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Saturday, November 3, 2007

Three Queens (originally published 12/98)

It has been pointed out more than once that movie stars are the nearest thing we have to royalty in the United States. It seems only natural, therefore, to see our movie stars playing the role of royalty on the screen. This year we're being treated to two different portrayals of the same monarch. In "Elizabeth," Cate Blanchett plays the lead role as Queen Elizabeth I. "Shakespeare in Love" features Elizabeth as a supporting character, played by Judi Dench, who only last year scored a triumph as Queen Victoria in "Mrs. Brown." Elizabeth has been portrayed many times before on the screen, going all the way back to 1912, when the immortal Sarah Bernhardt played the role in an early silent film called "Queen Elizabeth." Since that time, there have been three actresses who have left an indelible stamp on the role of Elizabeth, standing head and shoulders over all others who have attempted the role. If you want to see how high the bar has been set for Blanchett and Dench by those who preceded them in this challenging role, look for these titles on home video.

"Fire Over England" (1936). The first of the all-time great screen Elizabeths was Flora Robson, one of England's finest character actresses. She had the authority, regal bearing, and forceful presence necessary to be credible as Elizabeth. The plot is based on the rivalry between Elizabeth and Philip II of Spain, culminating with the British defeat of the Spanish Armada, a common subject matter for films about Elizabeth since it resulted in one of the greatest triumphs of her reign.

"The Sea Hawk" (1940). Four years later, Great Britain was once again under attack by an implacable enemy. This time the threat was not from a Spanish naval attack, but from bombs dropped by the warplanes of Nazi Germany. As a means of rallying the fighting spirit of the British, the story of the defeat of Spain's Armada was told once again, taking pains to draw parallels between the contemporary situation, which looked discouragingly bleak, and its historical counterpart, which ended in glorious victory for England. Once again Flora Robson was brought in to be the cinematic incarnation of Elizabeth.

"The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex" (1939). The second of the movies' great Elizabeths is Bette Davis. She threw herself into the role, striving to look and act as much like the real Elizabeth as possible. The result was an extraordinary portrait of political acumen mixed with personal passion. The plot revolves around Elizabeth's stormy relationship with Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, played by Errol Flynn. This is a less consistently magisterial, more vulnerable Elizabeth than we were shown in the films featuring Robson.

"The Virgin Queen" (1955). Like Robson, Davis returned to the role of Elizabeth. Once again we are shown the relationship between Elizabeth and a man. This time it is Sir Walter Raleigh (Richard Todd) who ingratiates himself with Elizabeth to further his own ends. Davis had grown as an actress in the 16 years since her last performance as Elizabeth. This is a more mature Davis, nearer to the actual age of her character, creating her definitive take on the Virgin Queen.

"Elizabeth R" (1971). In 1970, the BBC commissioned six separate plays from six separate playwrights to tell the story of Henry VIII by focusing on each of his wives. The plays then ran as a television series entitled "The Six Wives of Henry VIII." The follow-up to this highly successful series was "Elizabeth R," which follows the life of Elizabeth, Henry's daughter. Again six different plays from six different authors were produced as a series. The actress who took on the daunting task of portraying Elizabeth at such a length was Glenda Jackson. Rising to the challenge in impressive fashion, Jackson convincingly earned a place alongside Davis and Robson in the pantheon of immortal screen performances as Elizabeth. That same year, Jackson followed the example of her predecessors by repeating the role in "Mary, Queen of Scots," which is not, sadly, available on video.

This, then, is what Blanchett and Dench were up against: three monumental interpretations of Elizabeth, each one represented by two separate films. Based on that alone, I imagine they began their work with some insight into how Elizabeth felt when confronted by an invincible armada from the south.

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