British actress Helen Mirren doesn’t believe that fans of hard-core pornography, “the guys who hang out at the Pussycat Theater,” as she refers to them, would appreciate her new film, “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover.”
“They’d think it was boring,” muses Mirren. “They’d say, “This isn’t what I came in here to watch.'”
The point Mirren is making – that pornography and art are easily differentiated – is a lesson the Motion Picture Association of America ratings board has yet to learn. It recently slapped an “X” rating on “The Cook,” a provocative black comedy about mindless consumption and rampant greed.
Director Peter Greenaway and Miramax Films, the movie’s distributor, appealed the decision to no avail. “The Cook” has since been released without a rating but with the advisory, “Due to the explicit nature of this film, no one under 18 will be admitted.”
Writer-director Greenaway has likened his film’s blend of “violence, eroticism, melancholia and satire” to a classic revenge play out of Jacobean theater. Shot on a modest budget of $2.3 million, “The Cook”‘ was created in an atmosphere of “light-hearted anarchy,” says Mirren over the telephone from Los Angeles. “I never laughed as much on any film as I did making this one. Most movies, especially big-budget American movies, are fraught with tension and arguments. But when I making `The Cook,’ I couldn’t wait to go into work every day.”
In the film, Mirren portrays Georgina, the detached, much-bullied wife of a foul and obnoxious thief (Michael Gambon), who nightly dines with his uncouth gang in an ultra-posh French restaurant run by a reserved cook (Richard Bohringer).
One evening – the first of 10 that make up the film – Georgina spots a man (Alan Howard) sitting alone reading a book. She’s immediately drawn to this gentle soul. Soon, the couple are consummating their passion in various pantries throughout the restaurant.
Mirren was intrigued by Georgina’s stubborn resilience. “There was such a core of steel inside her. She’d made terrible mistakes to get where she was and, in some ways, she was a complete victim. But there’s also something about her that’s totally unvictimized. It was like you could do whatever you liked to the outside of her, but you could never pull down the inside of her. Her spirit was so incredibly strong and fierce.”
Mirren passed up the chance to research her role by speaking to battered wives. “There wasn’t any point in doing that,” says the actress. “We weren’t playing psychology, we were playing mythology and allegory.”
Since 1969, which saw Mirren’s film debut in Michael Powell’s “Age of Consent,” many of her movie appearances have been greeted with critical acclaim. She was Bob Hoskins’ witty, take-charge girlfriend in “The Long Good Friday” and Harrison Ford’s long-suffering wife in “The Mosquito Coast.” Her acclaimed performance as a passionate widow in “Cal” won Mirren the Best Actress Award at 1984’s Cannes Film Festival.
None of her films, though, has made her a star, which means Mirren’s not in a position to pick and choose projects. “It’s not like I’m able to sit around and say, `Oh, I think I’ll do that one, but not that one.'”
Mirren, a former member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, admits to being drawn to roles that allow her to explore a character’s sexuality.
“I don’t like playing a role that’s asexual. That doesn’t mean that I want to be jumping into bed all the time. It’s not that. But asexuality doesn’t interest me. In fact, I find a lot of those roles to be offensive. Some women’s roles are specifically written so the audience hates them. I’m thinking of the role of the nurse in `One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest,’ played by that brilliant actress Louise Fletcher. I felt she was being specifically used as an object of derision — an unattractive, unsexual, repellent sort of person.
“Lady Macbeth is a repellent person, but there’s an immense sexuality there. So it’s not that you have to be a heroine every time — far from it,” she continues. “But I like roles that mix sex and intelligence somehow. ”
Is appearing nude before the cameras a concern of Mirren’s?
“Well if it was, I’d be a terrible psychological mess by now,” she laughs. “The nudity in `The Cook’ didn’t bother me because I was working with an actor (Howard) who was more or less in the same boat. So often, it’s just the woman who takes off her clothes. And I thought it was a very unsexist film, so I felt free. It only gets disturbing if you begin to feel as if you’re being exploited.”
Next for Mirren is “Comfort of Strangers,” a Paul Schrader-directed, Harold Pinter-written vehicle co-starring Christopher Walken and Natasha Richardson. Says Mirren of the psychological thriller, “It’s complex, strange and very dark.”
“The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover” is now playing at the AMC 25th Street Easton and AMC Tilghman 8, South Whitehall Township.