March 5th, 2012

Harriet Vane

Actresses as Queens & Duchesses: portraits, videos (Dietrich, Mirren, Smith, Terry)

Dear friends,

I've been worrying the question when actresses as a group first found a modicum of respectability, were not automatically seen as sluts, whores, unscrupulous vagrants. I've discovered the turn began in the middle of the 19th century with with the publication of memoirs, a culmination of women of the stage leading lives strongly independent, and based on hard-work and skills.  Memoirs, books on acting, serious acting itself, and finally portraiture too helped. Photos which left the viewer haunted with luminosity matter.

Marlene Dietrich, photographed in 1947 by A. L. White

Still a lot remained ambiguous.  I just read yesterday an essay by Martin Postle, ""Painted women:" Reynolds and the Cult of the Courtesan," in Notorious Muse: The Actress in British Art and Culture, 1776-1812 ed Robyn Asleson where Postle demonstrated and expatiated on how Reynolds himself frequented brothels and paid the women there to be his models, some for sexy transgressive stuff (breast feeding a cupid for example). Reynolds painted Kitty Fisher, a prostitute, several times, once with quietly coded gestures imitating a woman's vagina. In short the painter wanted to sell and he knew what sold - and also what he liked. I'd say it was a sign of these women's growing respectability, but this was a bumpy journey with much retrograde going on -- until today Fran. You can find seemingly respectable actresses' images on line showing them in very sexy postures. Only a few totally refuse and  Emma Thompson (until she grew older) is not one of these. She was naked a lot in Carrington. OTOH, as to beauty and value, one of Reynold's finest paintings is of Nelly O'Brien (also a prostitute).  Reynolds also humanized and dignified prostitutes. Laura Engel shows how one set of pictures (Sarah Siddons) solidified her reputation and another (of Mary Robinson) seemed to have no or a bad effect on hers. Engel argues that not just memoirs, and pictures, but the roles the actresses took on were important, especially when she played a queen.

All this to introduce a series of YouTubes featuring Helen Mirren. Here are two videos of her interviewed by (the fool) Michael Parkington. As all will instantly remember Mirren has now played queens a number of times, from Morgana in Excalibur (1981) to Elizabeth I in a long two part movie where Leicester and then Essex fall enthralled to her; to Elizabeth II as The Queen whose life is troubled by her daughter-in-law, Diana Spencer. 

In these two videos, she is first insulted by Michael Parkington as "sluttishly erotic"  and then more than 25 years later he interviews her again, and we see them revert to the topic, more or less remember what happened and hold fast to their original stances.  We see he has not changed his point of view one jot, only grown more respectful of Mirren because of her long career on the stage as a serious actress, and now new re-incarnations on TV as Jane Tennison (Prime Suspect) as well as impersonating Elizabeth II.

I had a blog (now lost to a virus) where I linked into a joking kind of interview with Maggie Smith where Smith said (very droll but also had a sting) she never got to play queens. Helen got queens, Judi got queens, even what's-her-name Cate (oh you know who I mean) plays queens. But I get only duchesses. And then she made some remark about not having "the walk." Perhaps in her mind this had more stretch and application than I thought. She does often play duchesses.

But she has done one queen:  Maggie Smith here is Lady Macbeth -- and directly in the tradition and way of Sarah Siddons.

Bette Davis did a remarkable Queen Elizabeth in Elizabeth and Essex and I think she was a sort of queen displaced in All About Eve. An aggressive, biting utterly different type.

I love Ellen Terry crowning herself  Lady Macbeth, yet another way.

John Singer Sergeant's painting

Curious how all these were facilitated by men though:  White, Reynolds, Parkington, Des McAnuff, Sergeant