We've pretty much grown to expect Queen Elizabeth to be played as one cold kipper, but Mirren has much more in mind. Still among moviedom's most beautiful actresses, she brings an elegant sense of remove to Elizabeth. A downward cast of the eyes, a slight softening of that stiff upper lip, and she opens a window, ever so slightly, on the very private passions that drive her: for propriety and for a thousand years of precedent. Sheen's Blair seems at first blush the true statesman here, but it's Mirren's Elizabeth, infuriatingly remote, who understands the devil's deal that royalty must live by: politicians give you a shoulder to cry on, but the potentate is not your pal.
Earlier last year Mirren—featured in this issue's cover story—starred in an HBO movie about the first Queen Elizabeth, a surprisingly sexy foil for Jeremy Irons's Earl of Leicester. Which just goes to show that while England has had two Queen Elizabeths, there's only one Helen Mirren.
Runners-up: In The Devil Wears Prada, Meryl Streep at first seems to be playing her role as a hard-boiled fashion editor for laughs—then she begins peeling back the layers of sorrow and desperation that define the character…Likewise, in For Your Consideration, Catherine O'Hara's portrayal of a veteran bit actress facing the possibility of an Oscar nomination starts out achingly funny but turns poignant as her character struggles between confronting reality and succumbing to baseless optimism…Maggie Smith brings unexpected warmth to her role as a murderer-turned-housekeeper in Keeping Mum…And Judi Dench delivers shivers as a needy, cold-blooded stalker in Notes on a Scandal.
Beyond our nominees there were even more first-rate star turns in the past year, including Julie Walters as a quirky retired actress in Driving Lessons, and Brenda Vaccaro, Sally Kellerman, and Dyan Cannon as a sexy 60-plus triumvirate in Boynton Beach Club.
Best Actor 50 and Over
Donald Sutherland, Aurora Borealis
Ronald Shorter is trapped. He was once a hard-working hardware salesman, a guy who gave orders and got results. Now he's a prisoner of Parkinson's, a fading shadow shuffling from room to room in his apartment, reporting back to his long-suffering wife about the results of his latest venture into the bathroom. It would be easy to simply pity Ronald, but in the haunting Aurora Borealis, Donald Sutherland plays him with such smoldering fire that even as he slowly disappears into himself, Ronald remains defiant, compassionate, and surprisingly triumphant.
Sutherland came very close to passing up the part of Ronald—a man who becomes determined to commit suicide. “I was very, very profoundly depressed for a bunch of reasons,” Sutherland says. “Ronald, this character, invaded my person. My father had Parkinson's, my mother died with dementia, and I was pretty familiar with the depression that accompanies people who feel that termination of their life is the most generous thing they can do for the person they love.” Yet the film had an unexpected effect. Says Sutherland: “Almost as soon as I started to work on the picture, my depression disappeared, and I haven't been depressed since. So Ronald cured me.”
Runners-up: Gabriel Byrne, Wah-Wah: As a divorced dad living in Africa with a deeply troubled son, Byrne is a man cast adrift at home and in the world…Samuel L. Jackson, Freedomland: Beneath rumpled clothes and an ill-fitting hat, Jackson brings new life to one of the movies' most durable characters, the world-weary cop…Peter O'Toole, Venus: The “ick” factor could be high in this tale of an aging thespian smitten with a twentysomething cutie, but O'Toole's charm renders him bulletproof…Jack Nicholson, The Departed: Few things are scarier than casual brutality. When Nicholson's gangster pulls a ring off a severed hand and gives it to his lackey while saying, “Send it to his wife,” we want to run for the exits.