Any Oscar season that has three queens potentially competing in the acting categories has a chance to become a battle royal, indeed. The end of the year brings tidings of two British period pieces rich with zesty female performances, one from the early 18th century during Queen Anne’s reign and the other the mid-16th century when Elizabeth I got into it with her Scottish cousin, Mary.
“The Favourite,” which opens on Nov. 23, has already reaped rewards at the Venice film festival, where it had its world premiere. Olivia Colman was crowned best actress for her portrait of portly and frail monarch Anne while her movie was bestowed with a Special Jury Prize. Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’ previous English-language efforts, “The Lobster” and “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” are distinctly eccentric and disturbingly dark. But even critics like Variety’s Owen Gleiberman, who were put off his off-kilter perspective embraced “The Favourite,” while proclaiming, “It’s a perfectly cut diamond of a movie – a finely executed, coldly entertaining entry in the genre of savage misanthropic baroque costume drama.”
As for “Mary, Queen of Scots,” there will be no early festival reveals until it arrives in theaters on Dec. 7. Unlike Queen Anne, this tale of rival female monarchs has been filmed at least six previous times, including the 1923 silent movie, “The Loves of Mary, Queen of Scots,” 1936’s “Mary of Scotland” directed by John Ford and starring Katharine Hepburn as Mary and 2007’s “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” with Cate Blanchett reprising her 1998 title role. While the trailer suggests that this is a much more traditional rendering, it does distinguish itself in at least two ways. Its 20-something leading ladies, Saoirse Ronan as Mary and Margot Robbie as Elizabeth, are younger than is the norm. And the director is a female making her big-screen debut: Josie Rourke, the first woman to be named artistic director of London’s distinguished Donmar Warehouse Theater in London.
To get in the mood, here are 12 times that Oscar decided to bow before actresses by allowing them to compete for the crown of either Best Supporting Actress or Best Actress. Our photo gallery above includes “Shakespeare in Love,” “The Queen,” “The King’s Speech” and more.
NORMA SHEARER (MARIE ANTOINETTE, 1938)
This lavish soap opera details the ups and downs and extravagant lifestyle of the queen of France and her husband, Louis XVI. Shearer’s materialistic monarch shines in two scenes, when she learns on her wedding night that she won’t be making whoopee any time soon with her royal husband and when she loses her head, quite literally. Shearer earned her sixth and final Best Actress nomination (she won for 1930’s “The Divorcee”), but lost to Bette Davis as a headstrong Southern belle in “Jezebel.”
KATHARINE HEPBURN (THE LION IN WINTER, 1968)
Katharine Hepburn’s Eleanor of Aquitaine, who is let out of prison for the holidays, discusses with husband King Henry II (Peter O’Toole) which of their sons should inherit his throne. Hepburn and O’Toole are fine, flinty foils as they get entangled in palace intrigue and family-related sordidness. The great Kate would win her third of four Oscars and make history when the results showed that she and Barbra Streisand, nominated for “Funny Girl,” had tied — the only actresses to do so in Oscar history.
GENEVIEVE BUJOLD (ANNE OF THE THOUSAND DAYS, 1969)
The six wives of Henry VII, here played with lusty abandon by Richard Burton, have served actresses well on the big screen – much better than the poor spouses themselves. Genevieve Bujold, a French Canadian actress, won the juicy role Anne Bolyen, the monarch’s second wife after Catherine of Aragon who would lose her head so that the king could move on to No. 3. Bujold’s Anne gives as good as she gets as she tells the ruler off, “You make love as you eat – with a good deal of noise and no subtlety.” One of her so-called crimes was not giving birth to a male heir. Instead, she had a daughter who would grow up to be Elizabeth I. Bujold’s Best Actress nom was one of 10 nominations for this production.
VANESSA REDGRAVE (MARY, QUEEN OF SCOTS, 1971)
In this version of the story, Vanessa Redgrave is the Catholic ruler who returns to Scotland after the death of her husband, Francis II of France. Her close presence unnerves her cousin, Elizabeth I (Glenda Jackson), a Protestant who plots to keep Mary busy with various suitors. She weds and gives birth to a son, James. That causes Elizabeth to lock Mary away and eventually to execute her. Roger Ebert applauded the female stars: “Vanessa Redgrave is a tall, straight-backed, finely spirited Mary, and Glenda Jackson makes a perfectly shrewish, wise Elizabeth.” Redgrave might have lost the throne but she would claim the lone acting nomination, her third of six with one win (supporting for 1977’s “Julia”).
JANET SUZMAN (NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDRA, 1971)
Alexandria (Janet Suzman) is a Czarina wed to Czar Nicholas II (Michael Jayston), but also a German princess during a time of war and worker unrest in Russian. After her son is found to have hemophilia, she reaches out to Rasputin (Tom Baker), a Serbian peasant who claims he is a holy man, to cure him. As World War I begins, Alexandra is left in charge as her husband heads to the front, a job she sorely mishandles. Eventually, they both pay with their lives as Russia falls to the Bolsheviks, forever ending imperial rule. Suzman collected the only acting Oscar nomination among the film’s five, including Best Picture.
HELEN MIRREN (THE MADNESS OF KING GEORGE, 1994)
England’s King George III (Nigel Hawthorne) has been an engaged and robust ruler for nearly three decades and happily married to his loyal wife, Queen Charlotte (Helen Mirren) who has borne him 15 children, But in 1788, he begins to lose control of his mental faculties and acts erratic in public,. A sense of humor courses through this account of how the king, often blamed for losing the American colonies, is threatened by those who want to overthrow him. But the ever-loyal queen and an unconventional doctor fight to protect the throne and the man who sits upon it. Mirren’s supporting role was her first of four tickets into the Oscar race.
JUDI DENCH (MRS. BROWN, 1996)
Judi Dench was primarily a stage and TV actress, which is how she came to have her first lead role in a film at age 67. Her bereaved Queen Victoria finds comfort by befriending a Scottish servant of her late husband Albert, John Brown (Billy Connolly). Their intimacy and the influence that Brown has over the ruler upsets others in her court. When Brown encourages her to return to public life, they have a falling out but eventually reunite when he grows ill. Of course, Dame Judi, both steely and sentimental, would achieve her first of seven Oscar nominations for a role that she would later repeat in last year’s similar “Victoria & Abdul,” with an even more unusual late-life soulmate in the form of an Indian Muslim clerk.
JUDI DENCH (SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, 1998)
Consider Dench’s supporting Oscar win — one of 13 nominations and seven trophies, including Best Picture — as a makeup trophy for not getting the gold man for “Mrs. Brown.” Her appearances as Elizabeth I run between six and eight minutes of screen time (depending on the source). But her strongest scene is when she reams out Simon Callow’s Edmund Tilney, who is in charge of maintaining drama standards, when he invokes her name as he accuses Shakespeare’s troupe of indecency for allowing a forbidden woman (Gwyneth Paltrow) onstage disguised as a man. But her best line, however, is still a timely one: “I know something of a woman in a man’s profession. Yes, by God, I do know about that.”
CATE BLANCHETT (ELIZABETH, 1998)
This queen was a hot film subject as the 21st century approached. Aussie actress Cate Blanchett earned her first of seven nominations as the self-declared “Virgin Queen,” who rejects several suitors before secretly getting hot and heavy with an unsuitable lover (Joseph Fiennes). Entangled in various plots against her as well as the threat of war, she learns to ruthlessly dispatch her foes while eschewing marriage, declaring, “I am married to England.” The costume drama would receive a total of six nominations and one win for makeup. She would eventually go on to play a different royal, Galadriel, ruler for the Elves of Middle-earth in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy as well as two “Hobbit” films.
HELEN MIRREN (THE QUEEN, 2006)
“Nowadays, people want glamour and tears, the grand performance. I’ve never been good at that,” so says Queen Elizabeth II. Helen Mirren went eagerly went dowdy while capturing England’s current ruler at a time of grief and turmoil following the tragic car accident that claimed the life of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997. She and Prince Philip initially decide to keep her funeral a private affair, not an official royal one. But Prime Minister Tony Blair and Diana’s ex-husband, Prince Charles, push Her Majesty to acknowledge the public’s desire to collectively share their sense of loss. She finally sees that she owes it to her subjects to go to London to review the outpouring of floral tributes to “The People’s Princess” and to adapt a new Britain. Mirren not only won an Oscar for her performance – one of six nods for the film, she was invited to dinner at Buckingham Palace, an offer she had to turn down.
CATE BLANCHETT (ELIZABETH: THE GOLDEN AGE, 2007)
Cate Blanchett received her fourth of seven Oscar nominations and became the sixth actor to compete for performing the same role twice. Here she is more of a warrior ruler, under attack by Spain and threatened by her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots (Samantha Morton) who incites Jesuits to attempt an assassination attempt on Elizabeth. Meanwhile, the queen considers marrying the English explorer Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen) but he betrays her. Once more, the Virgin Queen puts her country first. Blanchett managed to pull off the feat of also being recognized in the supporting category as one of several actors portraying singer Bob Dylan through the ages in “I’m Not There” in the same year.
HELENA BONHAM CARTER (THE KING’S SPEECH, 2010)
Previously nominated for Best Actress for her work in 1997’s “The Wings of a Dove,” Helena Bonham Carter would receive her second Oscar run for her supporting role in this historical drama as Queen Elizabeth, mother of Elizabeth II, who stands by her man, the future King George VI, as he copes with his stuttering problem when speaking in public with the help of a speech specialist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). Bonham Carter, known for her share of kooky characters in several Tim Burton outings, plays a rather down-to-earth royal who has no problem with having tea in Logue’s homey dining room. In fact, the same year, the actress would be the loony big-headed Queen of Hearts, basing her on the queen of mean, Leona Helmsley, in Burton’s live-action blockbuster “Alice in Wonderland.”