Bright Lights Film Journal

Keeping It Royal: Oscar Loves British Monarchs Much More Than American Presidents

Vanessa Redgrave in Mary, Queen of Scots. Credit: Universal Pictures/Photofest

The moral of this particular dose of Oscar reality: You don’t have to be a royal to grab the Academy’s attention, but it sure helps if you’re pretending to be British royalty. All hail the kings and queens (and prime ministers)!

 * * *

Any Academy Awards buff worth his or her weight in office-pool cash knows the golden-trophy rule: The surest route to Oscar buzz is to keep it real. As I, Tonya actresses Margot Robbie and Allison Janney, Victoria and Abdul’s Dame Judi Dench, Darkest Hour’s Gary Oldman, and the stars of the ripped-from-yesterday’s headlines dramas The Post and All the Money in the World may reconfirm when the 2017 nominations are announced on January 23, realism gets you more Oscar love if your character was/is a real person.

And judging from its past voting habits, the Academy gives actors bonus points if they’re keeping it real as fierce British rulers. In nearly nine decades of Oscars, 18 acting nominations and five wins have gone to performers for playing UK royals. If Dench is a Best Actress contender for Victoria and Abdul at the 90th Academy Awards on March 4, it’ll be her third royal nod and her second as Queen Victoria.

But despite the Oscar’s status as an American institution, it gives Yankee royalty less love. U.S. presidents and first ladies have accounted for a mere 10 acting nods and just one win over the years – and three of those nominations went to actors from the UK! In fact, British prime ministers win more Academy elections than U.S. presidents: Two actors have taken Oscars for playing them (Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady and George Arliss as Benjamin Disraeli in Disraeli), and Gary Oldman is a current Best Actor front-runner for his Winston Churchill turn in Darkest Hour.

The moral of this particular dose of Oscar reality: You don’t have to be a royal to grab the Academy’s attention, but it sure helps if you’re pretending to be British royalty. All hail the kings and queens (and prime ministers)!

Here are 18 movies that underscore British royalty’s Oscar supremacy.

  1. The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)

Charles Laughton won the third Best Actor in a Leading Role Oscar for portraying the much-married titular monarch in the 1933 black-and-white talkie. Considering Henry’s penchant for getting hitched (half a dozen wives, two of whom he had beheaded), it’s no wonder Hollywood can relate (to the multiple-marriages part, not the executions).

Laughton was the first of three actors to nab nods for playing the serial groom. And just think: America’s greatest historical Henry – arguably Mr. Ford – has never helped an American make the Oscars cut, though 33rd President Harry S. Truman did make James Whitmore, star of the 1975 one-man biopic Give ’em Hell, Harry!, a Best Actor finalist.

  1. Henry V (1944)

Laurence Olivier earned a Best Actor in a Leading Role nomination and won the future British legend a special Oscar as actor, producer, and star of the 1944 production. Henry V is technically not a biopic of the 15th-century monarch but rather, an adaptation of a Shakespeare play with the ultimate Shakespearean star – Olivier, of course. That’s a lot of British royalty for one Oscar-adored film.

  1. Becket (1964)

Peter O’Toole nabbed the second of his eight competitive Best Actor nominations (with no wins) for playing Henry II opposite Richard Burton (also a frequent Oscar groomsman but never a groom) as his doomed BFF Thomas Becket in the 1964 historical drama. And as it turns out, O’Toole was just getting started with the House of Plantagenet monarch (see number 5).

  1. A Man for All Seasons (1966)

Welcome back, Harry! Robert Shaw picked up a 1966 Best Actor in a Supporting Role nomination for having his go at Henry VIII. This one focused on Henry’s beheaded royal underling Thomas More (played to noble but tragic perfection by Best Actor winner Paul Scofield) instead of his beheaded wives.

  1. The Lion in Winter (1968)

Peter O’Toole became the second actor to be nominated twice for playing the same role after reprising Henry II in the 1968 film. (The first was Going My Way winner and The Bells of St. Mary’s nominee Bing Crosby.) Naturally, he didn’t win, but Katharine Hepburn tied with Funny Girl’s screen newcomer Barbra Streisand, snagging her third of four Best Actress Oscars for playing disloyal royal – and Henry’s wife – Eleanor of Aquitaine.

  1. Anne of the Thousand Days (1969)

Henry VIII returned to the Oscars line-up, this time via Richard Burton’s 1969 Best Actor in a Leading Role-nominated portrayal. Meanwhile, Genevieve Bujold earned her one and only Oscar nomination, for Best Actress, playing Ann Boleyn, Queen Elizabeth I’s mum and Henry’s first wife to lose her head.

  1. Mary, Queen of Scots (1971)

Another year (1971), another Best Actress-nominated performance by a woman playing a beheaded British monarch. This time the honor went to Vanessa Redgrave for her turn as the titular character. Glenda Jackson played Elizabeth I, Mary’s cousin who signed off on her execution. Although Oscar passed on her Mary role, Jackson, who’d already won a Best Actress Oscar for Women in Love and would do so again for 1973’s A Touch of Class, went on to score a pair of Emmys the same year for her television take on Elizabeth I in the miniseries Elizabeth R. (Fun fact: Likely 2017 Best Actress nominees Margot Robbie and Lady Bird’s Saoirse Ronan will likely be in the running once again as, respectively, Elizabeth and Mary, in the 2018 retelling of the same tale (minus a comma in the title).

  1. Henry V (1989)

The 1970s, with its emphasis on gritty American realism, wasn’t particularly kind to British monarchs, but royalty made a spectacular comeback at the end of the ’80s. First up: the return of King Henry V. Director/actor Laurence Olivier’s Shakespearean heir Kenneth Branagh scored nominations for directing and performing in the 1989 production, but unlike Olivier, he went home without a golden boy.

  1. The Madness of King George (1994)

Nigel Hawthorne received a Best Actor in a Leading Role nomination for portraying the Revolutionary War-era monarch King George III, but the 1994 film is more notable for being the movie that finally made Helen Mirren an Oscar nominee. She earned the first of four nominations to date (this one for Best Actress in a Supporting Role) for her portrayal of George III’s wife Queen Charlotte.

  1. Mrs. Brown (1997)

A star was born – at age 63! Judi Dench began her run as a screen queen with the 1997 period piece. She also landed her first Best Actress in a Leading Role nomination for embodying Queen Victoria, the monarch who launched an entire age in the 19th century. There’s an excellent chance that wearing Victoria’s crown will once again lead to a nomination for Dench in January. She’s already received Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild award nominations for Mrs. Brown’s 20th anniversary semi-sequel Victoria and Abdul.

  1. Elizabeth (1998)

It’s hard to believe that Cate Blanchett was ever a never-nominated actress. This 1998 film, however, in which the Aussie played the most famous of all female monarchs, changed everything. It led to her first Oscar nod, for Best Actress in a Leading Role. And like Peter O’Toole as King Henry II 34 years earlier, she was just getting started (see lucky number 13).

  1. Shakespeare in Love (1998)

One year after her movie-star-making turn as Queen Victoria, Judi Dench won the naked little gold man, as Best Actress in a Supporting Role, for eight minutes of screen time. She played England’s aforementioned greatest female monarch as a golden girl the same year Blanchett (Dench’s future co-star in Notes on a Scandal, for which both were Oscar-nominated) introduced her younger version of the same queen. When some of us think of Liz, it’s not a face in historic paintings we see but Dench’s, scowling hard as she steps over that muddy puddle.

  1. The Queen (2006)

Helen Mirren finally won an Oscar, for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role, for capturing the look and essence of the current reigning monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, with eerie precision in the 2006 film. She is the only actor to earn a win or a nomination for playing a still-living British monarch. (P.S. The previous year, Mirren won an Emmy, a Golden Globe, and a SAG award for taking on Elizabeth I in an eponymous HBO miniseries.)

  1. Elizabeth The Golden Age (2007)

Repeating the three-feat of her father Henry VIII, Elizabeth I became an Oscar presence for a third time a decade ago, once again via Cate Blanchett. The Aussie thespian’s second Best Actress nomination made her the fifth of six actors to grab Oscar’s attention twice for playing the same character in different films. (The others are Bing Crosby, Peter O’Toole, Al Pacino, Paul Newman, and Sylvester Stallone.) Two of them, Blanchett and O’Toole, scored their double plays playing monarchs, none as presidents or first ladies.

  1. The King’s Speech (2010)

Colin Firth was crowned Best Actor and Helena Bonham Carter was nominated for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role for their respective roles as Elizabeth II’s dad and mum, King George V and his wife Queen Elizabeth (now better known as The Queen Mother) in the 2010 biopic. They still reign as the most recent actors to be Oscar-nominated for playing British monarchs.

And now, Oscar’s presidential power players, played by British acting royalty …

  1. Nixon (1995)

Welsh actor Anthony Hopkins earned his third Best Actor in a Leading Role nomination (and second after winning for Silence of the Lambs) by perfecting an American accent and taking on the 37th U.S. President Richard Nixon in 1995. (Joan Allen received her first Oscar invitation, as a Best Actress in a Supporting Role nominee, for playing Nixon’s wife, Pat.) It didn’t even matter that Hopkins, who played Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitane’s son Richard I (aka Richard the Lionheart) in The Lion in Winter, looked absolutely nothing like Nixon. He’s Anthony Hopkins, a knight and a king among British thespians.

  1. Amistad (1997)

Two years later, Hopkins took a stab at an earlier U.S. president, John Quincy Adams, and picked up a Best Actor in a Supporting Role nomination for his effort.

  1. Lincoln (2013)

Two-time Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis became a three-time champ and the first actor to win an Oscar for portraying a U.S. president, in the 2013 film about the greatest one of them all. Clearly, if you’re going to try to impress the Academy by playing the part of an American president, it pays off to talk like an American and be eligible for knighthood. To Sirs, with love.