By Chris Michaud
NEW YORK (Reuters) - She won Oscar gold for her uncanny performance as Britain's Queen Elizabeth, but Helen Mirren's latest portrayal finds her as the power behind the throne -- or, more precisely, the director's chair.
In "Hitchcock," Mirren stars opposite Anthony Hopkins as legendary director Alfred Hitchcock's devoted wife Alma Reville, and early buzz has her a contender for another Oscar nomination.
The film, which opens in limited release on Friday, explores the domestic life of one of Hollywood's most iconic and revered directors, set during the days of his struggle to put the ground-breaking 1960 classic, "Psycho" on the silver screen.
Toggling back and forth between his on-set battles with censors and his cast including Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson), Vera Miles (Jessica Biel) and Tony Perkins (James D'Arcy), and his strained relationship with Alma as she copes with his well-documented obsession with his ravishing leading ladies, "Hitchcock" treats film fans to a glimpse of bygone Hollywood.
But it paints a more nuanced and sympathetic portrait of the director Hopkins called "a damaged man" than the recent television film "The Girl," which dramatized the hell Hitchcock put Tippi Hedren through during filming of "The Birds."
"It's a great role," Mirren said of Alma, a film editor and assistant director in her own right who ceded the spotlight to her husband, but as the film makes clear was involved in virtually every aspect of his films and even re-cut "Psycho" into the masterpiece it is known as today.
"So, you don't turn that down," she told Reuters.
Having won her Oscar as one of the world's most famous women, Mirren said she finds herself drawn to "the ones I don't know anything about, like Alma. Those are the most fun."
With little to go on, Mirren said she turned to the 2003 book "Alma Hitchcock: The Woman Behind the Man," by the couple's daughter Patricia, who also acted in several Hitchcock films.
"I'm not that much of a film buff that I knew about Alma, and I had no idea about Hitchcock's private life," she said, adding the book aimed "to bring her mother out of the shadows."
HITCH THE BRAND
By all accounts making the movie about the movies was a joy, with Mirren and Hopkins co-starring in their first film together under first-time director Sacha Gervasi ("Anvil: The Story of Anvil"), who fixed a script that had made the rounds.
Hopkins described it as the "most fun" since his Oscar-winning role in the thriller "Silence of the Lambs."
Mirren recalled rushing off to work each day: "I couldn't wait." And it helped that the actors have the same approach.
"There's no mystery to it ... They talk about chemistry, and Helen agrees with me, there's no such thing. You know your part, she knows hers, and off you go, hope it works," Hopkins said.
But Mirren and Hopkins, who is also being touted for an Oscar nomination, parted ways when speculating on how the auteur director, who never won an Oscar during five decades of work, would have fared in the Hollywood of today.
"He would have despaired," Hopkins said. "It would have been anathema to him. That kind of artistry is gone."
Corporate control means "you have eight or nine producers on the set, everyone's got a say in the scripts, and even craft services!"
But Mirren differed, imagining "he'd do brilliantly well."
"He was a great salesman, and the Hollywood of today is so much about being a salesman and being able to sell yourself as a brand," she explained. "He did that brilliantly. I think the two of them sold Hitch. Hitch was the faceman, he was the brand."
"Also," she added, "his filmmaking techniques would be incredibly successful," given the technological advances since Hitchcock's death in 1980.
Hitchcock was on a roll in his early 60s, with his "Psycho" follow-up, the shocking thriller "The Birds" becoming a hit and a much-loved classic. But none of the handful of films he made afterward attained their iconic status.
Mirren, 67, by contrast, truly hit her stride during her 40s, despite a steady two-decade career by that point.
Starting with the TV show "Prime Suspect" to the films "Gosford Park," "The Queen" and "The Last Station," she racked up four Oscar nominations and a mantel full of Emmys, which raises a question about the validity of complaints that Hollywood has no use for actresses over 40.
"I think what has changed is, the world around has changed," Mirren said when reflecting on her success and acclaim.
"I was lucky that I hit my 40s just as the world around me was changing. Twenty years before I never would have been cast in 'Prime Suspect' because there were no women inspectors."
And so, she looks forward.
"As I've carried on, my God, 20 years ago it was inconceivable that you'd have a female president of the United States," she said.
"Now, the next president of America may well be a woman, and if there is a female president, that means that if a movie comes along, and there's the president of America ..." She laughs.
"You know what I mean?"
(Editing by Christine Kearney)