, one of the media writers at Women’s Voices For Change, has declared it not only passes the Bechdel test, but an excellent movie that poses some difficult questions.
For Mirren, this is not only a chance to address some issues serious ethical issues about war, it is a chance to play a character who is not saddled with the limitations female characters are usually given. It could be argued that such roles will not inspire little girls to say they want to be Helen Mirren when they grow up. They could move adults to aspire to be more like her as they grow older.
[Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images]