The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

I feel like what I’m looking for in any Bette Davis movie is for the actor to let loose & open fire on her costars. I’m not sure if this is retroactively a result of her late career comeback in the famously combative (onscreen & off) What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? or if it’s just a natural extension of a deliberately non-demure persona she carried throughout her career. I didn’t think to expect that loose cannon antagonism in the 1939 Technicolor costume drama The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, but Davis’s lead performance as Queen Elizabeth I delivered it by the truckload. Although it has the pedigree of an expensive Major Studio period piece, the film is essentially just Bette Davis wearing beautiful costumes, gobbling snacks, and hurling vicious insults for two solid hours. In other words, it’s fabulous.

Many actors have interpreted Elizabeth I onscreen over the decades, ranging as wide as Cate Blanchett & Quentin Crisp, but Bette Davis’s depiction feels entirely singular in its vicious, feral energy. Like with many pictures over her career, it’s rumored that she was not at all happy with her coworkers or the demands of the production. She was especially miffed that Elizabeth’s remarkably high hairline required her to shave her head, which put her in a persistently ornery mood. This made the film a chore to shoot, especially since Davis would act out in juvenile ways like slapping the piss out of her romantic co-lead, Errol Flynn, with all of her might instead of just making sure the scripted hit looked good for the camera. That anger translated well to the role, though, making Davis’s Elizabeth come across as a kind of furious demon in beautiful costumes. She’s visibly uncomfortable, constantly reaching for grapes or wine or invisible stress balls to calm her nerves as she inhales between each insult. The effect on the film is glorious, though, transporting Davis’s slack, unceremonious, Baby Jane Hudson-mode energy into a stuffy Studio Era drama where it doesn’t belong.

A 16th Century tale of real life war & romance endowed with the same Major Studio bloat of the 1960s Camelot musical, there isn’t much to The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex in a formal sense. As Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, Errol Flynn is propped up as a kind of love/hate romantic sparring partner meant to periodically threaten Davis’s power as the Queen of England. She steamrolls him with ease. Essex & Elizabeth both can’t get enough of each other in their lustful bouts of loneliness and can’t possibly share the same space & time, due to their individual thirsts for power & the throne. This sometimes leads to the Queen sending Essex off to war in the Irish Moors (which look an awful lot like a studio lot) without proper supplies to succeed, just to be temporarily rid of him. It also leads to literal, direct rebellion within the palace where the two square off head to head with their respective guards. Flynn’s Essex is never given a chance to really stand up to the Queen, however. Outside occasionally riding a horse, the athletic leading man isn’t even afforded a chance to do any of his signature swashbuckling. Elizabeth’s other foils, a dangerously horny Olivia de Havilland and a foppish knight played by a baby faced Vincent Price, don’t fare much better. As much as this film’s dialogue frets over Elizabeth’s duties as a Queen being hindered by her desires as a woman, there’s no question who’s in charge and who’s going to make it out on top. I’m not saying that because of the inevitability if its Wikipedia-verifiable history lesson, either. Davis’s fierceness demands her victory, with obligatory demise for each of her opponents, whether or not she wants to fuck them.

I’d be a liar if I said I cared at all about the plot of this film. Formally, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex is remarkable less for its narrative than it is for its gorgeous production & costume design. One Orry-Kelly-designed dress in particular, with shimmering green mermaid scales, a pale pink Elizabethan collar (naturally), and a neon green feathered hand fan had me gasping for air. Those luxurious design flourishes only serve to contrast Elizabeth’s demonic furor, however, as she complains about her old age, smashes mirrors, claws at a pile of snacks, and fires off long strands of insults: “lying villain,” “wicked devil,” “slimy toad,” “stupid cattle,” “snakes & rats,” etc. If, like me, your favorite Bette Davis performances find the actor in vicious attack mode, the formal mediocrity of this Studio Era period piece won’t matter to you one bit. The film is downright delicious for Davis’s inhuman bursts of Technicolor furor, especially considering the restrained pomp & propriety of the setting that contrasts it.

-Brandon Ledet

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