Royal Portraits in Hollywood: Filming the Lives of Queens

Royal Portraits in Hollywood: Filming the Lives of Queens

Royal Portraits in Hollywood: Filming the Lives of Queens

Royal Portraits in Hollywood: Filming the Lives of Queens


Few lives provide as much history or drama as those of monarchs. Filmmakers from the silent era to onward have displayed a deep fascination with the lives of royalty and with queens in particular. Still, the question remains: what do these filmsreallytell us about the women beneath the crowns? Drawing on films from the 1930s to those of today,Royal Portraits in Hollywood: Filming the Lives of Queensinvestigates the ways in which these films reproduce history and represent women. Though hardly progressive in nature, many early films offered an acceptable, nonthreatening way to present strong female characters in an economic and social landscape run almost exclusively by men. Authors Elizabeth Ford and Deborah Mitchell track the evolution of queens on film, noting how depictions of prominent women have changed over the past several decades and calling attention to the ways in which films both reflect and dictate the social norms of their eras. By comparing historical records of monarchs such as Queen Christina of Sweden, Catherine the Great, Cleopatra, and Elizabeth I with their onscreen personas, and examining the biographical details of the actresses who portrayed these women, Ford and Mitchell present a fascinating inquiry into issues of historical accuracy and gender politics in film.


Duty first, self second; that’s how I was brought up. That’s all I’ve ever

—Queen Elizabeth II to Tony Blair in The Queen

When Helen Mirren, authentically coiffed and costumed as Elizabeth II, turns to the camera in The Queen (Stephen Frears, 2006), she presents a perfect amalgam of royal personae, a queen playing a queen. Mirren is unarguably one of the most revered stars in the Englishlanguage cinema, and Elizabeth II is the queen, still so awe inducing that Jack Straw, a “former socialist” and the current lord chancellor, backed out of her royal presence at the 2007 opening of Parliament as meekly as a sixteenth-century courtier might have done (Lyall, “Ever Backward”). Elizabeth II wasn’t Mirren’s only royal role in 2006. She also played Elizabeth I in the critically acclaimed HBO miniseries Elizabeth I. This unprecedented double-queen sweep netted Mirren an Oscar, an Emmy, a Golden Globe, and a BAFTA award for her dead-on portrayals. Mirren’s tour de force portraits of two larger-than-life female British monarchs may have been unprecedented, but the early twenty-first century’s preoccupation with queens’ lives on film is not. Queens are in vogue, sometimes literally.

The September 2006 cover of Vogue, for example, features a living, breathing Marie Antoinette, headlined as the “Teen Queen Who Rocked Versailles,” dressed in rose pink satin, coiffed à la mode. Of course, it’s not the real Marie Antoinette so serenely gazing out from her pink-damasked chamber but Kirsten Dunst, who starred as the French queen in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006). The catalyst for Vogue’s interest—the controversial, rock-enhanced biopic—is just one of the more recent highprofile cinematic rebirths of an enigmatic queen. Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007), a feature-length biopic covering Elizabeth I’s relationship with Sir . . .

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