2015 Summit

Helen Mirren takes audience on startling trip down memory lane

A clip from a talk-show appearance Mirren made in 1975 showed the host making some inappropriate remarks

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Dame Helen Mirren has an idea about how to get Hollywood to give women more substantive roles: “Change roles for women in life,” she suggested at the Women in the World Summit on Thursday afternoon in an interview with Tina Brown.

If anyone is entitled to weigh in on sexism in Hollywood, it’s Mirren. At 69, her career is flourishing, on stage and on screen. Today, she’s garnering rave reviews for her role as The Queen in the Broadway play The Audience and picking up Emmys and Golden Globes, but 40 years ago, she was introduced on a talk show as a “sex queen,” compared to an “amorous boa constrictor,” and praised for her ability at “projecting sluttish eroticism.”

Mirren–and the audience–watched that 1975 interview, with talk show host Michael Parkinson. The young Mirren held her own, asking Parkinson just what he meant when he questioned whether her “equipment” got in the way of her being taken seriously as an actress.

Thankfully, that interview felt painfully outdated. “One of the great pleasures of getting older,” Mirren said, is that “you see change.”

“We don’t realize how much has changed until we look back.”

One woman Mirren feels she’s aged alongside is Queen Elizabeth II–whom she won an Oscar for portraying in the 2006 film The Queen.

“Of all the women in my life, the one constant, apart from my eldest sister, has been the Queen of England,” Mirren said. “She became Queen when I was about six or seven. My whole memory of my life, the Queen has been there.”

In researching the role–which she’s reprising on Broadway–she discovered the woman behind the symbol.

One old film clip she found of Elizabeth’s childhood offered a window into her character.

“There’s a moment, she’s about 12, and she gets out of a huge black car,” Mirren said. “There are all these men in black with their top hats. She gets out of that car with such a sense that, ‘I’ve got to do this correctly, the way I was told.’” Mirren said she watched that scene over and over.

In spite of her many artistic accomplishments, Mirren doesn’t identify art, fame or success as the “driving force” of her life. That would be something much more basic: independence.

She didn’t get married until the age of 50. “I didn’t like the idea of marriage,” she said. “I didn’t feel the need to be married,” partly because she’d achieved economic stability on her own–which she believes is crucial for women. “This is the most important thing to teach our daughters: to gain financial independence,” she said. “In a sense, that’s been the driving force of my life.”

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article is independent of and separate from any views of The New York Times.
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