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‘Woman in Gold’ continues Helen Mirren’s reign

The countless number of paintings, sculptures and other art treasures looted by the Nazis before and during WWII remains a delicate issue. Many museums, art dealers and private collectors have come under intense public pressure to return stolen artworks to their original Jewish owners and their families. Very few such works have been returned voluntarily and often this has resulted in lengthy legal battles.

One of the most famous cases involved Maria Altmann, the daughter of a wealthy Austrian Jewish family who fled the Nazis in the late ’30s and whose possessions, including many Gustav Klimt paintings, were subsequently seized by Austrian Nazi authorities. Altmann’s lengthy legal battle to recover the stolen art is the subject of the film “Woman in Gold,” which is in worldwide release. The film stars Helen Mirren as Altmann, who ultimately won her family paintings back in a case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

“So many people from (WWII) did not receive any justice whatsoever … and so to have one little tiny moment of justice, it is a great thing,” Mirren says. “Partly that’s what the film is about for me. That’s what Maria’s journey was about more than anything. She said, ‘This is right and I’m going to fight for what’s right.’”

Joining Mirren in the cast are Daniel Bruhl, Charles Dance, Max Irons, Elizabeth McGovern, Tatiana Maslany (as a young Maria) and Ryan Reynolds, who plays Randol Schoenberg, the determined lawyer who helped Altmann win the court case.

As a result of Altmann’s legal triumph, the Austrian government, which had given the paintings to the Belvedere museum in Vienna, was forced to turn over the works to her, including the 1907 Klimt portrait of Altmann’s aunt Adele Bloch-Bauer from his “gold period,” which gives the film its title. The masterpiece was sold in 2006 to cosmetics magnate Ronald S. Lauder for $135 million, at the time the highest price ever paid for a painting.

Maria Altmann died in 2011 at age 94.

Mirren felt deeply moved by the story and recalled viewing one of Klimt’s paintings in the Belvedere Gallery: “There is a Klimt painting of a lady named Amalie Zuckerkandl that currently hangs in the Belvedere gallery. It’s beautiful, and that woman died in a death camp just a few years after that picture had been painted. … I found that just the most emotional thing to see, because now her portrait is on the wall in one of the most important galleries in Austria, and yet that woman died in a death camp. To me that brings together the whole story together in one image.”

When “Woman in Gold” was released in early April, the 69-year-old Mirren had already begun a highly successful and critically lauded performance on Broadway in “The Audience,” which focuses on Queen Elizabeth II’s meetings with her prime ministers through the years (the play is scheduled to run through June 28). It marks the third time that Mirren has played Britain’s reigning monarch, having won an Oscar for her performance in the 2006 film “The Queen.”

I spoke with Mirren about “Woman in Gold” and the confidence that’s become her trademark as a performer.

Helen, do you think Maria Altmann felt that she had finally won some justice when the paintings were finally returned to her? I think she took considerable solace in having won her paintings back. … I’m sure there must have been an incredible feeling of completion for her. Although you can never complete that particular story because so many lives were lost.

Was it particularly satisfying to play a woman of her pride and determination? I was very honored to play her. Maria Altmann was such a remarkable, wonderful, funny, sexy, witty, humane — a great, great woman. I didn’t know if I’d be able to do her justice, because she deserved it. She also didn’t go off and buy a mansion with the money she made from the sale (of the painting of her aunt). She donated a great deal to various charities.

Do you think this kind of film is an important reminder of those families who suffered so much at the hands of the Nazis? Yes. We’re losing the generation who remembers and we’re down to the last few of that generation. It’s incumbent on younger generations to keep those memories alive. (We should also remember) that the same story is being played out all over the world. The activities of Boko Haram, the activities of ISIS and in so many other corners of the world, the same story is being told again and again and again, and people are suffering as we speak. So we mustn’t ever feel we have come to the end of that particular human journey.

Do you see yourself as a trailblazer for women in the sense of having tended to play very strong and confident women over the course of your career? When I first walked onto film sets early in my career, there were virtually no women at all. Things have changed a lot over the last 40 years, although I think women still have some way to go yet, at least in my business. 

I’ve been fortunate to play strong women and there is a sense of empowerment to that. I had to fight for respect as an actress coming up in a film world that was and still is heavily dominated by men. I didn’t realize at the time that you had to be this loud, annoying, tub-thumping aggressive kind of person to get anything done. One of the great lessons I learned from my parents was to make my own way in the world and not rely on a man for everything. I still believe that the greatest gift every girl can have is economic independence.

You seem to still project such an air of confidence and enthusiasm for life. Is that your natural perspective on the world? Age has a way of making you think less about yourself. I’ve long ago stopped worrying about selfish things: how I look, what others think of me. When you’re younger, you tend to think that you’re the center of the universe. Eventually you learn to enjoy how others help make your world a more interesting place. 

I enjoy being older — I think it’s pretty cool, in fact. I remember seeing a fortune-teller in my early 20s who predicted I would have success, but only in my late 40s. And that’s exactly what happened. Of course, when I heard that it would take me some time to make my mark, I was naturally a bit disappointed. But then I thought, “OK, just relax and do what you enjoy.”

Your screen characters project such an air of confidence. Are you a very cool customer when you first walk onto a set or go on stage? Oh, no! I still get nervous. Especially the first night of any play. It’s very nerve-wracking and you feel sick. Even when I’m beginning a film, I still feel nervous until we start shooting the first scenes and then you feel comfortable.

Do people still find you intimidating? Sometimes being intimidating is an advantage, even though it gets me into trouble once in a while. But if you don’t worry too much about how others perceive you, then you are able to live with a great deal more freedom and ease. You feel less inhibited and constrained by all the perceptions that you wonder that other people have of you. I’ve always been a believer in the notion that if you want to make your mark on the world you’ve got to just go out and do it. Don’t be shy, be adventurous!

Were you always that way? No. I had to learn to stand up for myself. I was very insecure in my 20s and only gradually did I learn how the world works and how to find my way around it. I had to go through some tough experiences before I really understood myself and how to play the game you need to play to get ahead. But once you figure it all out then life is much easier and the world becomes your playground.

On Broadway: Season features Sting, Mirren, Jackman and Peter Pan

The coming Broadway season has something for everyone – a musical by Sting, a magician-filled SUV, the incomparable Hugh Jackman, the equally regal Helen Mirren, a musical set in a funeral parlor and not one, but two Gyllenhaals. Here’s a look at some highlights of the 2014-15 season:

STARS, STARS, STARS

You want A-listers? Broadway listened. Bradley Cooper, Michael Cera, Hugh Jackman, Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ewan McGregor, Glenn Close, Gretchen Mol, Kristin Chenoweth, Helen Mirren, James Earl Jones, Matthew Broderick, Tavi Gevinson, Nathan Lane, Rose Byrne, Alan Alda, Brian Dennehy, Mia Farrow, Candice Bergen, Cynthia Nixon, Kristin Chenoweth, Carol Burnett, Anjelica Huston and Tony Danza.

REVIVE, REVIVE

It wouldn’t be a new Broadway season without some revivals: “Side Show” returns for a second time; Tom Stoppard’s “The Real Thing” for a third time in October; Edward Albee’s “A Delicate Balance” for a third time in the fall; “The Elephant Man” for third time starting in November; and the screwball comedy “Noises Off” for a third time next winter.

OLD SCHOOL

Producers have dug deep into America’s past to pull out four classic tales: The play “You Can’t Take It With You,” by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, which first debuted in 1936, comes back in September; the 1944 show “On the Town,” with music by Leonard Bernstein and book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, returns in October; “An American in Paris,” an adaptation of the 1951 Gene Kelly film, comes in spring; and another Comden-Green comedy, “On the Twentieth Century,” steams into town in February.

YOU HAD US AT HUGH

Hugh Jackman is coming back this fall in “The River” by Jez Butterworth, but does it really matter what he’s doing? For the record, the play, the first since Butterworth’s “Jerusalem,” is about a trout fisherman in a remote cabin who is visited by two of the women in his life. It’s new and moody but Jackman is box-office catnip – his one-man show in 2011 routinely sold out, as did “The Boy From Oz” in 2003 and “A Steady Rain” with Daniel Craig in 2009.

ROYALTY RULES

Helen Mirren will be playing British Queen Elizabeth II this spring in “The Audience,” which imagines the private weekly meetings between the monarch and 12 prime ministers, while Kelli O’Hara and Ken Watanabe will be romancing each other starting in March in the Richard Rodgers-Oscar Hammerstein II musical “The King and I.”

BROWN ROUND 2

Three-time Tony Award-winning composer Jason Robert Brown will seek redemption this winter with his musical of “Honeymoon in Vegas.” Brown’s last show, the lush and romantic “The Bridges of Madison County” closed in May after just 137 performances. Brown’s luck on Broadway has been pretty awful, with “Parade,” “Urban Cowboy” and “13” each not lasting long.

A TORCH PASSES

Kenneth Lonergan’s play “This Is Our Youth” debuted off-Broadway in 1996 and has over the years featured such high-profile actors as Mark Ruffalo, Josh Hamilton, Matt Damon, Colin Hanks, Chris Klein, Jake Gyllenhaal and Anna Paquin. Now it’s time for Michael Cera, Kieran Culkin and Tavi Gevinson, all three making their Broadway debuts.

WE KNOW YOU GUYS

Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick will be together again on Broadway in a revival of Terrence McNally’s “It’s Only a Play.” The duo last appeared together in “The Odd Couple” and famously before that in a little show called “The Producers.” In the updated version of “It’s Only a Play,” Broderick plays an anxious writer, and Lane is stage actor-turned-TV-star best friend.

NO RABBIT PULLING

Seven magicians – including an anti-conjurer, a futurist, an escapologist and an inventor – take the stage for “The Illusionists – Witness the Impossible.” They’re going to hang upside-down, pull gross things from their throats and use swords in creative ways. Critics might be scared to give them a thumbs-down.

INVENTIVE STORYTELLING

Two shows promise sparks from challenging material: The London import “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” based on an adaptation of Mark Haddon’s best-selling novel about a teenager with Asperger’s syndrome who tries to find a dog’s killer, and “Fun Home,” a musical adapted from Alison Bechdel’s memoir about growing up in a funeral home with a closeted gay dad.

2 PETER PANS

There’s no reason to grow up this season: “Finding Neverland,” a musical led by Diane Paulus explores the Peter Pan book’s back story and Allison Williams stars as the iconic title character in NBC’s Dec. 4 telecast of “Peter Pan Live!” the heavily anticipated follow-up to “The Sound of Music.”

TWO GYLLENHAALS

Maggie Gyllenhaal will make her Broadway debut starring opposite Ewan McGregor in “The Real Thing” starting in October, while her brother, Jake, will also make his Broadway bow in Nick Payne’s play “Constellations” beginning in December. Those who love Gyllenhaals might be able to see both in the same day.

TWO BY TWO BY TWO BY…

Producers of A.R. Gurney’s romantic play “Love Letters” seem to have found a way to get you to see the show over and over: they’ve stacked it with changing pairs of stars. Brian Dennehy and Mia Farrow start out in September, then Carol Burnett and Dennehy, then Alan Alda and Candice Bergen, then Stacy Keach and Diana Rigg, and finally Anjelica Huston and Martin Sheen.

NO QUIET PARTY

A polite dinner party spirals out of control in Ayad Akhtar’s “Disgraced,” which hits Broadway in September having already won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for drama. It will star Hari Dhillon, who played the Muslim-American lawyer at the heart of the play in London. Akhtar, the author of “American Dervish,” is one of theater’s most vibrant, exciting young writers.

ROCKER IN THE HOUSE

Sting, a 16-time Grammy Award winner and former lead singer of The Police, has written the music for “The Last Ship,” with a story by both “Red” playwright John Logan and “Next to Normal” writer Brian Yorkey. The musical is inspired by Sting’s memories of growing up in northeast England.

OFF-BROADWAY HIGHLIGHTS

Nathan Lane and Brian Dennehy both will come off-Broadway to co-star in Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music starting in February. And “In the Heights” composer-lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda will premiere a hip-hop retelling of the life and death of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton at The Public Theater in January.

Should his and her Oscars be done away with?

Do Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway and Helen Mirren need affirmative action to snare one of Hollywood’s favorite accessories, an Oscar, Emmy or Screen Actors Guild trophy?

In a society tilting steadily toward gender neutrality, the separate-but-equal awards that divide actors into one camp and actresses into another have the whiff of a moldy anachronism.

True, the Association for Women in Science gives honors to encourage female participation and success in male-dominated fields. But to mark enduring achievements, would its members ever yearn for a Women’s Nobel Prize in physics?

In contests of intellect or artistry, should gender ever matter?

“It’s not like it’s upper body strength,” Gloria Steinem dryly observed of the requirements of acting.

The separate labeling of male and female performers is losing favor in the industry. Actresses often swat the distinction away by calling themselves “actors,” standing shoulder to shoulder with their male counterparts.

Usherettes are long gone from movie theater lobbies, after all. And defense officials said Wednesday the Pentagon will be lifting its ban on women in combat.

SAG, which holds its awards ceremony Sunday, edged toward neutrality with its trophy dubbed the Actor, although the guild gives separate honors to best performance by a male actor and by a female actor.

That cracks the door open, but only slightly. Fling it wide so that Daniel Day-Lewis’ majestic performance in “Lincoln” and Jessica Chastain’s steely turn in “Zero Dark Thirty” vie for the grand prize!

“That’s a great idea,” said Mark Andrews, writer-director of the animated film “Brave.” “At the end of the day, we’re all storytellers, and I don’t think when we’re defining a character that the gender is the major defining factor.”

In all other awards-eligible fields, including directing, writing or cinematography, everyone is “going for it,” male and female alike, Andrews said.

That may be progress in theory for performers but not in practice, according to Sally Field, a SAG and Oscar best supporting actress nominee for “Lincoln.”

“If you do that you won’t see any actresses up there (on stage) at all,” she said. “The percentage of roles is so weighted toward actors. That’s the way it’s always been.”

Exactly, concurred Naomi Watts, “The Impossible” best actress SAG and Academy Award nominee.

“There’s so much competition in life and I do think we are different,” she said. “Yes, we should be able to have the same things as much as possible … (but) life’s a battle already and there’s so many great roles written for men. Women are definitely at a disadvantage when it comes to volume.”

Rapper Nicki Minaj, who’s considering launching an acting career, has a pragmatic take on the issue.

“You see all those divas in the audience looking so pretty, and they all want to beat each other out,” she said. “It’s entertainment.”

Hathaway, in the running for SAG and Oscar supporting actress honors for “Les Miserables,” considers the gender split “an awesome question worthy of an awesome debate.”

“Can I conceive of a world where performance becomes a genderless concept? Absolutely. Do I think it’s going to happen anytime soon? No,” she said.

As Fields pointed out, the bedrock challenge is that women get fewer substantive roles than men. Ironically, that’s obscured by the artificial parity on stage each year at awards shows. Five women compete, five men compete, two winners are crowned.

So what’s the problem? A quick numbers check makes it clear: Females comprised about a third of the characters in the 100 top-grossing films in 2011, according to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University.

This, despite the fact women make up slightly more than half of the U.S. population and, according to the center’s previous research, the finding isn’t an anomaly.

In this context, feminist leader Steinem sees legitimate reason to retain separate acting awards. When two unequal groups are combined it’s the less-powerful one that loses, she said, as when 20th-century U.S. school desegregation lead to mass layoffs of black principals and administrators.

Tom O’Neil, editor of the Gold Derby awards prediction site, said strong forces are arrayed against any such change in Hollywood.

Awards shows routinely try to add celebrity-driven categories, not drop them, to increase a show’s “glamor and glitz” quotient, he said, as well as mask the industry’s unequal treatment of women.

“It’s criminal,” he said, bluntly.

In the behind-the-scenes film and TV categories in which the sexes compete, women rarely make it on stage at awards ceremonies. The Oscars started in 1929, but it wasn’t until 2010 that the first woman, Kathryn Bigelow, was honored as best director (for “The Hurt Locker”). Statistics again provide clarity: Women made up a paltry 9 percent of the directors on 2012’s top-grossing films, a new San Diego State University study found.

Let’s give two-time Oscar winner Field the last word in this debate.

Actresses “should be in their own category because they ARE in their own category,” she said. “They face their own specific kind of difficulties surviving in this business that actors, bless their hearts, don’t face.”