Grrl on Film: Bad-Ass Besses: A Brief Herstory of Elizabeth I in Film
“My sex cannot diminish my prestige.”- Elizabeth I
Recently the results of a Facebook quiz informed me which historical female I am and as silly as these quizzes are I was thrilled when the result was Queen Elizabeth I. A similar quiz, “Which TRULY Badass Historical Female Are You?” provided the same answer.
My husband’s response: “Well, duh.” (As you can probably guess, I relate to smart, sophisticated, powerful, independent women – I bet most of you do too. ;)
Elizabeth Tudor (1533-1603) was a complicated and fascinating woman who continually made it clear that she was rising above the perceived limitations of her sex to lead her country. She was known as The Virgin Queen; though whether or not she was a virgin in the literal sense remains debatable – she certainly belonged to no man. In fact, she claimed she was married to England.
She did entertain suitors (and often pitted them against one another) in order to gain political advantage. Marriage, of course, would have meant losing control of her affairs, and after having seen what her father did to her mother, Anne Boleyn, and to her sister’s mother, Catherine of Aragon, as well as to her subsequent step-mothers, she was savvy to avoid such entanglements. As she famously said, “Better beggar woman and single than Queen and married,” – a belief that ensured Good Queen Bess a freedom rarely afforded female monarchs.
Elizabeth I is a woman that captures the imagination, and many actresses have played her over the years – from Sarah Bernhardt’s silent portrayal in 1912’s Les amours de la reine Élisabeth to Bette Davis in the Hollywood drama The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex in 1939 to Helen Mirren in Elizabeth I in 2005.
Listed below, in no particular order, are but a few of the women (and one man) who have most notably played the Virgin Queen in all her tempestuousness and grace.
My favorite embodiment of Elizabeth Tudor (though she’s closely tied with Helen Mirren). Glenda Jackson (1936-) starred in Elizabeth R – a miniseries for the BCC that aired in 1971 and that was a sequel to 1970’s Six Wives of Henry VIII. (The “R” is for Regina, the Latin word for Queen.) The film is considered to be one of the most historically accurate portrayals of the life of Elizabeth Tudor. It had a script based on original historic sources and had authentic period costuming and sets. Later that same year, Jackson reprised her role for the film Mary, Queen of Scots, in which she starred opposite Vanessa Redgrave. It’s a slightly less accurate vision of events, but still an engaging film. (I mean Redgrave and Jackson as Queens of England – c’mon! Just thinking about it sets my Anglophile heart aflutter!)
One of the best scenes from Elizabeth R, a perfect example of how marvelous Jackson’s performance is (and why she won two Emmys for her effort) is when she finds out that she’s just become Queen of England.
Out of the mouth’s of Queens: Jackson’s Elizabeth - “I may not be a lion, but I am a lion's cub, and I have a lion's heart.”
Judi Dench’s (1934-) appearances in 1998’s Shakespeare in Love total about 8 minutes, and yet her performance as the Queen was so commanding, so memorable, that she won an Academy Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role. (Are you really surprised?)
Out of the mouth’s of Queens: Dench’s Elizabeth - “I know something of a woman in a man's profession. Yes, by God, I do know about that.”
Helen Mirren (1945-) earned no less than an Emmy, a Golden Globe, and a SAG award for her role as Elizabeth in the 2005 British television miniseries, Elizabeth I – which later aired in the US on HBO. Mirren’s nuanced performance captures the many moods of Bess to show just how complicated a leader, and a woman, Elizabeth was.
Out of the Mouths of Queens: Mirren’s Elizabeth – “I know that I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a King! And a King of England, too!”
Michael Hirst wrote the screenplays for 1998’s Elizabeth, and 2007’s Elizabeth: The Golden Age both starring Cate Blanchett (1969-) as the titular monarch. Blanchett is lovely in both pictures, and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role for the sequel – but Hirst’s historical inaccuracies are distracting (it should be noted he also writes the fabulously fun, but similarly ahistorical, Tudors for Showtime). As historian and Tudor expert, Alison Weir notes, one critic said that the 1998 film was “strictly for the MTV generation.” (Weir goes on to praise Dench’s version of the same year.)
Out of the mouths of Queens: Blanchett’s Elizabeth - “My loving people. We see the sails of the enemy approaching. We hear the Spanish guns over the water. Soon now, we will meet them face-to-face. I am resolved, in the midst and heat of the battle, to live or die amongst you all. While we stand together no invader shall pass. Let them come with the armies of Hell; they will not pass! And when this day of battle is ended, we meet again in heaven or on the field of victory.”
(This is actually a rewrite of the speech Elizabeth I gave to the troops at Tilbury. A version can be found at Wikipedia and a slightly differing version is in Weir’s The Life of Elizabeth I.)
Then 83, the gay icon Quentin Crisp (1908 – 1999) was asked by Sally Potter to play an aging Queen Elizabeth in her 1992 adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel, Orlando. (Apparently, the costumes were excruciating – as he told the New York Times in 1993.)
Out of the mouths of Queens (um, no pun intended): Crisp’s Elizabeth – “Do not fade. Do not wither. Do not grow old.”
Bette Davis (1908-1989) played the role twice, first in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) and again in The Virgin Queen (1955). The powerful screen presence of Davis is undeniable, but both films are truly American interpretations of British history They are Hollywood dramas, and ahistorical romances. (Private Lives also stars Errol Flynn and Vincent Price - Yikes!)
Out of the mouths of Queens: Davis’s Elizabeth - “The necessities of a queen must transcend those of a woman.”
Before I leave you with some awesome fan vids of clips of the various actresses who’ve played Elizabeth I embodying the Queen, who is your favorite incarnation? What about your favorite filmic depiction of a bad-ass historical figure (Cleopatra, Joan of Arc, Boudica)?
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