Tuesday, June 29, 2010

'Love Ranch' Brothel Film Opens in Theatres Tomorrow

Dame Helen Mirren is returning to the big screen tomorrow week in “Love Ranch,” a movie that casts her as a madam of Nevada’s first legal brothel.

While the movie itself has been panned by a lot of critics, Mirren’s performance has been universally lauded as elevating the “soap opera” dialog into believability.

Frankly, I don’t care how awful the movie is or isn't. I love Dame Helen, and could care less what project she’s in. I also love any movie that focuses attention on legalized prostitution, something that I support more than whole-heartedly.

In addition, Dame Helen did a wonderful interview with New York Magazine, which appears below in its entirety, with a huge bonus: A photo series to promote the new movie that included two gorgeous shots of her naked in a bath tub; and two other artistic portraits. I have included them all here, which were taken by Juergen Teller, and appear in New York Magazine, Summer Guide. Dame Helen gets more beautiful with each passing year, a message that a lot of women (and men) need to learn: Real beauty is ageless.

So, sit back and enjoy a wonderful interview, or read it directly at the magazine’s website. Then, go to the theatre and support a wonderful actress, and a topic that also deserves to be supported.

Madam Helen
“I’m still the good girl who wants to be a bad girl…”
By Logan Hill

“All that getting sanctioned by authority, settling down and doing the right things—well, I can’t say it appeals much,” Helen Mirren once said to a reporter. “What I really fancy is getting a bit notorious …?”

It was 1974, and she was a 29-year-old actress teasing the journalist much as she would the press and audiences for the next 36 years. Mirren was then a rising star at the Royal Shakespeare Company—luridly dubbed “Stratford’s very own sex queen” by one paper. It was long before the authorities sanctioned her with a pile of awards (including an Oscar for The Queen), and before the Internet made her a viral phenom thanks to bodacious paparazzi shots of her cavorting in a bikini. At the age of 62. And guess what? She had it both ways: She got her notoriety and the fusty accolades.

“I am a little notorious,” Mirren remarks, still teasing. She says nearly everything with a mischievous twinkle, like a naughty teenager appending “?… in bed” to the end of every sentence. The actress, who turns 65 next month, is elegantly attired in pale rose and silver, her delicate hands (the nails tinted a matching pearlescent rose) constantly buttoning and unbuttoning her cardigan. It’s probably not meant flirtatiously, but with Mirren, every action can feel like a seduction. Perhaps it’s the small, black Native American tattoo on her left hand (the result, she says, of a wild, drunken night in Minnesota), her subtle finger to propriety. “It’s weird when your life becomes vintage, like a period movie,” she says half-seriously. “I’m getting less notorious as I get older. People forget that I ever was.”

Her latest role, not to mention the Juergen Teller photos attending this article, should help remind everyone. After a raft of prestigious parts and three Oscar nominations in the last decade, Mirren signed up to play Grace Botempo, the madam of a booming seventies Reno whorehouse in her husband Taylor Hackford’s film Love Ranch, opening June 30. (The film, based on Nevada’s real Mustang Ranch, is scripted and produced by New York contributing editor Mark Jacobson.) For years, Hackford, whom she married in 1997, has asked her to play smaller parts in his films. “And I said ‘Oh, for God’s sake! Of course I’m not going to do that!’?” says Mirren. “They were never interesting enough parts, and I wasn’t going to do it just because he was directing it.”

Interesting is probably underselling Grace. Diagnosed with cancer and frustrated with an epically sleazy husband (Joe Pesci), Mirren’s madam begins a hot love affair with a beefy boxer 30 years her junior, played with abundant smolder by Spanish newcomer Sergio Peris-Mencheta. “He’s got a fabulous big-animal thing in that sort of raw, brutish, ugly-beautiful way,” says Mirren, who shares a steamy, and, because it’s her, entirely plausible love scene with Peris-Mencheta. In addition, she makes dick jokes, stomps on the throat of a misbehaving prostitute, and presides over the brothel with such swagger that Pesci shouts, “Who do ya think you are, the queen of fuckin’ England?” Well, yes.

In another of her earliest interviews, Mirren was quoted as saying, “I’m a would-be rebel—the good girl who’d like to be a bad one.” She says she continues, at heart, to be the good Catholic schoolgirl named Ilyena Vasilievna Mironov, who grew up in Essex, England, with a Russian father and an English mother. “It’s true! I haven’t grown out of that, have I?” she says, laughing. “I’m still the good girl who wants to be a bad girl. But I’ll never make it as a bad girl … I’m not a prude or a moralist and I never have been, but I’m too fearful, too much of a wimp, really.” When her husband tried to convince her to spend a night at the Mustang Ranch, Mirren refused. “I said, ‘Read my lips: I’m not going to spend a night in a brothel.’?” In the end, she dispensed with research and simply took direction. “It’s amazing how quickly you get into dildos everywhere and pink-feather handcuffs. Within an hour you’re completely used to it.”

Mirren believes that brothels should be legalized because its safer for the sex workers. But she’s also loathe to romanticize working girls: “Susan Austin [the Mustang Ranch’s real madam] said you had to be tough, because maybe you do have 25 psychotic whores. A lot of them come from very dysfunctional backgrounds, and women together like that can be very dangerous.”

There’s the old joke about actors prostituting themselves for their work, but for Mirren, who’s revealed so much of herself (metaphorically and otherwise), and who has often spoken out about the way women get eaten up by the entertainment industry, it’s a complex metaphor. “The girls who work in the sex industry, they put themselves out of their bodies. An actor does sort of the opposite,” says Mirren, who talks about acting as giving every intimacy—emotional and physical—except actual intercourse. “People say ‘Oh, you play someone else.’ I’m always playing myself. You can only do it by going into yourself, in the deepest, most terrifying way. Not to say I haven’t ever prostituted myself quite often and happily. But in my heart it’s very serious.”

Mirren, who began as a devoted stage actress, schooled in Chekhov and Shakespeare, quickly learned to use her sexuality to her advantage. “Especially when you’re younger and you’re a female, you’re being judged physically as much as for everything else,” she says. “And when you’re a serious actress like I was … I’ve always taken it very seriously at that level.”

Of her scandalous early roles in 1969’s Age of Consent (when she stripped as the teenage muse of an older painter) or Gore Vidal and Bob Guccione’s nutty art-porn Caligula (1979), Mirren says she had a plan. “A lot of it is plain, old-fashioned practicality. I wanted to work,” she says. “When I did Caligula, for example, I hadn’t really done movies.” And besides, she adds, “I much prefer overt sexuality to sleazy, vulgar prurience.”

As Mirren explains it, she struggled to get a handle on her own sexuality in order to use its power to accomplish her ambitions. “The Playboy Mansion, coke, and the rise of all that—Guccione and Hefner always pushed it as liberation, but it didn’t seem like that to me,” she says. “That was women obeying the sexualized form created by men—though maybe we always do that, because we want to be attractive. But I was kind of a trailblazer because I demanded to do it my own way. I’d say, ‘I’m not having it put on me by someone else.’ I didn’t want to be the sort of puritanical good girl with a little white collar who says, ‘Don’t shag until you get married.’?”

Now, her reputation secure, Mirren’s enjoying the results of her efforts. “I’m thrilled young girls are claiming their sexuality for themselves,” she says. “I love bold women: Madonna and Scarlett Johansson—sexy and gorgeous, but not only that. And Miley Cyrus—fantastic! And Lady Gaga. I love the way she’s elevated pop to performance art, or dragged performance art down to pop, or maybe made a wonderful amalgam of the two.”

With her coy smile, Mirren looks like the conspiring queen who’s usurped the throne, securing the kingdom for her heirs: “My girls: Miley, Scarlett, Lady Gaga. My team … Yes.”


[Photo Above: In this film publicity image released by E1 Entertainment, from left, Niki J. Crawford portrays Tawny, Scout Taylor-Compton portrays Christina, Gina Gershon portrays Irene, Melora Walters portrays Janelle, Elise Neal portrays Alana, Emily Rios portrays Muneca, Bai Ling portrays Samantha and Helen Mirren portrays Grace Bontempo in a scene from "Love Ranch."]

By Jake Coyle
(Note: Contains Spoilers!)

(Dame) Helen Mirren playing a Madame is such fitting casting that it's almost too much. For an actress who has made sexuality her life's subtext, it's as winking as Clint Eastwood playing a gun salesman or Dustin Hoffman a pool cleaner.

But Joe Pesci, who plays her husband and business partner, Charlie "Good Times" Bontempo, has the coyest line in "Love Ranch" — an allusion to Mirren's Oscar-winning performance in "The Queen."

"Who do ya think you are? The queen of ... England?" he asks, somehow restraining a look into the camera.

So the question is, what's an actress of Mirren's quality doing in "Love Ranch," a supermarket romance novel of a movie? The answer: a favor.

Mirren's husband, Taylor Hackford, directs "Love Ranch." It's the first time they've worked together since they met while making 1985's "White Nights." (Hackford has since directed "Devil's Advocate" and "Ray," his previous, Oscar-winning film.)

"Love Ranch" is loosely based on Joe and Sally Conforte, the famed brothel owners whose Mustang Ranch in Reno found national attention in the '70s. Joe Conforte brought heavyweight fighter Oscar Bonavena to the ranch, where Bonavena supposedly became involved with Sally and was eventually shot dead in 1976.

The film is written by magazine journalist Mark Jacobson, whose inflated article on gangster Frank Lucas was the basis for "American Gangster." Jacobson's script for "Love Ranch," set in the mid-'70s, centres on the romance that develops between Grace Bontempo (Mirren) and the visiting Argentine boxer Armando Bruza (newcomer Sergio Peris-Mencheta).

As Charlie, Pesci is only a step or two removed from "Casino" territory. Wearing a bolo tie and an inconsistent Southern accent, Pesci is trying to build their lucrative brothel into a larger enterprise. Calling everyone "sugar," he takes his turns with the ranch's girls, making no attempt to hide his infidelity.

Grace, weary from a lifetime running Nevada brothels, tells him: "I'm not the great visionary like you. I'm just down here with the nuts and bolts."

She keeps the books and the girls in order. In perhaps her finest scene, she quickly and ruthlessly settles a squabble between two prostitutes, flipping one to the ground with her cane and keeping her there with her boot on the girl's throat.

Grace keeps secret a cancer diagnosis (from the terribly named Dr. Smathers) that she has six months to live. But when the rugged, charismatic Armando arrives, Grace is reluctantly stirred, and the two soon begin — against Grace's nature — caring deeply for each other.

And this is where "Love Ranch" looses its footing most obviously. A movie with prostitutes, guns, boxing and Reno is crying out for the film noir treatment. Along with neon signs in the desert, give us some terse dialogue and some fatalism.

Instead, the dressing for "Love Ranch" is a soap opera romance.

With a Christian group and the IRS circling the brothel, Pesci — as always — seems ready to explode. You find yourself surprised that it takes the combustible actor as long as it does to let loose.

Wasted in thin bit parts are fine actors like Gina Gershon (as a prostitute), Bryan Cranston (as a dirty politician) and Wendell Pierce (as a representative for Muhammad Ali).

Mirren does her best with the soapy material, but the better recent reminder of her early sex-symbol "Caligula" days was her performance as Sofya Tolstoy in last year's "The Last Station." Who knew Russian lit was sexier than Reno pulp?

"Love Ranch," an E1 Entertainment and Aramid Entertainment Fund Limited release, is rated R for sexual content, pervasive language and some violence. Running time: 118 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.

— The Curator


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