Last updated at 1:30 AM on 25th February 2011
Doubtless Helena Bonham Carter has allowed herself a fleeting glance in the mirror over recent days to cast a critical eye over the latest flamboyant ensemble she has chosen for her seemingly never-ending round of red-carpet events.
She is the first to admit, however, that with her endearingly slapdash approach to dressing up, the results can go either way.
When she gets it right, her Gothic style, fragile beauty and bird’s-nest hairdo are a welcome antidote to the glossy production line of Hollywood’s identikit leading ladies. When it goes wrong, she looks like the survivor of a Victorian cyclone.
Bond: Helena and her mother Elena pictured at the 16th annual Critics’ Choice Movie Awards in Los Angeles last month
But aside from the occasional fashion faux pas, 44-year-old Helena is on a high at the moment, thanks to her bravura performance as the Queen Mother in hit British movie The King’s Speech. She is up for Best Supporting Actress at the Academy Awards in Los Angeles on Sunday — an accolade she won at the Baftas in London earlier this month.
In a typically rambling but moving speech, the actress dedicated the award to her mother, Elena, saying: ‘This is for all the best supporting wives — the Queen Mother herself, and my mum. There is no doubt that if my father were alive, he would have given it to her. She was the best supporting wife you could ever have wished for.’
It was a hint at Helena’s traumatic early life, about which little is widely known.
Watching at home on television was her mother, Mrs Bonham Carter. ‘I didn’t know Hellie was going to say that — it was a huge surprise,’ Elena told me this week. ‘But I was immensely touched by it, and she knows how very, very proud I am of her.’
Millions of viewers watching the ceremony would have had no idea about
the tragic family history behind Helena’s public declaration. It
includes her battle with depression, her mother’s mental illness and a
devastating stroke suffered by Helena’s late father that left him
Dream cast: Helena as Queen Elizabeth with Colin Firth as King George VI in a scene from The King’s Speech
Her friends say this legacy haunts the star and led to her living at home until she was 32. ‘I was trying to make it better,’ Helena says. ‘I thought: “If I remain a child, it will make up for what happened to Dad.”’
Outwardly,Helena, the youngest of three children, was born into great privilege. Her father, the Honourable Raymond Bonham Carter, was a merchant banker who represented the Bank of England on the International Monetary Fund.
Helena’s great-grandfather was the Liberal Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, and her grandmother, the politician and orator Lady Violet Bonham Carter, was a close confidante of Winston Churchill. Meanwhile, Helena’s mother, the French-Spanish Elena Propper de Callejon, is from a long line of European noblemen. Helena was sent to the prestigious Westminster School in London, where she was close friends with Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg.
But behind the façade is a more distressing reality. In 1971, when she was five, her psychotherapist mother suffered a three-year mental breakdown, which left her mostly bedridden.
Then, eight years later, her father had suffered a massive stroke. He was left quadriplegic, nearly blind and needing round-the-clock care of nurses at the family’s huge home in Golders Green, North London.
Her elder brothers were away at college, so it fell to the 13-year-old Helena to help care for her father. His illness provoked her own battle with depression. ‘There’s a streak in our family of, I’d say, healthy insanity,’ she says. ‘We’ve all had a bit — my mother, my grandmother and my great-grandmother. It’s genetic.’
Helena responded to her father’s illness by becoming an actress. Her big break came when society magazine Tatler ran a feature about girls who looked like they belonged in a different era. Director Trevor Nunn saw it and cast her as the lead in his 1986 film Lady Jane, about the doomed Lady Jane Grey.
Helena went on to win high-profile roles in period dramas, such as E.M. Forster’s A Room With A View, and an Oscar nomination in 1997 for her part in the film version of Henry James’s novel The Wings Of The Dove.
In the limelight: Helena with The King’s Speech co-star Colin Firth, (left) and director Tom Hooper at a recent awards ceremony
Despite her success, she stayed at the family home. The friend added:
‘Hellie couldn’t make the break after her dad’s illness — but she knew
it wasn’t healthy to be living at home.’
After 24 years in a
wheelchair, Raymond, who never lost his ability to speak, had another
stroke. He died in January 2004, aged 74, with the actress at his side.
Heartbreakingly, not long before, Raymond asked: ‘Helena, how do I die? I
just can’t seem to do it.’
Unsurprisingly, her home setup hampered her love life. Her first serious relationship was in 1994 with Kenneth Branagh, with whom she starred in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Branagh was married to actress Emma Thompson, but within a year they’d split — gossips cited Bonham Carter as the cause.
But Helena was to be devastated in 1999 when Branagh ditched her.
Two years later she fell for U.S. film director Tim Burton on the set of Planet Of The Apes. The couple, who have two children — Billy Ray, seven, and three-year-old Nell — bizarrely share three adjacent townhouses in Belsize Park, North London — one for each parent and another for the nanny.
Burton has cast her in a series of his films, including Sweeney Todd and Alice In Wonderland, but it is her role in The King’s Speech — the story of the then Queen Elizabeth’s determination to help her husband George VI conquer his stammer — that has won her critical acclaim.
Helena’s success has allowed her to spend more time with her mother.
‘She took me to the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild Awards in LA,’ Mrs Bonham Carter told me. ‘Now I’m just hoping she can repeat her success at the Oscars.’
It’s a success that seems all the more extraordinary given the struggles Helena faced in her early life.