London-born Helena Bonham Carter, 56, is famous for her roles in period pieces, although her best-known line is the one she uttered to Tyler Durden, played by Brad Pitt, in Fight Club: “I want to have your abortion.” While the actress prefers to stay out of the Hollywood limelight, her face is recognizable to several generations of viewers. At a time when artists calculate their every move to avoid damaging their careers, Bonham Carter has stayed true to herself and never been shy about expressing her opinions. And she has an opinion on almost everything. From her movie debut with the ultra-British Merchant Ivory film company – formed by the tandem of producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory – to her role as the mother of the eponymous character in Enola Holmes, the second installment of which has just been released on Netflix, she has acted in all genres and easily transitioned between film and television parts. In the process, her private life has been scrutinized in the tabloids and her fashion sense has been the subject of recurrent mockery. The Irish Times referred to her as “a Victorian goth drawn in charcoal.” She doesn’t flinch from controversy and seems to be fearless. In 2023, the actress will appear in Russell T. Davies’ new miniseries Nolly and in the film One Life with Anthony Hopkins.
A few weeks ago, her comments made in defense of two of her friends who have, to some degree, fallen victim to so-called cancel culture (a vague and dubious term, since most of its alleged victims continue to work normally) made headlines. As she declared to the Sunday edition of The Times: “[Cancel culture] has become quite hysterical and there’s a kind of witch hunt and a lack of understanding.” Her words were much more impactful than the reason for the interview in the first place: she has become the first woman to chair the National Library of London in its 181-year history. But that seems to pale in comparison to her opinions about Johnny Depp, her co-star in five films as well as a close friend and the godfather of her two children with director Tim Burton.
Bonham Carter sparked controversy when she said that Depp has been “completely vindicated,” referring to the actor’s victory in his highly publicized defamation trial against his ex-wife Amber Heard. The newspaper also asked her opinion about author J. K. Rowling’s alleged transphobia, something the writer has been accused of for several years. For that, Bonham Carter blames Twitter: “No one can talk about ideas there; it becomes polarized and is war, and people waste days being angry inside their head.” She then posited another possible reason for the attempts to pillory Rowling: “If she hadn’t been the most phenomenal success, the reaction wouldn’t be so great. So I think there’s a lot of envy unfortunately and the need to tear people down that motors a lot of this canceling. And schadenfreude.” She also laments that the younger actors in the series did not stand up for the author who helped them become stars. “Personally I feel they should let her have her opinions, but I think they’re very aware of protecting their own fan base and their generation.”
Controversial men from A to Z
Bonham Carter’s career now spans four decades. She has worked with Woody Allen, Mel Gibson, Roman Polanski, Jeffrey Tambor and Harvey Weinstein, all of whom have found themselves at the center of scandals of varying intensity. Of Weinstein, the actress said: “I never see anything in black and white. I believe people are multicoloured, they’re almost never all good or all bad. Weinstein was a bully, full stop. But also, not full stop, really. He was a bully, possible sociopath and fantastically effective producer of films.” Nor does Bonham Carter hide how important Weinstein was to her career. “He was very clever. There are a lot of reasons he was very powerful. He knew how to get you Oscar nominations. Both my nominations are due to him. And he had great taste in films.”
In the Harry Potter film franchise, in which she played the villain Bellatrix Lestrange, a fan favorite (a role that was not originally intended for her, but for the recently deceased Helen McCrory), she co-starred with Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh. It was not the first time the three had crossed paths: they were part of a love triangle that obsessed the British press in 1995 (Branagh broke off his relationship with Thompson to start one with Bonham Carter), and the story resurfaces each Christmas when the movie Love Actually returns to the screen. More than once, Thompson has stated that the scene in which her character falls apart after discovering that her husband has cheated on her drew on the pain she felt after learning of Branagh’s relationship with Bonham Carter.
Bonham Carter’s romance with the British actor and filmmaker lasted five years and shares commonalities with her next great love story. During filming of the 1999 version of Planet of the Apes, she fell in love with director Tim Burton. “I was very conscious when we met, even though he stuck me in a chimpanzee outfit, that my face was his esthetic: dark, pale, tubercular.” At the time, Burton was engaged to actress Lisa Marie, who also appeared in the film. History was repeating itself. But unlike what happened with Branagh (their relationship never seemed right from the public’s perspective), her romance with Burton seemed to be a match made in heaven. Or hell. Their disheveled style delighted the press. “They saw us as the bonkers couple,” she observed. Burton and Bonham Carter went on to make eight movies, and the couple had two children together. “I never got a free ride with Tim because I was sleeping with him… I was always auditioning. And I gave him two kids and everything!” the actress notes. In 2014, they announced their separation.
Her love life isn’t all that has captivated the press and the public. Her highly unique fashion sense has made her a regular on worst-dressed lists and a prime target for the fashion police who patrol the red carpet. For instance, in 2011, her mismatched Vivienne Westwood shoes were the talk of the style gurus. But Bonham Carter didn’t flinch. “Why not wear mismatching shoes? Who says we can’t?” she asked. “Sometimes I get it right and sometimes I get it wrong. But fashion is all about having fun. I think fashion has been hijacked by the fashion industry creating rules on what one should wear and I feel like breaking the mold and seeing that the world won’t crumble.” Bonham Carter’s attitude was vindicated when she became the face of Marc Jacobs.
The actress believes that the scrutiny to which her relationships have been subjected is one reason why Peter Morgan, the creator of The Crown, asked her to play the unpredictable and hapless Princess Margaret (a character that Vanessa Kirby made the most fascinating in the series during its first two seasons). Perhaps the decision was also influenced by the fact that few other actresses have rubbed shoulders with the real Princess Margaret: Helena’s uncle Mark Bonham Carter was the princess’s boyfriend. Although the actress tends to downplay her ancestry, she is the great-granddaughter of Herbert Henry Asquith, the prime minister of the United Kingdom between 1908 and 1916, and her family tree has a few aristocrats in it. But she prefers to talk about her Jewish roots and her mother, psychotherapist Elena Propper de Callejón, the daughter of Eduardo Propper de Callejón, a Spanish diplomat who helped hundreds of Jews flee occupied France during World War II. “Everyone thinks I’m posh but that’s shallow thinking and the biggest lie. They only think I’m posh because I’ve got three names.” she told Digital Spy.
A not-so-perfect childhood
While Bonham Carter grew up in North London surrounded by privilege, money isn’t everything. When she was five years old, her mother had a nervous breakdown that lasted for three years. At 13, her father was left paralyzed after an operation. She turned to acting as an escape and made it big immediately.
In her film debut, she acted alongside Maggie Smith, Daniel Day-Lewis and Judi Dench in director James Ivory’s A Room with a View (1989). The film won three Oscars and put her on the map. She earned high praise from the New York Times for her performance: “The real star of the film, though, is the very beautiful Helena Bonham Carter… Miss Bonham Carter gives a remarkably complex performance of a young woman who is simultaneously reasonable and romantic, generous and selfish, and timid right up to the point where she takes a heedless plunge into the unknown.”
After her first and only Oscar nomination for Best Actress in the 1997 film The Wings of the Dove, Bonham Carter received another supporting actress award for her performance in The King’s Speech (2011). The actress has accepted a flurry of roles during her career, including one surprising offer. At Brad Pitt’s suggestion, director David Fincher sent her the script for Fight Club (1999). “She was perfect: she chain-smoked, she’s a total neurotic, she’s exquisite to look at, she was very caustic and funny,” said Fincher. Today, Fight Club is considered one of the visionary director’s best films, but at the time the movie was slammed by critics and booed at its Venice Film Festival premiere. “David [Fincher] was so depressed by the reaction, which was really violent, but he was cheered by mum saying, ‘don’t you worry, it’s going to be a cult film.’” She was right. More than two decades later, Bonham Carter confesses that she didn’t understand the role or the film, but her work was nevertheless impeccable.
Her acting method includes a lot of research as well as unconventional means. For instance, to play Princess Margaret, in addition to reading all the biographies, she contacted an astrologer and a graphologist and spoke to a medium. “She said, apparently, she was glad it was me. My main thing when you play someone who is real, you kind of want their blessing because you have a responsibility,” she explained in The Guardian. That wasn’t the first time she employed a medium: she also turned to parapsychology to prepare for her role as Elizabeth Taylor in the film Burton and Taylor (2013). “A friend of mine is a psychic. He’s good at moving people on because we’ve had some ghost issues in the house,” she told Indie Wire in 2013. “I told him I was in a real dilemma about the role, and he came back with the answer.”
Bonham Carter’s methods are unusual but effective. Her career is solid, never complacent; she has moved fluidly between genres and earned the respect of multiple generations of viewers. Her love life also seems to be tranquil. For the past four years, she has been in a relationship with Rye Dag Holmboe, an art historian who, as the tabloids never tire of pointing out, is a couple of decades younger than she is.
But aging hasn’t seemed to be an issue for the actress. Indeed, roles have kept coming, and she has proven her ability to adapt with the times while remaining true to herself. The actress has spoken out against plastic surgery and frankly addressed often-taboo subjects, such as the time she compared going through menopause to her children entering puberty: “You’re both basically going insane at the same time, so that’s an interesting challenge.” She isn’t bothered by the fact that the press has turned the age difference between her partner and herself into a topic of discussion. In fact, she took the opportunity to praise men for finding beauty in diverse ways. “Good on the men for appreciating different kinds of beauty and finding other things sexy. Collagen is not the only form of sexiness; there’s character, fun, mischief and humour. As long as you’ve got the laughter, the intimacy will be there.”
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