Becoming Bess

1381471_669585709726835_1591478188_nThis week’s guest post is by Australian film journalist and reviewer Nicki Newton-Plater who, in addition to having a passion for Tudor history, is editor-in-chief  at Movie Critical. You can check out Movie Critical’s Facebook book page by following this link. This post is a part of the guest blog series, “Across/Beyond Genres with The Tudors: Guest Posts by Novelists, Historians, Cultural Observers, Poets, Memoirists, Artists, and Bloggers.”

Like her mother Anne Boleyn, Queen Elizabeth I remains one of the most intriguing women in history. Mother and daughter shared many of the same qualities despite having spent so little time together. They were both strong female figures who had remarkable strength and determination, especially when they set their eyes on the prize. Physically, although Elizabeth inherited her fiery red hair from her father Henry VIII, it was often remarked upon that she had her mother’s dark eyes. However, what they are both remembered for and what makes them so fascinating are polar opposites. Whilst Anne Boleyn is remembered largely for her role as Henry VIII’s second wife and for her unforgettable demise, Elizabeth is remembered for defying all the odds to become queen and her eventful reign as the Virgin Queen.

As both mother and daughter are historically such intriguing and powerful female figures, they are both widely represented in popular culture, particularly in film and television. The roles of both Anne Boleyn and Queen Elizabeth I are particularly sought after by strong actresses as they require confident, powerful and fiery performances. They are roles which come with a huge amount of expectation from historians and the film community alike. It takes a certain type of actress to be able to take on the role of either of these two women. Genevieve Bujold, Natalie Portman and Natalie Dormer are among the women who have successfully portrayed Anne Boleyn on the screen and are perhaps her best-known portrayals.

Queen Elizabeth I has attracted the talents of some of the best actresses of our generation. As previously stated, since Elizabeth was such a strong woman in real life and arguably ruled better than many kings had done, the role is not one to take on lightly. There is much expectation and a great deal of research which must be done in order to portray her as accurately as possible. Over time, there have been dozens of portrayals of Elizabeth in both film and television. Perhaps it is Cate Blanchett and Bette Davis who are the first two actresses who come to mind when you think about her on the screen and there is absolutely no doubt that these two gave amazing performances. Yet, there are seven other actresses who should be given as much recognition for the role as Blanchett and Davis.

The wonderful thing is that not one of the following actresses played Elizabeth the same way as another. Each film or television mini-series gives a different interpretation of what Elizabeth was like. Of course she is still fiery, hot-headed and proud as she is historically known, but each actress brings something different to the role depending on which part of Elizabeth’s life is being represented. These are the nine Queen Elizabeth I’s everyone should see on screen if they are a Tudor history fan. Some of these portrayals are more historically accurate than others, but it is wonderful to see Bess’ memory being honoured by these remarkable actresses with such love and warmth for her.

Cate Blanchett-Elizabeth (1998) and Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007)

Although there has been no lack of Elizabeth’s on screen in the past 15 years, Cate Blanchett remains the actress most people currently associate with the queen. It is no surprise considering Blanchett played Elizabeth in both 1998’s Elizabeth and 2007’s Elizabeth: The Golden Age and received Academy Award nominations both times. Blanchett’s Elizabeth has incredible character development, particularly in the first film where she goes from being a young, carefree girl who dances in the sunshine to a queen with a hard exterior who refuses to be ruled by any man. In the second film, we see how she has established her position and is much more imperious and hot-headed. Blanchett shows that the queen did not change overnight and how her circumstances led to her becoming what she is remembered for. However, even at the beginning of the first film, her Elizabeth does show a stubborn streak, but shows it in a very subtle way. What Blanchett’s Elizabeth does that we do not see other Elizabeths do is go from the young princess who never thought she would one day inherit the crown to one of the most powerful and strong women the world has seen.

Bette Davis- The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) and The Virgin Queen (1955)

Like Blanchett, the one and only Bette Davis played Elizabeth twice. First in 1939 in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex and secondly in 1955’s The Virgin Queen. The Elizabeth we see in these two films has the glaring qualities one would normally associate with the queen. She is indeed hot headed and oozes power, but is also a little crazy. Davis herself was sometimes described as having these qualities in real life, so the role of Elizabeth in the stages of life which she portrayed fit her like a glove. This is not to say that Davis was playing herself, because she most definitely is not. She is Elizabeth, and one of the greatest. Although her Elizabeth shows her tough and rather ruthless side, she does show her more human side as well, as is seen in the film clip above. In both films, Elizabeth has feelings for two separate men in Lord Essex and Sir Walter Raleigh so Davis’ performance is more definitely not restricted in her emotions. The match of Davis’ and Queen Elizabeth I is a match made in heaven. One of the strongest willed women matched up with perhaps the strongest female actor of old Hollywood.

Helen Mirren- Elizabeth I (2005)

The only actress who has portrayed both Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Elizabeth II on screen is Dame Helen Mirren—and she has won the highest honours for both: An Oscar for Elizabeth II in Stephen Frears, The Queen and an Emmy and a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Elizabeth I in the television mini-series Elizabeth I. All these honours came in the same year. As these awards suggest, Mirren is an incredible Elizabeth. Her Elizabeth is brilliant at her fiery best, but even better when her emotions take hold. The above clip is an extraordinary scene in the series when she finds that her love is married. There are several other scenes like this, which makes the Elizabeth in this version seem very human. There are a few historical inaccuracies in the series itself, but Mirren’s Elizabeth is one who is strong and incredibly stubborn, but also shows her emotional side. However, there is no doubting that Mirren’s performance has an extremely regal air to it.

Anne-Marie Duff- Elizabeth I The Virgin Queen (2005)

The 2005 television mini-series, Elizabeth I: The Virgin Queen does what no other film or mini-series about Elizabeth I does. It looks at Elizabeth’s reign in its entirety, from the days of her imprisonment at the hands of her sister, Mary right through to her death. Anne-Marie Duff is absolutely incredible as she plays this role from the beginning where she is a stubborn and proud, yet very likable young woman, through to her last days as an old woman who is ridiculed in her nostalgia for the past. Duff’s younger Elizabeth always has a regal air to her, but it is actually refreshing to watch her as the queen dancing and smiling at court like she hasn’t got a care in the world. She is the Elizabeth that could be any one of us and is perhaps the most human portrayal of Elizabeth on our list. The make-up applied to make Duff 40 years older is exceptional as it is so convincing.

Glenda Jackson- Mary, Queen Of Scots (1971) and Elizabeth R (1971)

Glenda Jackson is another actress who played the part of Elizabeth I in more than one production. She played the lead in the 6 part BBC mini-series, Elizabeth R and also played the same role in Mary, Queen of Scots. Here we will look at Jackson’s portrayal in Mary. Queen of Scots as because this film is about her rivalry with her Scottish cousin, Mary, it is a very different Elizabeth we see. Although you can tell that the film isn’t evidently trying hard to do so, it does take a biased look at the relationship between Mary and Elizabeth and Elizabeth does come of looking like the villain. Jackson’s portrayal of Elizabeth is actually quite chilling. This is the Elizabeth who is reminiscent of her father’s ways. She is suspicious and jealous of her cousin and very proud and tense. However, the scene you see above is historically inaccurate, as Elizabeth and Mary never met face to face.

Vanessa Redgrave and Joely Richardson- Anonymous (2010)

Anonymous, which is based on the idea that William Shakespeare was a fraud, is not the most popular film with Elizabethan enthusiasts as its premise is highly improbable and details historically inaccurate. However, the portrayal of Elizabeth here is definitely worth mentioning. Elizabeth is seen both in her early years as a young queen who adores the arts, and also as an old woman in the last years of her life terrified about who will follow her on the throne. What makes this so interesting is that mother and daughter in real life, Vanessa Redgrave and Joely Richardson play the older and younger Elizabeths. Both Redgrave and Richardson give wonderful performances. Redgrave is sad and painful to watch, while Redgrave is a young delight. Interestingly enough, Redgrave played opposite Glenda Jackson’s Elizabeth as the title character in Mary, Queen of Scots, and Richardson played Elizabeth’s stepmother, Catherine Parr in the television show, The Tudors.

Jean Simmons- Young Bess (1953)

Jean Simmons gave a portrayal of a different Elizabeth than we are used to seeing. Young Bess looks at Elizabeth’s life before she became queen, in particular the years which she lived with her stepmother, Catherine Parr (played by Deborah Kerr) after her father passed away. Young Bess is again not a completely historically accurate portrayal of the young Elizabeth, and even though Simmons does give a good performance, her Elizabeth is not as believable as some of the others. There is one scene where she has a verbal confrontation with her father, Henry VIII, which hardly seems realistic. The film is very exaggerated so to glorify Elizabeth. She is not the typical young girl, but she still has the teenage characteristic of falling head over heels in love. She is also very queenly for her young age. Whether historically accurate or not, it is still a nice change to see a film about Elizabeth in the time period before she was queen.

Judi Dench- Shakespeare In Love (1998)

Last, but far from being least is Dame Judi Dench. Dench’s Elizabeth won her an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, even though she was only on screen for very few scenes. This portrayal of the older Elizabeth is incredible. Dench is perfect as she shows both sides of Elizabeth’s personality. You see the no nonsense queen who doesn’t put up with anything she sees as irrelevant, but she surprises everyone when she shows her tender and understanding side, particularly when speaking to Viola Shakespeare In Love is a comedy, and thus Elizabeth actually has some very funny moments. The delivery of some of her dialogue is hilarious and rather than her fiery nature being daunting, it is actually quite endearing in this film.


Filed under Across/Beyond Genres with The Tudors: Guest Posts by Novelists, Historians, Cultural Observers, Poets, Memoirists, Artists, and Bloggers

3 responses to “Becoming Bess

  1. Denise Hansen

    Great post but I wished you had shown an Elizabeth R clip. I am old enough to remember the original series. Glenda Jackson was a marvel and she portrayed Elizabeth convincingly from young woman to aged queen. The costumes were extremely accurate as was the historical narrative. l loved it and she remains (with apologies to Cate Blanchett) “my Elizabeth”.

  2. This article states: ‘The 2005 television mini-series, Elizabeth I: The Virgin Queen does what no other film or mini-series about Elizabeth I does. It looks at Elizabeth’s reign in its entirety, from the days of her imprisonment at the hands of her sister, Mary right through to her death.’….
    I’m sorry, but this is an incorrect statement. ‘Elizabeth R’ looked at Elizabeth’s life from early days as princess right through to her death. It is a very good series, maybe a little theatrical for our modern tastes, but, as Denise Hansen says, the costumes are accurate and the chronology is not all over the place.
    I wasn’t born when Glenda Jackson starred as Elizabeth, but I watched ‘Elizabeth R’ on DVD and appreciated its many qualities, especially compared to the recent films about Elizabeth starring Cate Blanchett, where costumes and sets are inaccurate and events are not even presented in their proper chronological order. I understand that the director probably wanted to convey a symbolic reflection upon the image of Elizabeth rather than produce a biopic, but most audiences do not get that. Many people will take what a movie shows as fact. And when it comes to facts, ‘Elizabeth R’ is not a perfect work of historical research, but it comes much much closer than anything else ever done about Elizabeth. It is a great pity this post does not even mention it. You say it was written by a film journalist. Surely, they are aware of the series. Or did their research not cover it? Maybe that’s the answer, if we are to go by the statement ‘The 2005 television mini-series, Elizabeth I: The Virgin Queen does what no other film or mini-series about Elizabeth I does.’

    • I apologize for the mix up on my behalf. I absolutely wanted to include Elizabeth R in my research, but the big problem was that I could not get it shipped to where I live in order to watch it. The big reason I didn’t include it even though I haven’t been able to watch it, is because as a journalist, I do not believe in pretending I know about a series if I don’t watch it, as I believe people can see right through me and know I am just making it up.

      If anyone know of some way to ship Elizabeth R to Australia for a reasonable price (as this isn’t available at a reasonable price on Amazon when they can ship it), it would be great and I can see what I can do to make this up to Glenda Jackson fans!

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