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Helen Mirren gives iconic director's wife, collaborator her due with 'Hitchcock'

Published On: Nov 28 2012 08:25:52 AM CST
Updated On: Nov 28 2012 09:43:22 AM CST
Helen Mirren in Hitchcock Inset Helen Mirren and Anthony Hopkins

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Helen Mirren in Hitchcock (inset: Helen Mirren and Anthony Hopkins).

The movie universe certainly works in strange ways, and we can only imagine the path acclaimed actress Helen Mirren's career might have taken if she had hit it off with a certain iconic director all those years ago.

But the simple fact of the matter, Mirren told me in a recent interview, was that her first and only encounter with Alfred Hitchcock in the early 1970s was a disaster.

"I met with Hitchcock when I was a very, very young actress just starting out and he was making 'Frenzy' in London and I was sent along to meet with him. He was very, very unimpressed with me and I have to say, I was rather unimpressed with him -- but only because I was an arrogant, ignorant young actress," Mirren said with refreshing honesty.

Ignorant, Mirren added, because she didn't even realize the lasting contributions Hitchcock had already made to cinema at that point.

"I really had no idea who he was. To me, he was old-school. I really wasn't familiar with his movies and don't even think I had seen 'Psycho' at that point," Mirren said. "I don't think I had seen any of his movies, actually."

Of course, Mirren has since become enriched with experience: four decades' worth of memorable film, television and stage performances, including four Oscar nominations and a win for Best Actress for her stunning portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II in the 2006 classic "The Queen."

And now, 40 years after that fateful meeting with Hitchcock, Mirren has found a way to right the ship with her starring role as Alma Reville in "Hitchcock." An unsung talent whose work was often uncredited, Reville was without question Hitchcock's closet collaborator -- and, for 53 years, his faithful wife (they were married until the director's death in 1980; Alma died two years later).

Now playing in limited release and opening wide on Friday, "Hitchcock" -- which also stars Anthony Hopkins in the title role -- is based on author Stephen Rebello's book "Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho." Finally giving her the attention she so richly deserves, "Hitchcock" shows how Alma effectively saved her husband's career on "Psycho" with her foresight, and most importantly, her unwavering faith in The Master of Suspense.

For example, Hitch -- as Hitchcock preferred to be called -- didn't want anything of the blood-curdling staccato string section in the film's iconic shower scene.

That is, until Alma stepped in.

"It was Alma who persuaded Hitch, eventually, to use Bernard Hermann's music. He didn't want to have music and he wouldn't listen to reason. Alma had to work on him several days to persuade him," Mirren said. "Also, Hitch did get sick during the making of the film, and Alma turned up on the set to sort things out. And they also certainly mortgaged their house to pay for the movie. Many of the accounts that we see in the movie really happened."

While "Hitchcock" only chronicles a short window of time in the Hitchcocks' lives, that didn't prevent Mirren from incorporating Alma's life as a whole into the character.

"You have to take the whole life into account. The whole life is terribly important because it informs the fact that Alma and Hitch were together a long time," Mirren said. "All of that is important in the creation of the person that you are to become later on. It's much more important than the specifics of the particular day or particular month you're playing them in."

There's no question that "Hitchcock," directed by Sacha Gervasi and written by John J. McLaughlin, is as much a love letter to Alma as it is to Hitch. Delving into the complexities of their marriage, Gervasi explores how in many ways Alma's and Hitch's love for one another was a partnership, both creatively and personally.

"The great marriages are partnerships. It can't be a great marriage without being a partnership," said Mirren, who has been married to director Taylor Hackford for nearly 15 years. "There are many, many different ways of being married. I don't think sex was a huge part (of Alma and Hitch's marriage), I think the glue that held them together -- and made this marriage work in a profession where marriages notoriously don't work -- was a mutual love of food and wine, of entertaining people, and a love of movies."

And, perhaps the biggest mutual love Hitch and Alma had, Mirren suspected, was humor.

"I'm sure the humor was at the top of that list, because all the pictures I've seen of Alma, I can see that she's either laugh at or laughing with Hitch -- as if he's just said something that's amused her," Mirren observed. "There's a twinkle in her eyes. She's looking at him like she's thinking, 'Oh, God, you just crack me up.' Humor in a relationship is so important. Many women will say that. Some say if they can make you laugh it's the sexiest thing on earth. "

"Hitchcock" comes merely a year after the release "My Week with Marilyn," a brilliantly-told tale of Marilyn Monroe's and Laurence Olivier's strained working relationship on 1957's "The Prince and the Showgirl."

Mirren, 67, said couldn't be any more thrilled that today's Hollywood is taking a look back on the way the industry was shaped with films like "My Week with Marilyn" and "Hitchcock," and hopes to see more of it.

"We're beginning to look at the whole '50s era of Hollywood and what it was like to make movies, and it's quite wonderful because the times were full of personalities and characters," Mirren said. "The movie industry was such a different thing in those days -- that era of filmmaking that was burgeoning into the extraordinary industry that it became. The stories of the moguls who came from Eastern Europe are just amazing. They created this incredible art form and commercial product that has had such a profound effect on the world."