Queen Elizabeth II: A mysterious king, subject to endless scrutiny on stage and on screen

She was the most obscure celebrity, and a silent movie star that somehow thrived in the TikTok world. If no one except her closest friends and family knew what Queen Elizabeth II really was, that’s exactly what she wanted.

Her royal reserve, her unemotional expressions, her resistance to personal revelation – all this made the Queen, who died Thursday at 96, an irresistible object of fanciful speculation. It was a blueprint for a woman that people could fill in no matter what they imagined. And they filled it up. Over the years, Elizabeth has been a character in an endless string of feature films, films, and TV series made for television — biographies, satire, drama, comedy, you name it — as well as in documentaries, theatrical, musical and episodic films. a novel.

Her life was remarkable for being long, and her reign was remarkable for containing so much history. But no one was beheaded, no one was plotted, no one was imprisoned in a tower. The drama about her predecessors on the job — Elizabeth I, Henry V, Henry VIII, and Richard II, to name a few — is full of grand intrigue and great peril. The drama about Elizabeth II was more inward-looking, all trying to address the vexing and unanswerable question: What kind of person was she?

The number of actors who have wrestled with this issue is uncountable. The Crown alone needed three women to portray Elizabeth in different eras of her life: Claire Foy in her early life, middle-aged Olivia Colman, and Imelda Staunton as a queen in winter.

Here are some additional highlights of Elizabeth’s portrayal in film and on stage, and sometimes in fiction, over the years.

like a princess

Elizabeth’s early years were marked by two catastrophic events: her uncle, King Edward VIII, abdicated in 1936, automatically propelling her fragile father to the position of king and placing her next in the line of succession. and World War II, which took place when she was still a teenager.

In “The King’s Speech” (2010), the young Princess Elizabeth, played by Freya Wilson, appears briefly in the backdrop to the drama about her father’s efforts, now King George VI, to overcome his stuttering and address the nation with confidence and authority when Britain entered the war, in 1939. (The real-life queen was said to have found the film “moving and interesting.”)

A Royal Night Out (2015) takes place amid the euphoria of VE Day in London in 1945. Spread out from Buckingham Palace to mingle, disguised, with ecstatic crowds, Princess Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) and her younger sister, Princess Margaret (Bel Powley), indulge On a boisterous night of drinking, dancing, flirting, wading in a fountain and riding a city bus.

as a queen

In an attempt to demystify themselves that they later regret, in 1969 the Windsor family was the subject of a 90-minute documentary called The Royal Family. Watched by 37 million Britons, it included scenes in which Prince Philip tried to cook sausage at a barbecue, Prince Charles went surfing and the Queen feed it Carrots for her horses. The Queen later ordered that the film not be aired again, and decided it might have shed too much light on her family.

In 1982, an unemployed home painter broke into Buckingham Palace and made his way into the Queen’s bedroom, where he stayed for at least 10 minutes until help arrived. There is no documentary footage, but actress Emma Thompson played Elizabeth in Walking the Dogs, a 2012 television drama depiction of the incident.

Diana years

The Queen appears numerous times in countless dramas dedicated to the disastrous marriage between her son Charles and his wife Diana, Princess of Wales. Their function is usually to express horror at their dysfunction or to record their disapproval of how their non-royal behavior affects their children, families, and the monarchy.

Selected examples of this genre include “Princess in Love,” a frivolous film about how Diana deceived Charles with James Hewitt, an army captain, much to the dismay of the Queen (Lisa Danielle). There’s also Whatever Love Means, an equally sordid account of the adulterous romance between Prince Charles and his ex-girlfriend and future wife Camilla Parker-Bowles, in which the Queen is played by Stella McCusker. Most recently, “Spencer” (2021) starred Kristen Stewart as the mentally fragile Diana and Stella Junette as Elizabeth, alternately upset and incomprehensible as her daughter-in-law unravels before her eyes.

And before The Crown, there was Stephen Frears’ “The Queen” (2006) set in the bewildering days when Britain erupts into grief and anger after the horrific death of Diana in a car accident, in 1997. Reticent and tradition-bound Elizabeth, played by Helen Mirren, she is shown struggling with her own anguish as she is repeatedly forced to bow to patriotic pressures and express herself in public.

The queen on stage

Later, Mirren will reprise her role on stage in Peter Morgan’s “The Audience” (2013), where for 60 years she played the Queen as she talks about politics and other matters with a series of prime ministers at their scheduled weekly meetings.

Prunella Skiles suddenly and brilliantly appeared as the queen in Alan Bennett’s one-act play A Attribution Question (1988), about Anthony Blunt, Elizabeth’s “photo surveyor”—essentially the curator of her art collection—who was later exposed as a Soviet spy.

Veteran actress Judy Kay appeared as a wise Elizabeth, giving scathing advice on marriage and fidelity to a disoriented Prince Charles, in the short-lived Broadway production of “Diana: The Music” (2021).

Video versions of the three plays were broadcast on television.

A stunt double dressed as Queen Elizabeth parachutes into the Olympic Stadium in London on July 27, 2012. As the world watches the 2012 Summer Olympics Opening Ceremony, he finds, to his delight, that the Queen has been playing along. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

The Queen in Comedy

Wouldn’t it be fun to imagine that a queen locked behind doors is actually full of corruption and spontaneity? In “The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!” (1988), Elizabeth (Janet Charles, whose uncanny resemblance to The Real King has kept coming in roles over the years) for some reason attends an Angels-Mariners baseball game at Dodger Stadium. She threw the first pitch, participated in The Wave and was saved from an assassination plot when character Leslie Nielsen, on a big break with royal protocol, wrestles her with his body.

Charles reprized her role as Elizabeth in other films, including “National Lampoon’s European Vacation” (1985), in which she meets Chevy Chase at a reception line in a dream sequence, and a satirical spy, “Austin Powers in Goldmember” (2002), in which her Knights character Title, played by Mike Myers.

On “Saturday Night Live” in 2010, Fred Armisen imagined the Queen as a cheerful, mouthy gangster from the East End. Using a Cockney accent, Elizabeth threatens and threatens Kate Middleton, who has been newly engaged to Prince William, the moment the Prince leaves the room. (Bill Hader played the Queen’s husband, Prince Philip, as a boxer in equal measure.)

Similarly, Jon Squibb embodied in the crowd at Wimbledon in Andy Samberg’s satirical film Seven Days in Hell (2015), giving the royal finger to the non-British competitor.

as a royal grandmother

The younger generation of the royal family has appeared in several television melodramas ripped from the headlines. Romance between Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, for example, has been the subject of three lifelong TV movies (so far). Actress Maggie Sullivan played the Queen in both of those.

In another Lifetime movie, “William & Catherine: A Royal Romance” (2011), Jane Alexander takes honors as Queen, adjusting to her grandson’s decision to marry commoners.

The Queen as a Literary Figure

One of the huge questions about the Queen was what her fictional life was like, beyond her known interests in things like dogs and horses. In his brilliant novel The Unfamiliar Reader, British writer Alan Bennett conjures up an alternate reality in which Elizabeth talks to a mobile library outside Buckingham Palace, changing her forever.

At first, I read easier books by authors like Ivy Compton-Burnett and Nancy Mitford. She quickly engages with Proust, discusses Jean Genet with the President of France and delves into the biographies of Sylvia Plath. She finds that reading gives her a better understanding of others and, ironically, allows her to lose herself in anonymity and isolation.

“She who lived a separate life now found it yearning,” Bennett writes. “Here in these pages and between these covers, she may not be recognized.”

the queen herself

It was the perfect expression of Elizabeth’s rare ability to be everywhere at once without giving up on herself, and the most subtle glimpse of her unpretentious sense of humor. As the world watched the opening ceremony of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, he found, to his delight, that the Queen was playing along.

A short film that helped end the party opens with James Bond (Daniel Craig in black-tie) at Buckingham Palace, dodging several royal corgis and entering the King’s office. She was at her desk, shimmering in pink. “Good evening, Mr. Bond,” she said.

The two then flew by helicopter through London and parachuted down to the Olympic Stadium – no surprise Elizabeth had a stunt double for this part – before the movie ended. Then the real Queen, in the same pink outfit, sat regal on her seat while the audience in the stadium banged their pleasing nod. You may have been touched or overjoyed. It was impossible to know.

Her face was completely unemotional.

Written by Sarah Leal. This article first appeared in the New York Times.

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