Royal Pains

For a republic, the United States of America suffers from a remarkable nostalgia for monarchy
Helen Mirren nails the second Elizabeth of England in The Queen
For a republic, the United States of America suffers from a remarkable nostalgia for monarchy. Burger King controls more territory than Juan Carlos, while muffler, mattress, and taco kings seek sovereignty over local markets. Popular musicians pass themselves off as nobility — Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Prince, Nat King Cole, et al. Elvis Presley is known not as the Citizen, but the King. And in the 1920s, when movie exhibitors desired to entice middle-class audiences to sample their products, they offered royal treatment, in gaudy new extravagances called “movie palaces.” San Antonio’s Majestic Theater is a relic of an age when moviegoing simulated majesty, but the South Side’s Mayan Palace and the city’s three Regal theaters (Fiesta, Live Oak, Northwoods) retain at least the name of royalty.

It has nothing to do with rainfall in central Mexico, but a swarm of colorful monarchs is floating into local theaters this season. Though neither All the King’s Men nor The Last King of Scotland features anyone of noble blood, both films focus on flawed men who would be kingly. The second adaptation of Robert Penn Warren’s 1946 novel, a fictional rendition of the brief, frenetic reign of Huey Long, Steven Zaillian’s film is the portrait of a populist turned demagogue, a politician (Sean Penn) who becomes trapped by the trappings of power he once scorned. Willie Stark’s rise from humble origins to the lordship of Louisiana follows the formula for ancient tragedies, those sad stories of the death of kings.

Stark’s flamboyant career and the assassination that ends his outlandish ambition are witnessed by Jack Burden (Jude Law), a statehouse courtier who, like the viewer, is enthralled and appalled by the spectacle of excess and comeuppance. In The Last King of Scotland, Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy) plays Jack Burden to Idi Amin’s (Forest Whitaker) Willie Stark. A newly minted physician who journeys to Uganda in quest of adventure, Garrigan soon finds himself adopted as mascot and advisor by a psychotic despot who fancies himself a Scot at heart. Though the young foreigner is flattered by the ruler’s favor, he is also humiliated, and threatened, by the Ugandan strongman. “You are a nobody,” Amin reminds Garrigan, and it is the fact that nobodies are forever fascinated by those who pretend to be somebody that accounts for the persistence of monarchy. The last king of Scotland has not yet been born.

Long lives the Queen in Britain, and Elizabeth II, current, aging occupant of the throne, is the subject of Helen Mirren’s uncanny impersonation. Director Stephen Frears begins The Queen with an epigraph from Shakespeare’s Henry IV: “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” Yet it begins with jitters by the leader of Commons, before focusing on Elizabeth’s anxieties following the death of Diana. Newly elected, by a landslide, as prime minister, Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) and his wife Cherie (Helen McCrory) arrive at Buckingham Palace for a formal audience with the Queen. The ornate ritual strikes the nervous young couple as an archaic absurdity, but by the end of The Queen it is Blair who ends up rescuing the Windsors from rampant republicanism. Dubbing Diana “the people’s princess,” he recognizes that the monarchy is endangered by the royals’ apparent disdain toward her. “Will someone please save these people from themselves,” says Blair, exasperated over Elizabeth’s insistence on treating Diana’s death as a private matter. Ultimately, he manages to cajole the queen into publicly memorializing her son’s former wife and thereby stanching the nation’s disaffection with its sovereign. “At the end of the day,” notes Cherie Blair, “all Labour prime ministers go gaga over the Queen.” So do movie audiences.

Gaga is an apt description of Marie Antoinette for most of Sofia Coppola’s film about her. An Austrian teenager who arrives at Versailles for a dynastic union with the timorous grandson of Louis XV, she is a giddy contrast to the dour Comtesse de Noailles (Judy Davis), who supervises protocol at the Bourbon court. “This is ridiculous,” says the new dauphine about the levee, the daily ceremony of getting her out of bed and into regal raiment. Yet Kirsten Dunst’s Marie Antoinette is a profligate party girl who drains the national treasury to revel in jewels, pastries, shoes, and wigs. Though Coppola ends her story months before Marie Antoinette is guillotined, the Queen has already lost her head. Countering hostile gossip, she notes that she never said “Let them eat cake.” But it is only because she is innocent of contempt and of life without privilege. Performing as a village maid in a stilted theatrical entertainment, the woman seems trapped in the role of Queen. The popular sport of watching royals squirm gives life to movies and to monarchies.

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