Wednesday, August 1, 2007
It All Comes Back to Me When I Watch Helen Mirren
During the summer of 1993, my second wife took a trip back to Palau, Micronesia. She had been there earlier for much of 1992 on a sabbatical from her job as a librarian at the University of Oregon and would go back on a permanent basis in 1993 to build a library collection from the gound up at Palau Community College. Our marriage was lousy. This separation, for a variety of reasons, sealed its doom.
In her absence, I watched scores of movies we never would have watched together and I went on a Helen Mirren kick.
The movie that kicked off my kick was the 1980 feature "A Long Good Friday". It's a fairly convoluted movie with multiple plot threads, but the main story involves a London mob king name Harold, played by Bob Hoskins.
Helen Mirren plays his mistress, Victoria. She is posh, elegant, refined, cool, steely, intelligent. She's all that Harold isn't. He's coarse, vulgar, undisciplined, rash, violent, but rich. Victoria keeps him under control when others can't, but not even she can keep his gangland empire from crumbling.
In retrospect, I now know that this was a perfect Helen Mirren role. Starting with this movie, Helen Mirren played role after role in which she is a gorgeous, contained, and powerful companion to a man who needs these qualities to balance out his own madness. Never in these roles is the Helen Mirren character submissive to these men. She exercises great power in guiding these men, often working to keep them out of trouble and sometimes asserting herself, as in "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover" to ultimately get even with a monstrous man.
All of my memories of my Helen Mirren kick and her deep strength as an actor came back to me today as I watched her play Queen Elizabeth II in "The Queen". As is so often the case, Helen Mirren plays Queen Elizabeth with a stoic, impervious exterior, but throughout the movie small glances, the aversion of her eyes, a hand running through her hair, or a particularly quiet, but emphatic drop of a pen reveals that she feels much more within than her exterior seems to portray.
The movie is about the death of Princess Diana and the royal family's response to it.
I had just begun going out with the Deke when Princess Diana died. On Saturday night, the Deke came over to my house and we fixed a smashing scallops dinner and watched "Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould." We didn't make to the end of the movie as we started kissing for the first time.
The following morning, the Deke came back over to my house, a surprise to me, on her son's bicycle. I hadn't been able to sleep much after she left and was watching ABC's World News Now and heard about the Princess' death. The Deke learned it from me.
At the time, Princess Diana's death didn't have much of an impact on me. My first wife had gone gaga over her wedding and I knew others who loved Di, but I arrogantly considered myself above such things and had kept my distance from all the drama of her life.
That all changed today. Watching this movie, something emotionally in me cracked. The pictures of Princess Diana, the thousands and thousands of people bringing her flowers, the crowds along London's streets as her casket was carried to Westminster Abbey, the sight of Elton John coming into the Abbey and my knowledge of the moving song he wrote for her all combined to soften me, to even touch me with regret that I had distanced myself so much from her charitable deeds and the deep love people around the world felt for her.
Somehow, Helen Mirren's portrayal of a resentful queen who put aside her private feelings and spoke to the nation of Britain about the loss of Diana moved me to feel differently. In the movie, Elizabeth's shell cracked a bit. She saw that she had not understood the love her nation felt for Diana.
Watching the movie took me back to my history watching Helen Mirren. No movie I've seen her in has been forgettable. I seem to remember what I was doing and where I was when I've seen her movies.
Likewise, I know where I was and what was happening when Diana died and today the memories of broken marriages, of my first wife's love of British things, her enchantment with Charles and Diana, of a wife in Palau, of beginning a relationship with the Deke that would soon turn into marriage, all of these landmark events in my life all intersect with Helen Mirren, her movies, and the memorable way she acts.
I didn't expect so much feeling and nostalgia and memory to come flooding back today. But, I should have known.
"The Queen", after all, starred Helen Mirren.