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We Americans first fell in love with Helen Mirren as Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison in the British TV series Prime Suspect, when it came to the United States in the early 1990s. She was steely, navigating blatant sexism in a workplace that today would have gotten that whole lot fired.
We yearned for much more of her after she wowed us with her Oscar-nominated performance in the 1994 film The Madness of King George, and we soon got more, with her starring roles in The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, Calendar Girls and the 2006 biopic The Queen, for which she won an Oscar in 2007. She captivated us with her range, from bawdy, saucy and funny to stern and imposing. And it’s true she is best known for her Queens. In addition to playing Queen Elizabeth II (twice: in The Queen and The Audience), Mirren, 72, has portrayed Queen Charlotte (in The Madness of King George), Elizabeth I (in a TV miniseries), a Snow Queen (voice only, in an animated film) — and Lord knows how many more monarchs onstage during her Royal Shakespeare Company days.
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Indeed, Mirren, an official Dame — as in Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire — is regal even when she is playing a commoner. Think of her haughty confidence as the owner of a Michelin-starred restaurant in The Hundred-Foot Journey, or her proud carriage as an elderly Jewish woman trying to reclaim a family portrait stolen by Hitler in Woman in Gold. She’s even the most elegant assassin ever in both RED films.
But she is cheeky. Remember that 2016 Super Bowl ad for Budweiser in which she admonishes a viewing audience of zillions that “If you drive drunk, you, simply put, are a shortsighted, utterly useless, oxygen-wasting human form of pollution”? Or her entrance on Stephen Colbert’s late-night talk show, when she stunned the normally unflappable CBS host by planting a full kiss on his lips?
On top of all that, she has always been simply beautiful. Michael Powell cast her in the 1969 film Age of Consent because, he says, he found her “luscious, intelligent and hot.” L’Oréal made her the face of a beauty campaign and brand ambassador when she was 69.
In the end, it’s her work that has vaulted her to fame and has been most important to her. As she told AARP not long ago, about the beginning of her career, “I didn’t want to be famous, but I wanted to be a really good actress.” She didn’t get the first part of that wish. But she sure as heck got the second.