She was ruthless and lovelorn, shrewd and coquettish, and has almost every major actress -- at least in England -- practically tripping over one another for the chance to play her on the big screen and the small. This year, Helen Mirren, Anne-Marie Duff and Cate Blanchett are all starring in roles as the first Queen Elizabeth, 16th century England’s conflicted virginal monarch.
“It’s sort of an Elizabeth-fest,” said George Faber, executive producer of “Elizabeth I,” HBO’s two-part, four-hour miniseries starring Mirren set to air tonight and Monday.
PBS’ “Masterpiece Theatre” aired “The Virgin Queen” with Duff earlier this year. A feature film, “The Golden Age,” is scheduled for release later this year with Blanchett reprising the queenly role for which she won an Oscar nomination in 1998’s “Elizabeth.” “The Golden Age” will pick up where “Elizabeth” left off -- at the point in which the young woman has successfully reinvented herself as a marble-skinned icon, ready to defeat the Spanish Armada and slaughter Mary Queen of Scots.
“There are very few of these larger-than-life stories and Elizabeth is about power and vulnerability and arrogance and youth, vanity and sexuality. It’s so irresistible to an actress,” said Rebecca Eaton, executive producer of PBS’ “Masterpiece Theatre.”
Since she lived so long ago, there is also plenty of room for artistic license. The new versions seem to draw contemporary parallels with a world torn by religious strife and a woman who learns to wield power in the most powerful of men’s clubs.
She had an early and intimate acquaintance with power: Her father, Henry VIII, had her mother, Anne Boleyn, beheaded; Machiavellian plots pitted Catholics against Protestants; flirtations with all the available European royals abounded, as did politically fraught entanglements with the Earl of Leicester, his stepson the Earl of Essex, and Sir Walter Raleigh.
Elizabeth reveled in her appearance and owned thousands of bejeweled gowns. She spoke several languages, and relaxed by dancing and playing the lute. Some of her other pastimes -- hunting deer and translating Latin texts -- rarely if ever make it to the screen. Her lifelong virginity was then a matter of public discussion and private investigation by potential suitors, but remains, Eaton said, conjecture.
Almost every decade since silent films has seen a new version of Elizabeth, including Bette Davis’ 1939 and 1955 films, and Judi Dench’s 1998 Oscar-winning performance in “Shakespeare in Love.” Davis’ Elizabeth paid the price of loneliness for putting country ahead of love. No man dared mess with Glenda Jackson’s formidable feminist queen in the 1971 PBS miniseries “Elizabeth R.”
PBS got involved this year, Eaton said, because “it’s what ‘Masterpiece Theatre’ does and we had not done an ‘Elizabeth’ since Glenda Jackson.
“When Glenda did this, Elizabeth might have seemed like a political anomaly. That was pre-Margaret Thatcher,” Eaton said. Now, Chile has elected its first female president; Jamaica has its first female prime minister; two women have held that post in the Philippines; a woman this month was in a tight race to lead Peru and there is, of course, the prospect of a Hillary Rodham Clinton candidacy in the U.S.
In this climate, Eaton said, the interest is in “watching how [Elizabeth is] doing it rather than that she’s doing it.”
Despite the slew of productions over time, Faber said he felt there was an “untold story” that would appeal to a new, post-feminist generation.
In the new Mirren version, “We show a woman with remarkable intelligence who is not afraid to use her sexuality to get whatever she wanted,” Faber said. “She is also able to switch off that side of her personality and, in fact, out-man many of the men she deals with.”
Mirren calls Elizabeth I one of the great female roles of all time, partly because of what was probably an extreme inner life. The queen could faint from anger, yet laugh so hard at crass comedy that she would fall off her chair, Mirren said.
Mirren collaborated significantly in the production, made by England’s Channel 4 and Company Pictures/HBO.
“Helen read the first draft and gave us a set of notes, all of which were extremely astute, which we duly attended to. She was extremely helpful in shaping the narrative,” Faber says.
Some producers said the wave of Elizabeth projects is actually less the result of a heightened interest in the queen than of pure coincidence.
In England, Faber said, “There’s a sort of perennial interest in monarchs of the past. Last year was the year of Henry VII in the U.K.” It just happened, he said, that two English companies, the BBC and Channel 4, started developing separate projects on Elizabeth I, the BBC in conjunction with PBS, and Channel 4 with HBO.
But Tim Bevan, co-chair of Working Title Films and producer of Blanchett’s “Elizabeth” and “The Golden Age,” said he started to think of a second film project five years ago after so many women responded enthusiastically to the first film. “Women like seeing an empowered woman on screen and not some male fantasy,” he said.
Elizabeth I, Mirren said, “was very powerful, very self-indulgent. But very passionate and very feminine. She was a wonderful mixture of masculine and feminine.”
But she cautioned against drawing too many parallels with the 16th century.
“The political requirements and the social structure were so different,” the actress noted. “One of the reasons she didn’t want to marry is that if she did, she would immediately have had to relinquish power to her husband. Because that’s how it was.”