Jan. 18 (Bloomberg) — The Oscar nominations don't come until Tuesday, but we can already guess who will rule the Awards: Helen, Helen, Helen.
The U.K. actress Helen Mirren took two Golden Globes in honor of her portrayals of two monarchs, Elizabeth I (in "Elizabeth I," a mini-series) and Elizabeth II ("The Queen," a film).
Senior actors — Mirren is 61 — have always had a role at the Academy Awards. But sometimes one gets the feeling that tributes to them are mere pretexts for more ogling of the younger, celebrity set — Paris Hilton, say, or Naomi Watts, resplendent on Monday in strapless turquoise with metal beadwork.
This time, however, Helen was Queen Regnant. As Jeremy Irons put it, "if you don't root for Helen Mirren, there isn't much else to do tonight."
Helen is hot because Americans these days are asking themselves what sort of celebrity is deserved and what kind is, well, less deserved.
"The Queen" addresses this topic. The movie is about the reaction of Queen Elizabeth, Prime Minister Tony Blair and the U.K. public to the death of Princess Diana in 1997. The Queen doesn't think Diana served properly as princess, and of course Diana was already divorced by the time of her death. So Elizabeth doesn't respond as she would have to a death of, say, Charles. Fans of Diana can't understand the Queen's view, and Tony Blair furiously mediates.
In the end Elizabeth comes around and treats Di like a royal, lowering the Union Jack over Buckingham Palace for the funeral. One of the best shots is of Mirren as she inspects the flowers placed at the palace gates for her former daughter-in-law.
The film is sufficiently pro-Elizabeth that another title for it could have been "More Tory than You Think," which is to say, more respectful of a tradition of service.
After all, Queen Elizabeth was just about Paris Hilton's age, 25, when, while in Kenya, she learned that her father had died. She may have inherited the monarchy, but she served it dutifully and professionally. Over the years she has babysat 10 prime ministers and conferred 387,700 honors, mostly all while on high heels. Three million correspondences have hit the royal inbox and, knowing Elizabeth, a good share probably got responses.
Di by contrast took her office as an imposition and was uncomfortable in public, at least until her charity phase. Her celebrity was more about being Di.
Mirren acknowledged this at Monday's awards. "I honestly feel this award belongs to her," Mirren said of Elizabeth, "because, I think, you fell in love with her, not with me."
But Mirren is popular because she is the anti-celebrity celebrity. Born Ilynea Mironoff in 1945, the daughter of an emigre violist who ended up driving a taxi in London, she has none of the demeanor of entitlement of a Paris.
She has been around for a while, but gained notice in the U.S. in her role as another professional of a certain age, detective Jane Tennison in the series "Prime Suspect." "Prime Suspect" was a U.K. product, and it came to America via public television. Mirren's portrayal of the struggle of the senior female professional is so unbearably realistic that it has generated a Helen cult.
Tennison has plenty of flaws: she is oversensitive, she smokes, she undermines female subordinates out of sheer envy of their taut eyelids. But she is also a true professional, someone who draws on decades of experience when it came to finding the corpse's killer. In America, as in Britain, Helen Mirren came to mean "senior female who prevails nonetheless."
The cult of celebrity is growing. In Style magazine is about nothing more than purses, shoes and the people who wear them, and get ever thicker with ads. The less talent or skill a celebrity seems to have, the better. Of course, there's the Paris Hilton craze — the hotel family heiress has done so little in her life that she makes Britney Spears, whose CDs sell in the millions, look like a nerd-grind of achievement.
Sociologist Paul Hollander, professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, says celebrity begets celebrity, often without underlying achievement.
"The real problem is the decline of community and the rise of social isolation," Hollander says, "This leads to fantasies of having something in common with the rich and famous."
Explaining the Grief
A better explanation for all the carnations and letters to Princess Di would be hard to find. The idea that people without fame or skill derive inspiration from famous figures is wonderful. But if what they derive instead is the comfort at the notion that doing nothing is fine, that can be problematic.
But to get back to those Golden Globes: the tension over celebrity showed up again in the award to Meryl Streep for playing the wicked editor at a fashion magazine in "The Devil Wears Prada."
Streep's character is more malevolent than the Queen's, but she prevails in part because of her experience. Her dressing down of a new hire who fails to understand the economic meaning of the color cerulean blue is the classic lecture to an entitled youngster.
In short, viewers want their celebrities to do more than just be. They want them to do. No wonder 2007 is the Year of Helen. She earned it.
(Amity Shlaes, a visiting senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
© Copyright 2007 Bloomberg
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