Mirren contributes a certain spice to `Calendar Girls'

Film should appeal to a neglected demographic

Movies: on screen, DVD/ Video

January 01, 2004|By Ron Dicker | Ron Dicker,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The nipple count in Disney's Calendar Girls is just over two. That Disney and nipples can be mentioned in the same sentence is surprising. That Disney, nipples and middle-aged-plus women are part of the movie is even more surprising.

For the record, the nipples belong to 58-year-old Helen Mirren, who plays the sassy one in the comedy ensemble. It should also be noted that Mirren has reason to be confident of her physique.

"Through no effort of my own," she says in a phone conversation this week.

In Calendar Girls, opening today, Mirren's Chris and 11 friends of a certain age spice up their pastoral English town by shooting a nude calendar to raise money for a cancer hospital. The women triumph over their modesty and puritanical forces. The film is inspired by a true story.

Chris is a proud Miss January conflicted by her unexpected celebrity. She has a son wrestling with puberty and a husband feeling neglected. Should she or shouldn't she do Leno?

Mirren became best known for playing Det. Jane Tennison in the BBC series Prime Suspect, and in Oscar-nominated roles as the wise wife in The Madness of King George (1994) and as a housekeeper in Gosford Park (2001). She prefers darker parts and says British comedies can be too cozy at times. But she found the humor of Calendar Girls carried truth, so she signed on to take it off.

The movie is bound to invite comparisons to The Full Monty, the 1997 British comedy about steelworkers who become strippers. Mirren was once the talk of England when she disrobed in the movie Age of Consent (1969) and on stage in Macbeth in 1974. Nearly 30 years later is usually enough time for gravity to become a matter of gravitas. Calendar Girls imparts an oft-repeated theme that the most beautiful stage of a flower is the last, and it aims at a market that is mostly ignored on both sides of the Atlantic. Disney, or rather Touchstone, took the reins early and has given a promotional push that Mirren says has been "very supportive."

"It's economics," Mirren says. "They said, `Wait a minute, there's an awful lot of women 40 to 60. They have money in their purse.'"

Since Nov. 27, Mirren has been on stage in London in Mourning Becomes Electra. On an off-day earlier this month, she made her way to Buckingham Palace, where Prince Charles bestowed upon her the title of dame. Their brief conversation revolved around Mirren's performances, and the prince told her he was looking forward to seeing her latest. Mirren says she warned him that it was more than four hours long. The prince replied, "That's a bit long for a film, isn't it?" Mirren then realized he was talking about Calendar Girls.

Mirren plans to take time off in Argentina and Bolivia to rest. Not many actresses her age get enough quality work that they require decompression. Asked why her roles seem to improve over time, she says, "I like to work collaboratively. I believe in directors because I'm married to a director."

White Nights (1985), in which she played Mikhail Baryshnikov's lover, introduced her to her husband, director Taylor Hackford. They have lived in Los Angeles since, although they have vacated their Hollywood Hills home and garden for the beach temporarily. Mirren misses the space, sharing a green thumb with Chris in Calendar Girls -- and an awe of Hollywood.

"When I come home, I'm still a little wide-eyed about it," she says.

She has lost out twice at the Academy Awards. No sweat, she insists.

"It's great to wear that stardust that settles on you when you're nominated and disappears when your name isn't called," she says.

Her one victory among major acting awards was a 1996 Emmy for Prime Suspect. After a well-thought-out delay, Mirren donned Tennison's trenchcoat again recently for another go-round of Prime Suspect. Originally, she appeared in five installments between 1991 and '96. Mirren knew the time was right to return, just as she knew that it wasn't before.

"I was sensitive to it," she says. "Not enough space between myself and the character to come back to it."

She does not know what she is doing after Electra. She does not seem too concerned. Mirren has been working steadily on screen and stage since she was accepted into the Royal Shakespeare Company at the precocious age of 20.

Mirren always has projected sultriness. She recently sported a fair amount of flesh with a much younger Olivier Martinez in her Emmy-nominated role in The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone and a spark of naughtiness courses through her in Calendar Girls as well.

Her shape looks pretty good, too.

"That isn't indelicate," she says. "Thank you very much."

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