For a time in the late 1990s, it seemed that Helena Bonham Carter was about to deliver on her promise and begin what would be a major career as a first-rate, important actress. Audiences and critics had always known of her extraordinary look. a delicate beauty that evoked another time and another place, but her performance in "The Wings of the Dove" (1997) had shown her to be possessed of a vital acting talent as well. She received a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her work in the film although Francis McDormand won the Academy Award for her role in "Fargo."
Born in Golders Green, London, England on May 26, 1966, Helen Bonham Carter had achieved success in films early. Before she was 20 years old, she had scored her first lead in director James Ivory's tasteful adaptation of E.M. Forster's novel "A Room With a View" (1985), only her second film. She followed up this auspicious debut as a leading player assaying the uncrowned Queen of England, "Lady Jane Grey," in the eponymous film. In the first part of her career, she became a staple in what can be seen as an annex of the British Heritage industry, starring in more tasteful adaptations of British or anglo-American novels, such as the adaptation of E.M. Forster's "Maurice" (1987), her second film for James Ivory
In hindsight, it is no coincidence that "Room," her first film under the Merchant-Ivory banner (director Ivory, producer Ismail Merchant, and screenwriter Ruth Jabha Prawler' ), proved to be the brand's big breakthrough on the big screen, ushering them into the big-time, with a good box office showing and full-blown Oscar recognition. In the two Merchant-Ivory films in which she was a major star, the brand scored their greatest success. Though it was Emma Thompson, her rival for Kenneth Branagh's affections, who won a Best Actress Oscar for "Howard's End" (1992), Bonham Carter'S presence in the film clearly was a factor in its great success. It began a three-picture run that climaxed with Merchant-Ivory's last wholly unqualified success, "Howards End" (1992)
Howards End" (1992) was the last film she made for Merchant-Ivory, and the brand's career eventually wound down without their good-luck charm, as Helena Bonham Carter was the real thing. The patrician offspring of British Prime Minister 'H.H Asquith' 's blue blood (he was her great-great-grandfather; her great-grand-uncle Anthony Asquith was a noted English director), Helena Bonham Carter possessed of an extraordinary look with her dark hair and eyes and porcelain skin, Carter was born to be part of the Merchant-Ivory stable, giving their ersatz-Englishness a certain "je ne sais quoi" that paid off in handsome dividends, rather like British gilt-edged government securities.
Ironically, it was her turn as the undisputed star of the neo-Merchant-Ivory "Wings of the Dove" that brought her her Oscar nod. She was not only beautiful, she not only could act, but she was courageous. In "Wings," she arguably had the most explicit nude scene ever to be limned by an Oscar-nominated actress, but lost out to Helen Hunt.
Alas, her subsequent career, while interesting, has failed to deliver on that promise, though she is still young and likely to astound us once again. Her choice of roles can be seen as an attempt to break out of the Merchant-Ivory cottage industry ghetto of Henry James & E.M. Forster adaptations. She was quite memorable in the neo-classic "Fight Club" and seemed to be on the verge of achieving that rare status of someone who is a star with an extraordinary look who can also act while retaining true sexpot status. (On the distaff side, the great Paul Newman comes to mind. Brando was a superstar who could act, but hardly a sexpot. Julie Christie had a chance but turned her back on stardom, while Jane Fonda came close, though her sex-kitten act was a bit forced, but finally chucked it all away after having her breasts unnecessarily augmented for Ted Turner.) Carter's output since then has evinced an erosion in her status as both star and actress, though her beauty remains undiminished.