Elizabeth, Elizabeth, Elizabeth. Hollywood can’t get enough of her. If there’s a historical costume drama coming out, you can bet it’s one of two things: an adaptation of a Jane Austen novel or a biopic of Elizabeth I of England, aka Good Queen Bess. And since Austen has been done twice in recent memory, it’s time.
That’s right: Bess is back.
England’s famed Virgin Queen of the 16th century has been played by some of the greatest actresses in film history, including Bette Davis (twice), Glenda Jackson (twice), Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett, Helen Mirren and now ... Blanchett again, in “Elizabeth: The Golden Age.” The film, directed by Shekhar Kapur, opens Friday.
Blanchett’s earlier turn in the regal role (in the 1998 film “Elizabeth,” also directed by Kapur) helped transform the young Aussie actress into Hollywood royalty herself, earning her a Golden Globe award and an Academy Award nomination. Yet it was only after months of cajoling that producers convinced her to take a stab at the part again.
“I resisted at first, too,” Kapur says. “I couldn’t take all those castles, armor and four hours of makeup for every dress change.”
The first film covered Elizabeth’s early years, and he realized there was more to tell. The current movie explores her relationship with Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen), and Kapur hopes to complete the tale with a third film, sometime in the future.
That’s a lot of screen time for one heroine. Sure, we Yanks can’t get enough of the British royals—but Elizabeth, with all her pancake makeup and stiff white ruffs, isn’t exactly Princess Di. And Mirren’s film version just aired on HBO last year, not to mention “The Queen,” her Oscar-winning take on a later Liz. You’d think we’d be all queened out.
What is it about this distant monarch that keeps moviegoers—especially Americans, who had a revolution to escape the royals—coming back for more?
“She was an incredible woman, a survivor,” says British biographer Alison Weir. Elizabeth’s life is so rich with intrigue that Weir is writing a trilogy of novels about her. (The first, “The Lady Elizabeth,” is due from Ballantine in spring.)
“She inherited at 25 a country that was bankrupt,” Weir says. “Her throne was very shaky.”
It didn’t help that her parents were Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. (Boleyn was Hank’s second wife, whom he’d married after ditching the Roman Catholic church and divorcing wife No. 1.) Elizabeth was just 3 when he beheaded her mother and moved on to subsequent—unlucky—spouses. By the time she took power, the Protestant/Catholic divide, worse than any trumped-up Red State/ Blue State rivalry, had nearly torn England apart. Elizabeth was called “a bastard, heretic, usurper,” Weir explains.
Not to mention (ahem) a virgin. Being single was a tool she used to her advantage, forcing foreign kings and princes to play nice in the hopes of wedding her, and annexing her land.
She juggled career and private life—“a very modern dilemma,” Weir notes.
Luckily for Elizabeth, “Virginity is an asset that holds its value well,” notes Lord Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush), Elizabeth’s trusted adviser, in a scene from the new film.
Wait—hear that? It’s the sound of countless historians falling to the ground in fits, probably because Walsingham never said such a thing. Kapur was castigated for playing fast and loose with the facts in his first “Elizabeth.”
Don’t get Weir started on the inaccurate costumes or the backdrops that looked Norman when they should’ve been Elizabethan. Kapur also dared to show Elizabeth in bed with her longtime friend Robert Dudley (something oft rumored but never proven).
Kapur admits he has no qualms tweaking history for emotional or dramatic impact. “Did Walter Raleigh really put the cape down?” he asks, referring to a scene in the new film in which Raleigh prevents m’lady from stepping in a puddle. “It’s the most famous thing we know about him, but did it really happen? We don’t know.” (Historians agree it’s probably apocryphal.)
What interests Kapur more is how her story reflects tensions today, like the threats of religious fundamentalism, or a woman’s struggle for power in a man’s world.
“Ultimately it’s a triumph of the feminine aspects of power,” Kapur says. “Power is usually identified with masculinity. That’s probably what’s wrong with it. If it’s touched with femininity, then you get Gandhi ... Mandela ... Buddha.”
Not that Elizabeth was a softie.
“She could be a total so-and-so at times,” Weir admits. Cross her, say, by secretly marrying a lady-in-waiting, and you’d find yourself imprisoned. Raise an Armada against her, as Spain did in 1588, and she’s donning armor.
Still, one big question remains about the great Virgin Queen: Was she ... really?
“Not the way I play her,” Glenda Jackson told a reporter in 1972.
Weir is more circumspect, recalling Elizabeth’s own words.
“I do not live in a corner,” she once lamented. “A thousand eyes see all I do.”
Indeed, schemers even bribed her laundresses for hints about what went on in the royal bedroom.
“As a historian, I think she was the virgin queen she claimed to be,” Weir says. “Of course, we’ll never know.”
Memorable Elizabeths, from big screen and small:
“Les Amours d’Elisabeth” (aka “Queen Elizabeth”) (1912)—A silent movie starring French actress Sarah Bernhardt.
“The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex” (1939)—Soapy melodrama starring a young Bette Davis and Errol Flynn.
“The Virgin Queen” (1955)—High camp, heavy pancake and pure, unadulterated Davis.
“Elizabeth R” (1971)—The acclaimed BBC miniseries aired on PBS’ “Masterpiece Theatre” starring Glenda Jackson. She reprised her role in the 1972 film “Mary, Queen of Scots,” which also starred Vanessa Redgrave as Mary.
“Blackadder II” (1986)—In the wacky BBC sitcom’s second season, Miranda Richardson as “Queenie” is a hoot (and Helen Mirren’s fave).
“Orlando” (1993)—An odd, gender-bender featuring Quentin Crisp in the queenly role.
“Shakespeare in Love” (1998)—Don’t blink! Judi Dench, who won her best supporting actress Oscar playing Bess, is on screen for only eight minutes.
“Elizabeth” (1998)—Cate Blanchett as a sexy sovereign, for which she got her first Oscar nomination.
“Elizabeth I” (2006)—Mirren won an Emmy playing opposite Jeremy Irons and Hugh Dancy in this four-hour TV film, which aired on HBO.