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Happy Birthday, Helen Mirren!

I was amazed to read a writer in the current Rolling Stone toss off an aside that made it sound as if was unexpected for Helen Mirren to age so sexily. From the start, she's been the intellectual's sex symbol. She tore into spectacular roles and often doffed her clothes on British stages from the late 1960s to the early 1980s, playing Cressida in "Troilus and Cressida," Lady Macbeth in "Macbeth," Cleopatra in "Antony and Cleopatra," as well as contemporary parts like a rock chanteuse in David Hare's "Teeth and Smiles" and other non-Shakespearean classics, such as Nina in "The Seagull."

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In her first great movie role as a tough, smart, sensual moll in the British gangster film "The Long Good Friday (1980)," she went toe-to-toe with Bob Hoskins, creating a woman who controlled her big shot's detonations and even, in a wrestling feint, fought him to a standstill. As the sexy-treacherous sorceress Morgana in "Excalibur" (1981), she did the same kind of thing to Nicol Williamson's Merlin.

A decade later, as London's Detective Superintendent Jane Tennison in PBS' "Prime Suspect" series, Mirren inspired women and enthralled men with her portrayal of a character uniting instinct and intelligence, vulnerability and iron will, humor and obsession, as she fought crime and patriarchy. Mirren said Tennison was the one character she didn't have to pre-think at all.Mirren started this century doing splendid supporting parts in Robert Altman's "Gosford Park" and Fred Schepisi's "Last Orders." She has been on a major roll for the last decade. She expressed a monarch's "cruel passions" with a throaty roar as the title character in HBO's "Elizabeth I," then topped herself as Elizabeth II in "The Queen." Michael Sheen, who played Tony Blair, told me, "You can't play the queen without guts and courage and chutzpah. But Helen also has the steel."

I loved her in "RED" last fall. Her admission that she based her hit-woman on Martha Stewart only sounded far-fetched before you saw the movie. In "RED," she really is a comic dream of elegance as a woman who brings the same standards of taste and craft to homemaking, high-calibre rifles and haute couture.

And when Julie Taymor decided to turn Prospero into Prospera in "The Tempest," Mirren came through with a prismatic performance -- enchanting and menacing, sage and savage.

She's currently filming an HBO movie starring Al Pacino as Phil Spector -- Mirren plays his defense attorney. If the Pacino who shows up to play Spector is the Pacino of "You Don't Know Jack" -- well, I can't wait.

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