By now, everyone knows that Helen Mirren + Elizabeth II = Oscar, but how many voewers remember images of the queen as clues to their own family history?
I’m between Mirren and Elizabeth in age. My family moved to England when I was a baby. I grew up knowing what Princess Elizabeth and her sister Margaret Rose looked like from newspaper photos my mother showed me from time to time after they became princesses when their uncle, Edward VII abdicated and her father became King George VI. Their father’s coronation was marked by a massive Coronation event in London where my parents were among those lining the streets.
Besides the princesses, my mother was also a fan of the Dionne quintuplets. She would talk with me as if she knew them when they appeared year after year on a new calendar. These girls, the princesses and Shirley Temple (I wore my hair in curls like hers) were the young celebrities of that time before television.
When my family moved back to the United States at the start of World War II, I forgot about the princesses until I was twelve, the year that Elizabeth married Philip, the tall, handsome man she had had a crush on since she was sixteen. I remember sitting in history class thinking that right at that moment beautiful, slender, dark-haired Elizabeth was marrying the prince. Of course, I didn’t factor in the fact that they had married six hours earlier in a different time zone.
In 1957, I saw Elizabeth in the flesh when she was Queen Elizabeth II, on a state visit to Washington. Like other office workers in the city, I was let out early from work to guarantee a good crowd lining the streets. Until then, I had only seen the princess-queen in black and white. Now, there she was, in an open convertible, maybe sitting on a cushion to make more of her visible, in a beautiful blue suit, not baby blue, not royal blue, a perfect in between blue. Her cheeks were rosy, naturally or otherwise, her posture perfect. She looked more like a special being than I had ever imagined. I knew and this is not hindsight, she had to have had plenty of lessons and to keep exercising, that it was hard work to be a queen.
Many years before Diana’s death, I lost interest in Britain’s royal family, even Elizabeth II. I was reading books, hardly ever watched television. When Diana died, I didn’t know why two American friends more into pop culture than I was made such a fuss.
Now living in Mexico, I went to “The Queen” to see commoner Helen Mirren transform herself into Queen Elizabeth II. Turned out that watching the movie also gave me a chance to see what I had missed over the years. I had a backstage view of the interplay between a symbolic ruler and her parliament and besides even I could see the great impact of TV and the other media that had carried Diana into homes throughout the world.
At “The Queen,” I once again identified with Elizabeth, only this time decades after being a child. This time, I was marveling at Peter Morgan’s script and Stephen Frears’ direction but mainly how Helen Mirren and Elizabeth II each brought a lifetime of hard work to their difficult roles.
Mirren (born in 1945, nineteen years after Elizabeth) took the role seriously, studied for it. As quoted in an interview by Rebecca Murray, Mirren says: “I did very little makeup. It had more to do with the set of the face really. The set of the head, the set of the mouth.” Watching documentary film of the queen, she studied the way the queen walks, how she holds a handbag, when she takes off her glasses, when she wears them.
The actress mentions having been invited for tea with the real Elizabeth II, an opportunity I of course never had. At the Queen’s invitation, Mirren says she saw the royal woman’s informal side, the Queen with a “a twinkle to her, a relaxation about her.” Thanks to Mirren’s acting and the royal crisis in Britain, my own life came back to me when I thought I was only going to a movie.