The organisers of the Karlovy Vary International FIlm Festival, taking place this week in the obscenely picturesque spa town of Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic, have hit on a canny strategy. The festival’s programming has for some years now been above reproach in every respect, something that has not always been the case in its storied 47 year history, that at one point saw the event pretty much shunned because of its apparent kowtowing to the communist powers-that-were. But those problems are a distant memory now, as this year’s carefully curated selection can attest: they may not get glitzy, high-profile Cannes-level premieres, but the film choice shows astonishing range, refreshing eclecticism and a deep passion for bringing challenging cinema to an apparently very enthusiastic and responsive Eastern European crowd. But the problem then becomes one of profile, and one of the ways the organisers have found to raise theirs, is with their honoree list. Leaning somewhat in the last few years toward the "established international grand dame" faction, (recent recipients include Judi Dench and Isabelle Huppert), this year the festival honors both Helen Mirren and Susan Sarandon. Mirren, here also promoting her new film with Hungarian director Istvan Szabo “The Door” (our review is coming soon), was up first, accepting a lifetime achievement award Friday night and then speaking to press Saturday morning.
She may have been a few minutes late but disarmed us as all immediately by calling out her apologies as she entered and blaming her tardiness variously on jet lag, broken hairdryers, husbands and being unable to find her make up. Needless to say, she looked immaculate. And said husband, director Taylor Hackford, himself also an Oscar-winner as she reminded us brightly (he won for a short film in 1979, and was later nominated for “Ray”) accompanied her, occasionally contributing anecdotes and tidbits, but mostly this was the Helen Mirren show. It was pretty much a sell-out.
1. Mirren is a passionate advocate of filmmaking roles for women at every level of the industry.
In her speech the night previous, Mirren had paid tribute to the remarkable career of Nora Ephron, viewing it, and her own lifetime achievement award, in the light of the role of women in the film industry. Noting how much things have changed even over the past few years, she mentioned approvingly the number of women serving on juries here, but went on to lament their underrepresentation in behind the camera roles, from directors right down to crewmembers. When she returns to Karlovy Vary in five years time, she said, she hopes to see a 50% representation of female-directed projects. “Actually no,” she laughed. “ I want 85 percent.”
On Saturday the theme continued, with Mirren mentioning often how very masculine a place a film set usually is, in both cast and crew. Not only did that make her celebrated nude scenes harder to perform, it also informed some of her more recent choices, like “Calendar Girls”: “The idea of doing a film with 6 or 8 women, who were all friends of mine…we just had an incredibly good time, laughing all the time. You never get to have that experience…it’s usually 5 or 10 male characters for every female.”
But if writers are worried about being able to deliver rounded female characters, she has some sage words of advice, apropos for someone who has twice recently appropriated roles intended for men (in ”The Tempest” and “State of Play”): “I always say to writers, ‘Don’t worry about writing roles for women, just write it as a man and give it a woman’s name. Let us do the rest.’”
But later she clarifies “I don’t complain about the roles for women in film, I complain about the roles for women in life” before tipping her hat to the new generation of female politicians and public figures that, she believes, are part of a (too slow but we’ll take what we can get) sea change in terms of gender perceptions, not just in the movies, but in every sphere of life.
2. Nudity may sometimes be exploitative, but she finds it less disquieting than violence
The inevitable nudity question arose, specifically whether she regarded her own experiences in the buff on film as exploitative or empowering. She replied, “You can look at it either way. I never felt particularly empowered by the experience, it was something I just had to get on with. And it was part of my personal journey towards a kind of liberation, but where it crosses the line into exploitation…I don’t think anyone’s ever clearly defined that.”
Her thoughts on the strange hypocrisy around sex vs violence, however, are clearly defined. “I think it’s kind of appalling in the industry at large that violence and torture are more acceptable than nudity and sexuality. I think that’s an appalling revelation of something very unpleasant in human nature. And you can’t lay all the blame for that at the feet of filmmakers because they know what the public want and they pander to that. So it’s something in all of us and we have to look at ourselves, really.”
3. She appears to have one of the happier Hollywood marriages we’ve witnessed
Mirren and Hackford met on the set of “White Nights” and after becoming an item worked together once more on “Love Ranch.” Apparently Hackford has proposed other collaborations, but Mirren says, with brutal candor/humor “the roles simply weren’t good enough.” But in case you think that may have put a strain on their relationship, the pair are quick to eulogize each other, with Mirren admiringly describing how Hackford essentially put together the entire “Love Ranch” project from scratch, and Hackford going on to say of his wife:
“You see the result of Helen’s work on the screen, but the other experience that you can’t ever understand is the joy of working with her on set. There are certain actors you can ask almost anything of and they’ll be able to do it, and translate it into something that makes you look better. Some actors, you ask them to do it this way and do it that way…they come up against a stone wall. There are certain actors, and Helen is one of them, that you can really get everything you ask for and that is such a pleasure for a director. And for the other actors with her — because leadership on set comes from the director, but when your star is literally being there, not going to their trailer, doing the hard work as asked, it has a very salutory effect on the other actors and makes for a much better film.”
Aw. You guys!
4. Mirren, refreshingly, doesn’t want to direct, and would choose film over theatre.
Mirren once directed a segment of the TV omnibus "On The Edge" and of that experience she says, “I loved the process, I even had advice…in my bedroom. I came to the end of the experience absolutely having loved it, thinking what a great job directing is, what fun it had been, and ‘I’m not going to do this again.’ Because actually, I’m an actress. I chose to be an actress… I was asked to do a long-format thing also for TV and I said no, because I love being an actress, I think it’s my chosen destiny and I don’t want to change paths. But I still want very much to encourage women and hope to work with many female directors in the future.”
Furthermore, when asked about her preference between her film and theatre work, instead of coming over all misty-eyed at the purity of the theatrical acting experience, she said, “my answer to that is usually whichever one I’m not doing at the time… but if I ultimately had to choose, I would probably choose film. I’ve come to absolutely love the process of filmmaking.”
5. She counts her character in “The Door” as one of the most difficult acting challenges of her life.
“It was perhaps the hardest film I’ve ever done. It doesn’t look like that to the eye, but I felt a responsibility, that it was a Hungarian story, a whole central European story, the World War Two [aspects], the communist experience… So I felt an incredible weight of responsibility and felt all the time I was falling very short… The only great advantage was I wore absolutely no make up, so I didn’t have hours of preparation. It only took 5 minutes to get ready and that was fantastic.”
And later she elaborated further: “…[my character] has an incredible mystery about her…is she actually a really evil character or is she a very noble character? And you just don’t know because she’s so uncommitted. In a way that’s harder to play.”
6. Looking at painting of Elizabeth II and footage from her childhood helped her inhabit the role of “The Queen."
“Compared to the first Elizabeth, who really controlled her image, Elizabeth II has been extremely liberal. She allows many portraits, and she allows the portraitists to do anything they want — for example she was recently painted I think with her eyes closed — and it’s like your portrait of the Queen, it’s not a perfect replica, it’s your impression. The minute I thought of my work as a portrait — my personal portrait, there’s a lot of me in it, like there’s a lot of the painter in a portrait — it freed me from the terror.”
Here Hackford chimes in with the complementary story of Mirren’s research approach to the role, saying that despite the wealth of more recent material available to her, she kept watching the footage of the Queen as a young girl, and ignoring the videos where she was at the age Mirren would be playing her. “I said ‘We’re running out of time and you’re not going to have a chance to look at the meat of this role.' And she said ‘Once she puts the crown on her head she becomes THE QUEEN. If I want to know who she was, I look at her as a little girl.’”
7. She had myriad reasons for taking the role of Alma in the upcoming “Hitchcock.”
“It was a fabulous script. And I got to work with Anthony Hopkins. And to do a film in Los Angeles, it was shot in Los Angeles which is very rare nowadays, so I could be at home with my husband. And speaking of women in film, Alma [Reville, Hitchcock’s wife and the character Mirren plays] was one of the great unsung heroines of film. She was extremely productive in making Hitchock’s masterworks and he himself gave her all the credit in the world for her contribution. So it was a great chance to bring Alma out of the shadows.”
“Hitchock” is slated for a 2013 release, so she may be beaten to the Alma Reville punch by the formidable Imelda Staunton, who portrays her in the similarly themed HBO/BBC production “The Girl,” due to air this year. But we’d lay money that Mirren will not be outshone, in a bet that pretty much no one will take.