Helen Mirren is one of those people who, when she talks, you listen. This Tuesday, the Dame received the Sherry Lansing Leaderships Award — so named for the former CEO of Paramount Pictures — at The Hollywood Reporter‘s annual Women in Entertainment breakfast. Although consummately gracious for receiving her award, Helen criticized the subtle sexism of Hollywood, which puts older actresses out to pasture while keeping older male actors in the stables and produces films that “worship at the altar of the 18- and 25-year-old male and his penis.” Helen’s summation? “Quite small, I always think.”
After the jump, a transcript of Helen’s speech:
Unappreciated. Underused. Ill-used. Undervalued. Under-nourished. Uneducated. Unsung. What is happening to that incredible global resource called women? The only future of the human race. In my mother’s time — and we talk a lot about mothers, don’t we, in this kind of situation? It shows the importance of a good mother. My mother told me a woman’s voice was not deemed authoritative enough to read the news, Katie Couric. I bet you remember. You won’t remember those days. (audience laughs) But my mum did. She also was convinced that she would personally walk on the moon before there could be a female prime minister.
Aren’t you sick of being told what you can and you can’t do? If you live long enough, like I have, you live to see many of these so-called “scientific truths” about gender and race to be shown up to be the load of old rubbish they were in the first place. However, it doesn’t stop people from continuing to spew them out.
Both my mother and my father believed that a girl could do anything and she had the right to try for it. Above all, I was taught the importance of economic independence. I am my parents’ daughter. I so applaud the mentors among you — nothing is more important than to encourage ambition and belief in yourself and to be a role model for those without my kind of parents.
As I got older, journalists were and are asking me to kind of complain about the opportunities for older women onscreen. And I certainly could complain about that. I’ve seen too many of my brilliant colleagues who worked non-stop through their 20s, 30s, and 40s, only to find a complete desert in their 50s. And no work means no income. You can’t earn enough to keep yourself.
I certainly could complain about the fact that virtually every drama made for film, stage or television has 20 male characters to maybe the one, two or, if you’re lucky, three female characters. That includes Shakespeare, incidentally. Why do you think I had to play Prospera in “The Tempest,” incidentally? I had to nick one of their roles. [Prospero is male protagonist of “The Tempest,” but it was changed to a female character for Mirren to play in Julie Taymor’s upcoming movie adaptation.]
I resent having witnessed in my life the survival of some very mediocre male actors (audience laughs) and the professional demise of some very brilliant female ones. However, in answer to those journalists’ questions, I say this: I’m not so concerned about the dearth of roles for women in drama. I’m concerned about the presence and the perception of women in life, on our public stages — of politics, of law, of commerce, science, engineering. There, of course, have been great changes. How my mother would have celebrated the careers of Hillary Clinton, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Nancy Pelosi, Condoleezza Rice, Benazir Bhutto, and yes, Margaret Thatcher. So, yes, I think my mum somewhere, up there, is walking on the moon!
Especially gratifying to me now is that when I watch CNN and an expert on North/South Korea relations, or the movement of volcanic ash, or the demise of the Euro, it’s very often a woman speaking on these subjects. And this is what changes roles onscreen. However, with all respect to you many brilliant and successful women in this room — executive producers, writers, directors — really not too much has changed in the canon of Hollywood filmmaking that continues to worship at the altar of the 18- to 25-year-old male and his penis. Quite small, I always think. (laughs)
However, the existence of this breakfast and this organization, the fact that so many of you take mentoring girls so seriously, that is a great step towards the ultimate recognition of the value of women, and the releasing of all that power and energy and intellect. Now, I want you to listen carefully to these numbers that I got from The Wall Street Journal: Women control 20 trillion — 20 trillion! — dollars in consumer spending. They represent a growth market twice as big as China and India combined. So, how about a bit of goddamned respect? Thank you!
Mirren was introduced by Halle Berry (who herself is a trailblazer, as the first black actress to win the Best Actress Academy Award), who said, “The last bastion of civil rights in the movie business is ageism and Helen you have singlehandedly all by yourself broken down that barrier.” Halle’s introduction speech is worth a watch of its own.