It was fortuitous that, right before I started working on this list, I came across a video of The Late Late Show host James Corden’s recent hilarious rap battle with Helen Mirren on social media. I was struggling with finding the right words to summarize the importance of such a powerful, intimate, strong, versatile, and all-around legendary actress whose body of work spans a whopping five decades, and shows no sign of slowing down. Right then, the sight of a crowd of millennials screaming with joy and losing their shit after simply laying eyes on what would appear to be a posh and classy septuagenarian lady to those somehow still uninitiated with “The Mighty Mirren,” gave me the best possible introduction. In five seconds, the image of these kids genuinely bowing to the queen and expressing their loud love for this “prestige” actress as if she’s a rock star succinctly expressed how beloved and respected Mirren is across many generations.
During the battle, as she effortlessly makes mincemeat out of Corden, Mirren raps, “I played the queen, but also warriors and witches. Crime lords and wizards, bosses and bitches. Detective and whores, to all kinds of Shakespeare.” There you have it, ladies and gentlemen, all hail the queen! Since Mirren is gracing the silver screen once again with her role as a haunted heiress in Hollywood’s PG-13 Jump Scare Ghost Flick #2584, a.k.a. Winchester, it’s a good time to remind readers of Dame Mirren’s remarkable career via a Top 10 Performances list. There are plenty of great performances to choose from, so in compiling this list, we’ve sought to create a balance of titles from every decade.
In Paul Schrader’s lush and sensual relationship drama with a gorgeous Venetian backdrop, Mirren has a rather small supporting role, but she makes an indelible mark nevertheless. She plays the sexually repressed and spiritually rambunctious wife to Christopher Walken’s pompous bar owner, her reverence for the youthful couple (Rupert Everett and Natasha Richardson) she just met materializing itself into a rather unsettling but logically inevitable obsession. Mirren’s role in The Comfort of Stangers is a testament to her ability to seriously impact the tone of a film even with a minor role.
Two giants in their professions crossed paths in Age of Consent. With his second-to-last film, Scorsese-muse Michael Powell was on his way out, and in her breakthrough role, a young Helen Mirren’s cinematic adventure was just beginning. This coastal dramedy about an artist (James Mason) finding new inspiration at an old age through his infatuation with a friendly and inexperienced young girl (Mirren) is pretty much the usual wistful wish fulfillment story about how men of a certain age can be reinvigorated via young and hot innocence, like the underrated Clint Eastwood drama Breezy. Yet Mirren shows her range even this early in her career as her character matures from a doe-eyed youngster to a self-assured woman.
In John Boorman’s acid trip fever dream take on the Arthurian legend, Mirren plays the cunning witch pulling the strings behind the scenes as she conspires to take revenge on King Arthur (Nigel Terry). As Morgana, Mirren blisters with sex appeal and graceful sensuality. You might also want to check out the messy as hell Caligula for some more sexy soft focus ancient period action that also has Mirren in the cast, but let’s face it, Excalibur’s flighty craziness trumps Caligula’s soft-core eroticism.
In Robert Altman’s always-engaging and astute “ensemble drama skewering the norms of social hierarchy disguised as an old-fashioned murder mystery.” perhaps the last great work from the master, Mirren plays Mrs. Wilson, the always-loyal, stiff-upper-lip head servant of a giant English country house. Even as the murder of one of the guests threatens to rip apart the social construct of the house, Mrs. Wilson always finds a way to maintain that “Keep Calm and Carry On” old school British spirit, even though Mirren’s subtle and layered performance delightfully hints at the panic that’s stewing under the façade of forced normalcy.
As we’ve seen with her breezy roles in silly genre fare like Fate of The Furious and Red, Mirren has an almost giddily goofy, lighter side that doesn’t mind poking fun at the prestige British actress tome usually foisted upon her. Even though her playful turn as a rabble rouser who inspires her fellow small-town senior women to pose nude for a calendar in order to raise funds for a hospital in need isn’t necessarily as campy and tongue-in-cheek as the aforementioned roles, Mirren obviously has a blast with playing such a free-spirited and headstrong character. If you have any doubt that Mirren has impeccable comic timing, watch Calendar Girls.
Yes, it’s a bit of a punch line now to refer to Mirren’s many roles as queens across her career, yet of course there’s a very simple reason for this: She’s amazing at playing queens. Perhaps inspired by her own tenacity, social command, and fearlessness as an actress paving her own way through decades of sexism in her profession, she doesn’t have a lot of trouble identifying with the power and struggles of some of England’s most revered queens. In this stuffy but satisfactory miniseries that chronicles the second half of Elizabeth I’s 45-year reign, Mirren plays a force of nature embittered by years of betrayal and the heavy burden of such awesome power.
For yet another proof of Mirren’s range within the same role, check out these two scenes from this cockney gangster classic and granddaddy of Sexy Beast and the few good Guy Ritchie flicks: The first shows Mirren’s character, the loyal and ruthless mistress to Bob Hoskins’ psychopathic gangster, in complete control of her surroundings, even when borderline sexually harassed by one of the gangster’s men. The elevator doesn’t need an AC; her coolness is enough. The second scene, beginning at the 1:10 mark, shows an infinitely more vulnerable woman at the end of her rope as deadly forces surround the couple. Both scenes ring true in their own ways, as Mirren’s airtight performance contributes to The Long Good Friday’s deserved status as a terrific crime drama.
Aside from depicting the most unorthodox sausage dinner ever put on film during its notorious finale, Peter Greenaway’s sick pitch-black dark comedy, with all the legitimate praise that comes with that description, allows Mirren to showcase one of the bravest and most complex performances of her career. As the cheating wife to an abusive husband played with teeth-gnashing hysteria by Michael Gambon, Mirren audaciously explores the wide emotional range of the character, from meek arm candy all the way to a zero-fs-given force of blind revenge.
All of the so-called tough-as-nails, one-liner spewing, coolly suspect-interrogating detectives from the vast myriad of TV procedurals are nothing compared to Det. Chief Inspector Jane Tennison (Mirren), the tenacious and driven crime-solving machine who has to deal with rampant sexism from her male colleagues while striving to solve murder cases so tough they would force Miss Marple and Jessica Fletcher to retire and go on a seniors’ cruise together. Across six mini-series, Mirren effortlessly embodies Tennison’s stone-cold spirit, while never shying away from depicting the flaws and insecurities bubbling up under the surface.
Of course this was going to top the list, how could it not? It’s not only because this is the part that finally handed her the Oscar, but the film itself is an iconic performance piece that could have risen or crumbled by its central performance alone. On paper, Peter Morgan’s script about Queen Elizabeth II trying to find the best way to deal with the social ramifications of Lady Diana’s sudden death sounds like a tremendous bore. Director Stephen Frears is known to take unexciting material and somehow make it interesting, but Mirren’s incredibly layered performance, hiding immense sadness and confusion under the always-on show of strength and solidarity, is the backbone of the film.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a screenwriter, script coach and film critic. He works as a reader for some of the leading screenplay coverage companies in Hollywood, and is also a film critic for The Playlist, DVD Talk and Beyazperde. He has a BA in Film Theory and an MFA in Screenwriting. He lives near Portland, Ore., with his wife, daughter, and two King Charles Spaniels.