Hollywood’s Long and Complicated History with Queen Elizabeth I

  • September 17, 2018

Recently proving herself with an Oscar-calibre performance in last year’s I, Tonya, Margot Robbie is the next actress to bravely step into the iconic shoes and crown of Queen Elizabeth I in the upcoming medieval drama Mary, Queen of Scots. A coveted role for heavyweight actresses since the first conception of the movies, Hollywood has had a long and complicated history with the British monarch. Many have tried to re-create her powerful presence on the silver screen, and many have failed—only few have succeeded. We list down the six brave actresses whose Elizabeth I’s were notable additions to the history of Tinseltown.

Bette Davis in The Pirvate Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)
Bette Davis in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

Bette Davis

Two-time best actress winner and legendary acting icon Bette Davis played the role of Elizabeth I twice, the first in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) and for a second time in The Virgin Queen (1955). The former was a big hit for Warner Brothers, who invested a sizeable amount into the production, but still received a handsome profit in return. Private Lives followed the story of the Queen in her older years, where she falls in love with The Earl of Essex (Errol Flynn). Their relationship becomes rocky when Essex’s popularity amongst the people increases and threatens Elizabeth’s crown. Despite stellar reviews for Bette Davis, she surprisingly missed the competitive Best Actress Oscar lineup. Instead, she was nominated for Dark Victory (1939), another Warner Brothers production, but lost Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind (1939).

Much drama surrounded the production of the 1939 film. Davis lived up to her reputation as being a difficult diva, causing tension with her co-stars, particularly male lead Errol Flynn. She despised Flynn, making it known to all that she had hoped Laurence Olivier would be cast as her romantic interest instead. She continued to undermine Flynn’s acting abilities throughout the entire filming. During a scene in which Elizabeth slaps Essex in front of the entire court, Davis slapped the actor for real, leaving him dizzy and injured. Still, their work on screen is pristine, making for a well-acted story with visual pizzazz. Davis tried to strike lightning twice, returning to play Elizabeth in 1955’s The Virgin Queen. By this time, the actress’ career was waning and the film premiered to lackluster reviews.

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Glenda Jackson reprised her screen role in Mary, Queen of Scots (1971) for the Emmy-winning TV series Elizabeth R (1971)
Glenda Jackson reprised her screen role in Mary, Queen of Scots (1971) for the Emmy-winning TV series Elizabeth R (1971)

Glenda Jackson

Not much drama happened on the set of Mary, Queen of Scots (1971), the historical drama by Anne of the Thousand Days (1969) director Charles Jarrott. The film chronicled the rivalry between Elizabeth I (Glenda Jackson in a tour de force performance) with her cousin, Mary Stuart of Scotland (Vanessa Redgrave). Afraid of the people’s support for Mary as the true Queen of England, Elizabeth puts her in exile. The film received mediocre reviews from the Vincent Canby of the New York Times and iconic movie critic Roger Ebert, although both actresses were revered for their performances. “Vanessa Redgrave is a tall, straight-backed, finely spirited Mary, and Glenda Jackson makes a perfectly shrewish, wise Elizabeth,” Ebert wrote in his original review.

The film was also criticized for historical accuracies, particularly the meetings between the two queens. Elizabeth and Mary never actually met in real life, but the film depicts them secretly meeting to discuss their relationship, politics, and the fate of England. Redgrave walked away with a nomination for Best Actress. Jackson did not. However, she would reprise her role the same year in the TV series Elizabeth R, in which she garnered a win for Best Actress at the Emmy’s.

Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007)
Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007)

Cate Blanchett 

Hollywood finally took notice of the acting powers of Austrian actress Cate Blanchett when she played Elizabeth I in the 1998 biographical film. Blanchett was a favorite to win Best Actress at the Oscars, but eventually lost to Gwyneth Paltrow for her work in Shakespeare in Love (1998). The movie follows the Queen’s rise to the throne of England and how she navigates the early days of her rule. Elizabeth sparks controversy because of her romantic relationship with Sir Robert Dudley (Joseph Fiennes), her Catholic beliefs, and her bloodline, being the bastard daughter of the executed Ann Boleyn.

Nicole Kidman was originally considered to play the lead role, but director Shekhar Kapur was impressed with Blanchett’s performance in Oscar and Melinda (1997) that he decided to cast her instead. Although the film had a few historical inaccuracies, Kapur made an effort to try and limit it. For instance, for the coronation scene, the costuming and shots were entirely based on Elizabeth’s coronation portrait. Almost 10 years later, in a Bette Davis-like move, Blanchett signed on to reprise her role in Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007), a film documenting the queen’s battles with the Spanish armada. Although visually compelling, the movie received bad reviews. Cate, however, remained to be a stand out. She was once again nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress, losing to Marion Cotillard in La Vie en Rose. She became the only actress to be nominated for an Oscar for playing the same role twice.

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Judi Dench in Shakespeare in Love (1998)
Judi Dench in Shakespeare in Love (1998)

Judi Dench

Judi Dench played Elizabeth I in John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love (1998) for a mere 15 minutes, but still managed to nab the Best Supporting Actress Oscar at that year’s Academy Awards. Her Elizabeth was merely a secondary storyline to Viola (Gwyneth Paltrow) and William Shakespeare’s (Joseph Fiennes) love story. Many believe her win was a make-up award for the esteemed actress who was expected to take home the trophy the year before for another Madden picture, Mrs. Brown (1997), in which she played Queen Victoria. For the earlier film, Dench received the best reviews of her career. She was so happy with the film that she told the director that she would come back and do anything for him in his next picture. The role was that of Elizabeth I.

Dench’s win for Shakespeare in Love has grown to become one of the most controversial winners of all time. However, it is not without its merits. The actress portrays a different type of Elizabeth, one that we hardly ever get to see on film Her monarch is old and withering, has become a symbol of great power, and yet has immersed herself in art and entertainment. This is Elizabeth in her much older years. Although a short performance, it is a fun one, which was greatly captured on screen by Madden and the clever screenplay of Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard.

Margot Robbie in Mary, Queen of Scots (2018)
Margot Robbie in Mary, Queen of Scots (2018)

Margot Robbie

It’s been a good 10 years since Elizabeth has appeared in a major motion picture. The last time was Blanchett’s part II performance in Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007). Mary, Queen of Scots (2018), a remake of the 1971 film starring Redgrave and Jackson, finds Saoirse Ronan (as Mary) and Margot Robbie (as Elizabeth) stepping into the roles of the two iconic powerhouses. Based on the trailer, the filmmakers have taken historical liberties yet again, showing secret meetings between the two queens. Many Oscar pundits are afraid of the film’s chances for awards this year. The buzz has been relatively quiet, and the studio is skipping out on all major film festivals, which are often viewed as instrumental in mounting a strong Oscar campaign. Only time will tell the fate of Margot’s Elizabeth, but we wish her the best. Good or bad, the everlasting story of the English monarch in Hollywood has captivated audiences for almost a 100 years. It exciting to witness a new chapter so soon.

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