Perhaps the actress most widely identified with corsets and men named Cecil, Helena Bonham Carter was for a long time typecast as an antiquated heroine, no doubt helped by her own brand of Pre-Raphaelite beauty. With a tumble of brown curls (which were, in fact, hair extensions), huge dark eyes, and translucent pale skin, Bonham Carter's looks made her a natural for movies that took place when the sun still shone over the British Empire and the sight of a bare ankle could induce convulsions. However, the actress, once dubbed by critic Richard Corliss "our modern antique goddess," managed to escape from planet Merchant/Ivory and, while still performing in a number of period pieces, eventually became recognized as an actress capable of portraying thoroughly modern characters.
Befitting her double-barreled family name, Bonham Carter is a descendant of the British aristocracy, both social and cinematic. The great-granddaughter of P.M. Lord Herbert Asquith and the grandniece of director Anthony Asquith, she was born to a banker father and a Spanish psychotherapist mother on May 26, 1966, in London. Although her heritage may have been defined by wealth and power, Bonham Carter's upbringing was fraught with misfortune, from her father's paralysis following a botched surgery to her mother's nervous breakdown when the actress was in her teens. Bonham Carter has said in interviews that her mother's breakdown first led her to seek work as an actress and she was soon going out on auditions.
She made her screen debut in 1985, playing the ill-fated title character of Trevor Nunn's Lady Jane. Starring opposite Cary Elwes as her equally ill-fated lover, Bonham Carter made enough of an impression as the 16th century teen queen to catch the attention of director James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant, who cast her as the protagonist of their 1986 adaptation of E.M. Forster's A Room With a View. The film proved a great critical success, winning eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. The adulation surrounding it provided its young star with her first real taste of fame, as well as steady work; deciding to concentrate on her acting career, Bonham Carter dropped out of Cambridge University, where she had been enrolled.
Unfortunately, although she did indeed work steadily and was able to enhance her reputation as a talented actress, Bonham Carter also became a study in typecasting, going from one period piece to the next. Despite the quality of many of these films, including Franco Zeffirelli's Hamlet (1990) and two more E.M. Forster vehicles, Where Angels Fear to Tread (1991) and Howards End (1992), the actress was left without room to expand her range. One notable exception was Getting It Right, a 1989 comedy in which she played a very modern socialite.
Things began to change for Bonham Carter in 1995, when she appeared as Woody Allen's wife in Mighty Aphrodite and then had the title role in Margaret's Museum, in which she gave a powerful performance as a coal miner's wife driven to madness by various tragedies visited upon her. Bonham Carter's work in the film prompted observers to note that she seemed to be moving away from her previous roles, and although she still appeared in corset movies -- such as Trevor Nunn's lush 1996 adaptation of Twelfth Night -- she began to enhance her reputation as a thoroughly modern actress. In 1997, she won acclaim for her performance in Iain Softley's adaptation of The Wings of the Dove, scoring a Best Actress Oscar nomination in the process.
After playing a woman stricken with Lou Gehrig's disease opposite offscreen partner Kenneth Branagh in the poorly received The Theory of Flight (1998) and appearing with Richard E. Grant in A Merry War (1998), Bonham Carter landed one of her most talked-about roles in David Fincher's 1999 Fight Club. As the object of Brad Pitt's and Edward Norton's desires, the actress exchanged hair extensions and English mannerisms for a shock of spiky hair and American dysfunction, prompting some critics to call her one of the most shocking aspects of a shocking movie.
After a brief turn in the romantic comedy Women Talking Dirty in 1999, Bonham Carter was soon gearing up for another surprising turn in director Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes (2001). If critics were shocked by her unconventional role in Fight Club, they would no doubt be left dumbfounded with her trading of extravagant period-piece costumes for Rick Baker's makeup wizardry as the simian sympathyser to Mark Wahlberg's Homo sapiens' plight. ~ Rebecca Flint Marx, Rovi