She won Oscar gold for her uncanny performance as Britain's Queen Elizabeth, but Helen Mirren's latest portrayal finds her as the power behind the throne - or, more precisely, the director's chair.
In Hitchcock, Mirren stars opposite Anthony Hopkins as legendary director Alfred Hitchcock's devoted wife, Alma Reville, and early buzz has her a contender for another Oscar nomination.
The film, which opens in limited release on Friday, explores the domestic life of one of Hollywood's most iconic and revered directors, set during the days of his struggle to put the ground-breaking 1960 classic, Psycho on the silver screen.
Toggling back and forth between his on-set battles with censors and his cast including Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson), Vera Miles (Jessica Biel) and Tony Perkins (James D'Arcy), and his strained relationship with Alma as she copes with his obsession with his ravishing leading ladies, Hitchcock treats film fans to a glimpse of bygone Hollywood.
But it paints a more nuanced and sympathetic portrait of the director Hopkins called "a damaged man" than the television film The Girl, which dramatised the hell Hitchcock put Tippi Hedren through during filming of The Birds.
"It's a great role," Mirren said of Alma, a film editor and assistant director in her own right who ceded the spotlight to her husband, but as the film makes clear was involved in virtually every aspect of his films and even recut Psycho into the masterpiece it is known as today.
"So, you don't turn that down," Mirren said.
Having won her Oscar as one of the world's most famous women, Mirren said she finds herself drawn to "the ones I don't know anything about, like Alma. Those are the most fun."
With little to go on, Mirren said she turned to the 2003 book Alma Hitchcock: The Woman Behind the Man, by the couple's daughter, Patricia, who also acted in several Hitchcock films.
By all accounts, making the movie about the movies was a joy, with Mirren and Hopkins co-starring in their first film together under first-time director Sacha Gervasi (Anvil: The Story of Anvil), who fixed a script that had made the rounds.
Hopkins described it as the "most fun" since his Oscar-winning role in the thriller Silence of the Lambs.
Mirren recalled rushing off to work each day: "I couldn't wait." And it helped that the actors have the same approach.
"There's no mystery to it . . . They talk about chemistry, and Helen agrees with me, there's no such thing. You know your part, she knows hers, and off you go, hope it works," Hopkins said.
But Mirren and Hopkins, who is also being touted for an Oscar nomination, parted ways when speculating on how the auteur director, who never won an Oscar during five decades of work, would have fared in the Hollywood of today.
"He would have despaired," Hopkins said. "It would have been anathema to him. That kind of artistry is gone."
Corporate control means "you have eight or nine producers on the set, everyone's got a say in the scripts, and even craft services!"
But Mirren differed, imagining Hitchcock would "do brilliantly".
"He was a great salesman, and the Hollywood of today is so much about being a salesman and being able to sell yourself as a brand," she said.
Hitchcock was on a roll in his early sixties, with his Psycho follow-up, the shocking thriller The Birds becoming a hit and a much-loved classic. But none of the handful of films he made afterward attained their iconic status.
Mirren, 67, by contrast, truly hit her stride during her 40s, despite a steady two-decade career by that point.
Starting with the TV show Prime Suspect to the films Gosford Park, The Queen and The Last Station, she racked up four Oscar nominations and a mantel full of Emmys, which raises a question about the validity of complaints that Hollywood has no use for actresses over 40. Reuters
- © Fairfax NZ News