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The Helen Mirren Effect: With Notes on the Diane Keaton Scandal

Ideas about about beauty (aesthetics), politics and power are changing. That Helen Mirren won every major acting award this year is not just poetic justice for an actress of such extraordinary gifts with a film career dating back to 1967, it is a clue to something deeper.
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I knew it! I felt it coming. I could feel it in my bones.

Ideas about about beauty (aesthetics), politics and power are changing. That Helen Mirren won every major acting award this year is not just poetic justice for an actress of such extraordinary gifts with a film career dating back to 1967, it is a clue to something deeper.

There were hints of this with Something's Gotta Give (2003) starring the hugely underrated and often misunderstood Diane Keaton, but unfortunately the material--though not without its charm--was not as awesome as the actress herself. Finally, we thought, a celebration of the beauty and charm of "the older woman." Our Mrs. Robinson had returned. Not quite yet.

Question: How does a single actor star in a Frances Ford Coppola masterpiece (The Godfather), a Woody Allen masterpiece (Annie Hall) and a Warren Beatty masterpiece (Reds); eclipse the performances of Robert De Niro, Leonardo DiCaprio and Meryl Streep in a single film (Marvin's Room, 1996) and remain largely undiscovered and definitely underappreciated?. Answer: Because she is a woman.

This is the Diane Keaton scandal. Do light comedy brilliantly (Baby Boom, Manhattan Murder Mystery) and drama with lots of soul (Shoot the Moon, The Good Mother, Looking for Mr. Goodbar) but you still can't be Jack Nicholson until maybe now. If you watched the Academy Awards carefully, you noticed she was paired side by side with him as a presenter.

This week, the Film Society of Lincoln Center will honor her, so it's all coming true. And it's about time.

This emerging cultural phenomenon about the older woman with that certain something has roots that go as far back as 2003? 1977? The reign of Elizabeth I? As a psychoanalyst, I can't help but think there are hints that go as far back as the myth of Oedipus itself. It is Queen Jocasta who has won both husband and son. This must frighten us enormously--consciously and unconsciously. Yes, it could be your mother or even your grandmother who sleeps with younger men, becomes the head of a major studio, leads us out of a war in the Middle East or stops the genocide in Darfur.

But while we are still deep within the mire of what it all means at this particular moment in time, let's bask in the irony and languish in the glory for as long as possible. Jack Black, Will Ferrell, and John C. Reilly have already caught on, so we must hurry. Queen Helen of Hollywood could be taken from us--the kidnapped Helen of Troy. And to get her back, well, we don't want to start another war.

Whether you go to a film, admire a book cover, take a seat in Congress or just walk down the street in New York City, you are certain to be awed by the unique beauty of women over 50. Women with transcendental qualities, the women we long to see more of in film, in politics, and beyond. Some are as beautiful and iconic as Cary Grant, who epitomizes the old male version of the current "Helen Mirren Effect."

The recent photographs alone tell the beginning of this marvelous new story: Robert Maxwell's glorious photo in The New Yorker with Dame Helen all in red looking fresh-faced and luminous, a virtual Valentine's Day bouquet; Dan Winters' shot of her in The New York Times Magazine, this time all in black looking gorgeous and formidable, a fantasy Head of State at a formal state function; and the dozens of pictures of her dressed in sparkling champagne holding her scepter, The Academy Award, not needing a crown for us to recognize she's The Queen.

Dame Helen is stepping in for Cary Grant. She is an icon, an idealized mirror. Mirrors serve important functions for individuals and for society. At the end of the day, we want to look in them and see something not only beautiful, but meaningful, stare back at us.

Wisdom, character. These are the new aesthetic criteria for beauty. The vapid, vacuous images of Paris Hilton, Brittany Spears and others are no longer just annoying, they are profoundly disturbing. The crash and burn of Anna Nicole Smith is another chilling and grizzly phenomenon. None of this is beautiful or sexy. And the media coverage of these young women is ugly and cheap. Thank goodness for The Huffington Post, where we can EAT THE PRESS.

Here's to the new goddesses of love, beauty and wisdom--the Athenas and Aphrodites of 2006/07 and all over 50: Jane Alexander, Judi Dench, Tyne Daly, Ruby Dee, Nora Ephron, Mia Farrow, Arianna Huffington, Diane Keaton, Eartha Kitt, Sherry Lansing, Yoko Ono, Nancy Pelosi, Lynn Redgrave, The Ronettes, Patti Smith, Meryl Streep, Anna Wintour and Queen Elizabeth II (mostly thanks to the artistry of Helen Mirren and the extraordinary power of a great film). And whether we like it or not, Hillary Clinton and Condoleeza Rice are part of the phenomenon as well.

If you don't know why some of these women made the list, you are probably under 30. Never trust anyone under 30 (most of them are in rehab). The times they are a changin'.