So—Great Britain is once again at the center of the world. Queen Elizabeth, who turned a hale and hearty 90 on April 21, is now history’s longest-reigning monarch as well the longest-lived ruler of England ever. And, of course, people all over the globe are mesmerized by the outcome of the Brexit vote to leave the European Union.
In thinking about England’s place on the world stage, I can’t help remembering how often the movie industry has turned to British kings and queens for inspiration. The bloody, bawdy Tudors and their circle have been particularly popular on film. The first movie built around the ample figure of Henry VIII dates all the way back to 1911. Charles Laughton won an Oscar for his weighty performance in The Private Life of Henry VIII in 1933. He was thereafter so closely identified with the role that he played Henry once again twenty years later in Young Bess, in which Jean Simmons starred as Henry’s daughter and eventual successor, Elizabeth I. But the actress most identified with the first Queen Elizabeth was the formidable Bette Davis, who played opposite Errol Flynn in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essez (1939), and returned to the role in 1955’s The Virgin Queen.
What is there about British royalty that’s so attractive to American audiences? I don’t know, exactly. Maybe it’s a passion for ruffs, cloaks, and farthingales. Maybe it’s the opportunity for swashbuckling, or the fact that a film seems IMPORTANT (if not terribly serious in terms of our day-to-day existence) when there’s royalty involved. Producer Hal Wallis, for one, made quite a career out of epic sagas featuring the British royal family. In 1964 he produced Becket, with Richard Burton as a crony of King Henry II (Peter O’Toole), one who puts his life on the line when he starts taking his religion seriously. As a follow-up to this Oscar-winning hit, Wallis launched 1969’s Anne of The Thousand Days, turning Burton into a love-crazed Henry VIII and pitting him against an Anne Boleyn (Genevieve Bujold) determined to be a queen, not a mistress. Finally, in 1971, he tried for a royal hat-trick. In Mary, Queen of Scots he had two leading British lionesses—Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson—scratch and claw ferociously in their roles as Mary Stuart and her archenemy, Elizabeth Tudor.
Elizabeth I has continued to show up in more recent films. Her appearance in 1988’s charming Shakespeare in Love is little more than a cameo, but it won Judi Dench (who -- barely 5 feet tall -- looks nothing like the tall, slender Elizabeth of history) a Supporting Actress Oscar. In 1998 Cate Blanchett won acclaim, if not an Oscar, for Elizabeth, a fascinating film about the making of a very young monarch. (There was also a 2007 sequel.)
Though films about the Tudors are still being made, in the twentieth-first century several hits have focused more on what it’s like to be a British monarch coping with the modern world. The top Oscar-winner for 2010 was The King’s Speech, in which a reluctant George VI (Colin Firth) must assume the throne because of his brother’s abdication. His struggle to conquer a bad stutter in order to make himself heard by the nation in the dark days of World War II is for me truly memorable. And of course there’s 2006’s The Queen, in which Helen Mirren as Elizabeth II faces both the perks and the challenges of her office, including the death of Princess Diana, thereby proving that she’s by no means an anachronism. All hail!