My current Top 5

My current Top 5

7/10/2010

Best Actress 1971: Vanessa Redgrave in "Mary, Queen of Scots"

Mary, the ill-fated Queen of Scots and Alexandra, the ill-fated Empress of Russia, have two distinctive things in common (besides their royal status) – a tragic death and the fact that they were both turned into Oscar-nominated characters which resulted in the meeting of these two women who lived in different times and places at the Academy Awards 1971. While Alexandra died from a firing squad together with her whole family, Mary died the way most royals did back then – beheaded. Her execution was the final chapter in her life-long fight against Queen Elizabeth I for the throne of England.

While Empress Alexandra seems to be rather a footnote in (movie) history, the character of Mary Stuart is almost as irresistible for actresses like that of her nemesis Queen Elizabeth I. It’s not difficult to see why since Mary offers basically all the same possibilities of great movie acting as Queen Elizabeth I – royalty, suffering, dominance and she also adds an underdog status, an overcoming of obstacles that ends with tragedy and the eternal mystery if her character is good or bad.

But even though Empress Alexandra might not be as interesting to actresses, she at least got the last laugh since she had been portrayed in a grand, historical epos – Mary Stuart’s 1971 vehicle, Mary, Queen of Scots, unfortunately was a royal soap opera that focused on a two-hour long cat fight between two women who, as history tells us, never even met.

Glenda Jackson is Joan Collins is Alexis Carrington is Queen Elizabeth I.
Vanessa Redgrave is Linda Evans is Krystle Carrington is Mary, Queen of Scots.

Filmed in sets that couldn’t look more fake in a high-school production, Mary, Queen of Scots is certainly not destined for greatness. And like basically all productions around this topic, it also put in not one, but two meetings between the Queens since the audience can’t be expected of watching two actresses scheme and fight against each other without ever sharing the screen.

So, the movie Mary, Queen of Scots itself leaves much to desire but what about its leading ladies? Here is where Mary Stuart got the last laugh as she was portrayed by the (by now) legendary British actress Vanessa Redgrave who right from the start of her career showed talent and poise in every performance. And it was only a matter of time before she, like almost every actor or actress from the island, took on a royal part from British history. And there are surely lots of part that make sure that Helen Mirren, Judi Dench, Peter O’Toole and all the others will always have a job.

But even though these royal parts are always juicy and demanding, even the greatest actors and actresses can’t rise too high if the material is keeping them down as Cate Blanchett showed in her second outing as Queen Elizabeth I. And unfortunately for Vanessa Redgrave, the script never enabled her to really rise to the occasion – but also her own performance has various problems that make it hard to completely admire it.

She began her performance with a rather strong emphasis on the hysterical side of Mary who lives in France and constantly fears for her husband’s life. When he eventually dies, her mother-in-law uses the opportunity to send her away and Mary returns to Scotland. When she isn’t allowed to cross England on her way, this already begins the tension between her and Elizabeth I.

The first parts of the story have an equal focus on Elizabeth I and Mary and shows their dislike for each other and how they plan their next steps. As the movie goes on, Mary eventually becomes the clear center of attention and her story and fate is put in the foreground.

As mentioned before, both Glenda Jackson and Vanessa Redgrave suffer from the rather bad writing they are given but they both possess such strong personalities and dedication to their craft that the results are still satisfying. While Glenda Jackson, after having appeared on television in Elizabeth R, can obviously do Elizabeth I in her sleep and still create a fascinating character, Vanessa Redgrave doesn’t achieve quite the same level. Her work sometimes feels too rushed for its own good – she obviously knows how to handle the dialogue, how to appear royal but also human, how to display all the sufferings and problems of a Queen but also a woman and how to create the right amount of tension in her scenes with Glenda Jackson but Mary never really feels complete. Vanessa Redgrave runs all the right emotions and expresses the right amount of girlish foolishness and womanly intelligence but the results somehow lacks a certain ‘Je-ne-sais-quoi’ to become really outstanding. For one, the character of Mary makes it hard for Vanessa Redgrave to really shine. While she is given a lot of opportunities to show her talent for subtle and over-the-top acting in situations that go from arriving in Scotland like an inexperienced school girl, being threatened in her own palace, drugging her husband and then cheating on him in the same room and barricading herself in a tower, neither the writing nor Vanessa Regrave’s performance ever make her as captivating and intriguing as Glenda Jackson does Elizabeth I. The main reason for this seems to be that while Vanessa Redgrave acts beautifully from the outside, there is something missing on the inside. Instead of crafting a character that believably makes history, she lets history and the script dictate her what to do. It never feels that Mary is really acting out of her own ideas and believes but rather that Vanessa Redgrave is following the script with a competent, but uninspired performance. This also shows in the fact that she never really explores Mary’s motives for her actions but simply presents them as historical facts.

But there is still a lot to admire in her work. Just like Janet Suzman, royal arrogance and dominance come very easily to Vanessa Redgrave. Her whole body language, her high chin and stubbornness perfectly portray her royal descent and her own opinion of herself.

Vanessa Redgrave also is able to fill her part with a certain amount of comedy. The way she says ‘Working, always working’ to her advisor when she enters his room just moments after his lover (who will become Mary’s husband) left the room, is a wonderful example of brilliant comedic line delivery as she is able to make the sentence both funny and innocent – funny for the audience and innocent as Mary is oblivious to what just had happened in the room.

Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson, even though they only share the screen twice, work very well together as each of them does their best to create a woman as different from the other one as possible. While Glenda’s Elizabeth I is cool, intelligent, a great strategist who watches like an eagle over her kingdom and over her enemies, Mary is rather non-caring, sometimes too impulsive, naïve and inexperienced, a little like a sparrow, a woman who is used to a better life than the one she is leading in Scotland – the look on her face when she sees her now home tells everything. Mary doesn’t really possess anything that would qualify her for a Queen except her blood – but this blood is all she needs to be self-assured in her position. She displays a certain arrogance that isn’t really arrogance but an inbred attitude of not-caring. At the same time, she lacks the ability to mistrust those who are closest to her and so Vanessa Redgrave can show the surprise in Mary every time things turn against her. Unfortunately, Vanessa’s performance doesn’t really capture all the naivety and inexperience of Mary as she always demonstrates a huge amount of intelligence in her performance. Vanessa Redgrave is an actress who almost always creates characters who seem to be observing everything around them, who are always aware of what is happening and like to think one step ahead. This isn’t really working for her in Mary, Queen of Scots.

In her scenes with Glenda Jackson, Vanessa Redgrave reaches the highpoints of her performance. In their first meeting, she finds exactly the right amount of fake friendliness that quickly turns into hate and anger while in their second meeting, she unforgettably shows how Mary has decided for herself to find superiority in acceptance of her own fate. By accepting her own death, Mary is free of Elizabeth – nothing she can do or threaten her with has any effect on Mary anymore. Vanessa Redgrave gives a lot of dignity to Mary as she walks her final walk and movingly portrays a woman who is willing to die for her cause and her religion.

Vanessa Redgrave elegantly and intelligently builds the arc of her character and dominates her part of the storyline with ease and passion. She works well with what she is given and even adds a little more with a thought through and entertaining performance but the story of Mary, Queen of Scots never becomes as thrilling, fascinating and tragic as it could have been. In the end, Vanessa Redgrave gets

8 comments:

Tom said...

Nice review. I've been wanting to see this; it was never available on VHS tape.

Interesting that you thought the sets looked fake.

Fritz said...

Thanks! I think that the sets look faked because they looked so much like a stage set where you are always aware that there is some furniture on one side and the camera team on the other.

Sage Slowdive said...

I agree about the sets...

Glenda was so good here, I'm surprised Redgrave was able to pull a nomination off.

Fritz said...

I think that Glenda got the nomination for the right performance that year. And since she couldn't get nominated for both, Vanessa was able to slip in. And, of course, Vanessa was certainly very popular with the Academy back then (this was her third nomination in 6 years).

Sage Slowdive said...

Yes, if only Elizabeth R. had been made in another year (and hadn't been a miniseries), Glenda surely would have been nominated, justly, for that.

Fritz said...

In some ways I think that, even though Glenda could never win an Oscar for Elizabeth R, it has helped her a great deal with her actual two Oscar wins. It aired during the voting period for her first Oscar and her buzz for that performance was surely kept alive with her performance in Mary, Queen of Scots and her reputation was so high for the first half of the 70s because of it that she could even win a surprise second Oscar.

dinasztie said...

Interesting. Three 3,5 stars so far. Wow, I guess she's going to be third or fourth.

joe burns said...

Great review! Glenda must have been a really busy woman back then since she made so many films back then!