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When Bette Davis first played Queen Elizabeth I onscreen in Essex and Elizabeth (1939), she was enjoying her own reign in Hollywood -- not only professionally, after a decade of thrilling work that included Of Human Bondage (1934) and Jezebel (1938), but personally, as she juggled love affairs with William Wyler and Howard Hughes while still married to another man. By 1955, however, her star had tarnished considerably. The temporary triumph of All About Eve (1950) had given way to roles in a series of forgotten films and a stint on Broadway cut short by a serious jaw infection. It took her three years to recuperate, a convalescence extended by that familiar Hollywood actress's lament of not enough good roles for older women. (Additionally, she and new husband Gary Merrill had discovered their adopted daughter Margot was mentally retarded and would require special care for the rest of her life.) It was not a stretch to play a powerful, forceful woman stretched to the edge, but luckily Davis recounted in her autobiography The Lonely Life that returning to Elizabeth I in The Virgin Queen (1955) "was an exciting project to me and a subject I felt important to make a film about."
That subject -- the sparring love-hate relationship between the queen and Sir Walter Raleigh (played by Irish-born charmer Richard Todd) -- was appealing to Twentieth Century Fox executives too. They'd been looking for a way to groom Todd for bigger stardom, and had intended to title the movie after his character (before deciding, strangely, that Americans wouldn't know how to pronounce "Raleigh".) After triumphing in a sword fight, Raleigh acquires an audience with the queen to share his grand plans for English sea exploration. He meets not only the imperious ruler (Bette Davis) at court but the equally wily young coquette Beth Throgmorton (Joan Collins, in her first American movie role). "I'm not quite sure whether you please me or not," the perplexed queen snaps, after Raleigh pulls grandiose stunts like laying his fine cloak over a puddle for her to tread upon, but soon she makes up her mind. Trouble is, Throgmorton -- and Raleigh -- soon make up their minds, too.
For a character who so permeates the film, it's remarkable to reflect that Davis was only needed for eleven shooting days. (That zippy schedule pleased her too: she'd gone into the production committed to three weeks.) Now 47 years old, she did not need the aging makeup she'd worn to play Elizabeth I the first time around, but her commitment to the role included having her eyebrows and hairline shaved back to the crown of her head every day for period accuracy. The ruffed-and-bustled period costumes were suffocatingly hot to wear, but Davis developed a sturdy, stomping walk that hinted at swagger, decrepitude, and the weight of power.
That swaggering power was no act. Joan Collins got a decidedly chilly vibe from Davis on set and did her best to not aggravate the star, most importantly by refraining from chewing gum (a lifelong pet peeve of Davis's). It didn't work -- during one take, Davis got so impatient with how Collins was dawdling putting on a shoe that she kicked her. (But Davis later clarified that the malice directed at her younger co-star was rooted in method acting, not jealousy.) Still, her son Michael came to the set one day, and, after watching his mother direct a bellowing monologue at Todd, turned to his father and asked "Why is Mummy yelling at that man instead of you?" (Director Henry Koster (who'd proven his ability with CinemaScope directing The Robe (1953)) broke his arm during the shooting of The Virgin Queen, and joked that the cast on his arm was easier to handle than the cast of his movie.)
Davis's hair had not grown back by the time she was invited to present the Best Actor award to Marlon Brando at the 1954 Oscars®, and she had to wear a sparkly cap to hide her radical hairline.When the movie was finally released, the Los Angeles Examiner crowed "Like a magnificent war horse, breathing fire and brimstone, Miss Davis injects life and action into the tale, seeming to inspire everyone and everything about her. What a queen!" Unfortunately, The Virgin Queen was not a big box office hit, and Davis's following movie roles remained uninspired until her big comeback in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). Still, Davis remembered the character of Elizabeth I fondly: "Both times I played her, I had a whale of a time."
by Violet LeVoit
Bonus commentary. The Virgin Queen. [DVD]. 20th Century Fox, 2008.
Thomson, David. Bette Davis (Great Stars.) Faber & Faber, 2010.
"Bette Davis Estate Near $1 Million; 2 Daughters, Grandsons Left Out." Los Angeles Times, November 7, 1989
McNally, Peter. Bette Davis: The Performances That Made Her Great. McFarland, 2008.
Chandler, Charlotte. The Girl Who Walked Home Alone: Bette Davis: A Personal Biography.Simon & Schuster, 2006.
Davis, Bette. The Lonely Life: An Autobiography.G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1962.
Latham, Bethany. Elizabeth I in Film and Television: A Study of the Major Portrayals.McFarland, 2011.