I know I should say Garbo. Every move she makes in 1933’s “Queen Christina” is both imperious and somehow elegantly sexual. As the queen of Sweden, she’s the template for all actresses who even daydream about getting to wear a movie crown: unassailably cool, steely and soft all at once.
And she’s about the only one to ever kiss another woman while doing so. This was in that no-rules land between the 1930 introduction of the Hays Code and the 1934 implementation of the fun-killing certificates of approval that all movies afterward were forced to submit to. So she kissed that girl just in time.
So yes, Garbo. She was the greatest. But I have other favorites, including Cate Blanchett, who stars in the new film “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” as the legendary Virgin Queen. “E2” is kind of a drag. It takes everything about the first, awesome, 1998 “Elizabeth” that also starred Blanchett — her hard as stone will, her determination not to be played — and lame-ifies it.
There she is swooning over Clive Owen (forgivable); there she is looking windswept while asking God to smite that Spanish Armada, a wish the Almighty decides to grant (forgivable only if you’re one of the last people on Earth who believes that royalty gets to a special audience with the Creator of the Universe). So skip it. Go rent the first one instead.
Like a virgin
Everyone loves that Virgin Queen. Bette Davis played her twice, in both 1955’s “The Virgin Queen” and in 1939’s “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex.” It’s the latter (yet earlier picture) that gives Davis her best queen moments: she’s like a bomb about to go off, so much so that you think Errol Flynn might run off in the other direction and just go be Robin Hood somewhere. But he sticks around and they make an exceptionally handsome screen couple. It’s on TCM all the time, too, so if you never get around to seeing it, then it’s because you didn’t bother to lift all the fingers necessary to operate your TV remote.
A side note: My very favorite screen incarnation of Queen Elizabeth I came in the form of Quentin Crisp, in something only the most generous witness could call drag, in 1992’s “Orlando.” It’s a performance of true divine right and fugliness, one that made my viewing companion at the time turn to me and stage whisper, “Who is that?”
“Quentin Crisp,” I said. “Isn’t—
While on the subject of the bizarrely beautiful “Orlando,” it’s important to mention Tilda Swinton, the star of that film and the co-star of Derek Jarman’s 1991 ACT-UP-demonstration-as-historical-drama, “Edward II.” She played Queen Isabella, an eccentrically dressed woman out to dispense with her thoroughly unpleasant and even more thoroughly gay husband, King Edward II.
Watch as she practices her crossbow moves on a dead deer carcass while wearing an evening gown, elbow-length gloves and chunky black Clark Kent glasses. It can be assumed that the late Jarman was indulging in artistic license, even before the part where Annie Lennox pops by the castle to sing a Cole Porter song.
The two most lauded modern queens, GILF pin-up Helen Mirren as a sympathetically swaddled in lumpy tweed Elizabeth II in 2006’s “The Queen” and James Bond fixture Judi Dench in 1999’s “Shakespeare In Love,” already have their Oscars. They don’t really need much more praise here. Mirren did for a cold, distant woman what no PR campaign ever could, by humanizing her at her least loveable historical moment.
And Dench. Think about it. Do you remember a single thing Gwyneth Paltrow said in that movie? No, you don’t. You remember Dench stomping through a puddle muttering, “Too late, too late, too late.” It’s like she got an Academy Award for a well-timed eye-roll and one sentence, and that’s kind of amazing.
Also kind of amazing (but critic- and audience-splitting) is Kirsten Dunst as the laconic Marie Antoinette in Sofia Coppola’s dreamy 2006 movie of the same name. I contend that if you were bored watching this monument to teenage torpor then you saw a different film than the one I loved. Coppola knew how to make her leading lady both glassy-eyed and mournful, petulant and fearful, self-indulgent and trapped in a never-ending orgy of cakes, shoes and naps. Dunst, for her part, was bold enough to set aside whatever actorly ego resists that sort of thing to let herself be made into a 30-foot-tall cipher.
And the crown goes to…
Silent film presence Lucille La Verne isn’t a name most people remember today, but she was the voice of the most fearsome queen in a movie that almost everyone has seen, 1937’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” In fact, if you were going to pass out awards for this sort of thing, she’d win the one for the sheer staggering number of small children she made cry for the first time in a movie theater. And those small children grew up to bring their own small children to see the movie, and so on and so on, fresh traumas all around. This is how parents haze their toddlers.
A different sort of hazing can be had at the hands of the late great Edith Massey in John Waters’ 1977 “Desperate Living.” The loveable and toothless Massey played Queen Carlotta, ruler of an insane cardboard kingdom called Mortville, built on a garbage dump.
Massey leaves an indelible mark on the screen as she awkwardly bellows lines like, “Every word I utter shall be considered a royal proclamation!” And, after she declares Backwards Day in the land, she yells, “Look at those dummies! Hey, moron! You got your clothes on backwards! Hi, stupid! Hi, ugly!”
Of all the women listed here, it’s Massey who delivers the great quotes to share around the office. She also may be the first person in film history to use the expression “Hollywood loaf” to refer to male genitalia. In other words, if there were going to be a queen of the queens, Massey would take the prize. By force, if necessary. Sorry, Garbo.
Dave White is the film critic for Movies.com and the author of “Exile in Guyville.” Find him at www.imdavewhite.com.