I was watching TV the other night and up popped the 1990’s British crime drama Prime Suspect. A fresh faced, talented, keen to break boundaries Helen Mirren played a starring role as DCI Jane Tennison. I felt a twinge of excitement, remembering the brilliance of this show back in the day. Here was this woman, a female detective in a male dominated world. Her ambitions and smarts were leading her to the top while her chest beating, misogynistic colleagues flapped around and berated her presence. This show spelt gritty with a capital G. Admittedly, the small bit I watched of season 1 hasn’t stood the test of time when you compare it to the almost too slick, film-like-series that are out today. But it was ground breaking and it didn’t pull any punches. Nor did Mirren.
I was a pre-teen in the early ’90s so I wasn’t familiar with Mirren but my parents were. And by all accounts she was a respected actress who had spent years on the stage nurturing her craft. There’s a great snippet of an interview she did with Parkinson in the 70’s. Following on from an introduction where she was labelled as ‘especially telling in projecting sluttish eroticism’ she saunters out onto stage and immediately pokes fun of this accolade. With her soft spoken voice she quickly calls Parkinson to task and makes him uncomfortable for ever diminishing her talents and focusing solely on her assets. I honestly squirm in my seat as she forces him to explain his blatant sexism and stereotyping of female actresses.
It’s great to see this young woman handle herself so eloquently. Thinking outside the box that Parkinson is so keen to put her in. And responding so fluidly to his ‘boring’ line of thought and suggestion. That is not to say that Mirren is or was prude when it came to questions of sex or sexuality. My belief is she’s always been comfortable with her physical form but refused to be defined by it. Flash forward to the 1990’s. Chain smoking, relentlessly hard working, ball busting DCI Jane Tennison. A role like Prime Suspect was plump and juicy in a time when TV and female actress weren’t necessarily getting the most demanding of parts. That didn’t require them to strip off as well. At the age of 10, I viewed her as old. But really Mirren was in her prime and making the most of it.
So what happened to her? Well, maybe that’s an unfair question on my part. She’s been in some great films since then. Even winning an Oscar in 2006 for her portrayal of the Queen of England. She’s quoted as saying in an interview that she sees ‘life as a series of adventures’. And I’m sure she’s living many of them. But the reason I ask this is because all I see of her these days is those stupid L’Oreal ads. Admittedly she looks great and so much younger than her years [The aim for all us women… right?]. She’s sexy and hip, supporting a cool leather jacket in one version of these ads. And it’s great, she’s aged well. Brilliant. But is that all that’s left? You get to a certain age and you’re relegated to the corridors of adverts? Look at Andie McDowell. When was the last time she had a gripping role on our screens? She popped up in Magic Mike XL as a drink adled, fun loving mother who fawns over one of the strippers. Cringe is not the word for these scenes. And before you yell ‘hypocrite!!, I’d be triple cringing if it was the other way around.
Anyway… we’ve heard it all before. There are very little roles for women of a certain age. But seeing Mirren in these pitiful ads that only serve to remind us how transient beauty is like an endless slap in the face. Something Mirren would have been quick to dish out. So come on, Dame Helen Mirren. Channel some DCI Tennison and demand those good roles. Hell, write them yourself! We need more more diversity in our female roles. And we need them now…. ‘cos you know…. we’re worth it!