In the coming months, Helen Mirren will kill on contract (Red, opens Oct. 15), hunt Nazis (The Debt, Dec. 29), and raise flames to the skies (The Tempest, Dec. 10). Mirren, now 65, is most often discussed in terms of the longevity of her sexiness. But this late-life display of fury is likely to bring attention to the less discussed genius of Mirren's acting career: her complex portrayals of the many faces of female aggression.
As Mirren has moved through her 50s and into her mid-60s, she's deftly played some pretty intimidating broads. In 2001, for instance, she portrayed the self-controlled and calculating housekeeper turned poisoner, Mrs. Wilson, in Gosford Park. In 2005 in the miniseries Elizabeth I, she depicted the monarch ruthlessly fighting back against her enemies with mercurial passion. Even in Mirren's quietly complex, Oscar-winning portrayal of the current Queen Elizabeth, she highlighted a stubborn resolve. Mirren's midlife characters may be angry, but they aren't perceived as madwomen. With Mirren's skills, they can go from subtly rude or frosty to enraged and back, and audiences root for them.
My favorite of Mirren's everyday aggressivistas is detective superintendent inspector Jane Tennison. Tennison, the protagonist of BBC's globally popular Prime Suspect series (1991-2006), was a woman of a certain age who had earned some power in the workplace but still had to waste her time dealing with sexism to get her job done. Her aggression was mixed in with ambition, wit, and a glimmer of lust, and she did not always keep it under control. Without warning she could unfairly holler at a subordinate or snap at her niece. Most disastrously, Tennison turned her rage on herself and drank too much.
Tennison's struggles weren't mine, and her successes not familiar ones to me (haven't tracked a serial killer lately). But watching Tennison in the 1990s made me think about how much I was starved for these kind of forceful, successful, but also flawed adult-women characters. Watching Prime Suspect more recently, as I was researching my book on portrayals of female aggression, made me realize that not much has changed. Tennison is still the best antidote to the clumsy ways movies and TV usually handle middle-aged women.
We know the stereotypes well. There's the 2-D bitch boss (Miranda Priestley in The Devil Wears Prada); there's the sexless, sturdy, and hardworking woman (Lieutenant Anita Van Buren in Law and Order); there's the sexually predatory Mrs. Robinson, now re-imagined as an oversexed cougar (Samantha in Sex and the City). And finally, the eternally fussy, ignored, apron-wearing caregiver, from Andy Griffith's Aunt Bea to Marge Simpson.
In this life-starts-at-retirement age we now live in, we've added a new stereotype, which is perhaps my least favorite. I like to call her the Serene One. She frequently appears in ads as a still, beatific woman sitting cross-legged, yogic hands pressed together at heart level. Her eyes stare off into space from a blank face. From its repeated representation in the 2000s—in certain ads for Eileen Fisher clothing or Wells Fargo retirement planning, for instance—it seems this slack face, often artfully positioned gazing at an ocean or mountain view, is U.S. consumer culture's new mask for postmenopausal women. It feels to me like a replay of Aunt Bea's required smile in the 1950s—only moved back to a later stage of life. Like any domain of enforced calm, it is an exhausting and impossible place to live. It's also destructive to older women, because it ennobles a kind of passivity, albeit in softer cashmere. There's a behavioral continuum from proactive to empowered that is energized by, among other things, aggression.
Which brings us back to the powerful and messy Tennison. The character was created by Lynda La Plante, who is Mirren's exact age. La Plante was the writer for the first three years of the series, and it was her decision to foreground aggression in Tennison's character. As La Plante told me, "before aggression rises to the surface, you have frustration. Tennison is a highly qualified officer facing discrimination such that eventually it builds to anger. Only when she was able to confront on an aggressive level was she able to break through."
It was often Tennison's subtle deployment of aggression that drew me in. In Prime Suspect's second episode of its first year, for instance, there is a tiny scene in an elevator in which a large male copper (who viewers already know dislikes Tennison) crowds her unnecessarily while pretending to be politely reaching for the panel of buttons. Tennison simply refuses to move or accommodate or do anything but stare—in a distinctly non-yogic, non-serene fashion—and make him reach awkwardly around her. It's these small graces of rudeness in the face of minute social plays for power that only Mirren could have pulled off so well.
Tennison's fierceness is a large part of what keeps her sexy, too; in different episodes she indulges in affairs with a younger colleague, a married detective, an old flame, another old flame, and others. And here she is now at 65, snapped by paparazzi in her two-piece at the beach, photographed by New York magazine nude in the bathtub, much discussed in terms of her heat.