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11 April 2016

Why Bette Changed Her Mind: Davis and Flynn as Elizabeth and Essex

Bette Davis as Queen Elizabeth I
Errol Flynn and Bette Davis made two films together, The Sisters and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. She resented his casting and considered him a lightweight, being promoted by the Warner Brothers because of his looks, while she worked hard at her craft (so had he, but no one knew that). Naturally he resented this in turn, and they did not enjoy working together. Ironically, as often happens, both gave exceptionally good performances in both films. Probably the studio would have liked to pair them again; they were both box-office draws, and according to the casting algebra used by studio executives, that would have added up to even bigger earnings. But a movie star could be big enough to resist being pushed into anything, and both Davis and Flynn had attained that magnitude. Anyway, they went their separate ways.
Elizabeth and Essex

After an almost unbelievably eventful life, Errol Flynn died at the early age of 50, in 1959. Bette Davis, of course, continued her long and distinguished career, working almost to the end of her life at the age of 81 in 1989. And in her later years she reconsidered her opinion of Errol Flynn; upon viewing The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, she told her longtime friend, Olivia de Haviland, "Damn, he was good!"
And he was. In this film, and the play it is adapted from, the character of Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, is complex -- he is an admired military leader, dashing and brave enough for the Queen to love, but politically naive enough to be duped by the wily courtiers who infest the palace. He can't appear foolish, only innocent. Flynn negotiates this fine line with great intelligence; his Essex is as much a victim of his own sense of pride as of those who actively plot against him. Davis' Queen sees this, but is unable to make it clear to him.
The story begins with Essex and the Queen already known by everyone at court to be in love; we first see him  returning from a privateering mission to Spain which has not gone well. Essex approaches the palace grandly on horseback (and no one looked better on horseback than Errol Flynn) to the cheers of admiring crowds -- a fact which delights him but displeases the Queen. The script, adapted from the play Elizabeth the Queen by Maxwell Anderson, has the Queen, because of her own background as the daughter of the divorced King Henry VIII and the executed Anne Boleyn, feeling her position forever insecure, and always seeking to strengthen her position and eliminate possible rivals -- by whatever means necessary. By the time he reaches the throne room, she is fuming, and instead of the welcome he expects he is met with a harsh reprimand -- in public. And here, in one of his very first scenes, Flynn's character's fatal weakness is revealed, because instead of keeping his head down -- like everyone else does when they see that the Queen is in a temper -- Robert not only answers back, but angrily turns his back on her and stalks out of the hall. This would have been a serious breech of protocol (and I think in fact no actual Elizabethan would have done it).
We next see them separately, she in the palace, conferring unhappily with her wise minister, Sir Francis Bacon (Donald Crisp), and he at his country manor, still angered by the affront to his status, which is of great importance to him -- he truly loves and respects her, but cannot help reflecting that his ancestry is loftier than hers. (Interestingly, the real Devereux probably did think that.)
When the Irish Earl of Tyrone stages a rebellion, which requires immediate military response, Bacon devises a way to bring Essex back to court, suggesting that the Queen appoint him Master of Armaments -- this will allow him to serve her but keep him from harm in battle. When he does return, the two of them have a tempestuous but eventually loving reunion, fighting, laughing, arguing, and embracing. Both Davis and Flynn are marvelous in this scene; she shows her helpless love for him, and her fear both of him and for him. He displays, far more with this character than in other love scenes with other leading ladies, true adoration of the Queen -- showing that he reveres her because of the woman she is, who rules giving every waking thought to the welfare of her countrymen. A great deal is made in the script of her being older than him, and Flynn actually makes him seem boyishly impetuous. Their mutual vulnerability is quite moving, especially since we know it is doomed.
The next scene is the key to their tragedy. We see Elizabeth meeting with her Privy Council (which is about the same as the Cabinet), which now includes Essex, Bacon, Lord Robert Cecil (Henry Daniell), Lord Burghley (Henry Stephenson), Sir Walter Raleigh (Vincent Price), and Sir Thomas Egerton (James Stephenson). Most of these are enemies of Essex, as the Queen well knows. She also
Essex is goaded by the  Council
knows how fatally easy will be for such devious men to  provoke him into rashness, and so it proves. A few sly insinuations from Cecil are all it takes for Robert to lose his temper -- though he promised Elizabeth that he wouldn't -- and demands to lead the army into Ireland to deal with Tyrone himself. Essex is not a fool but so guileless that he might as well be one; he cannot bear any slight to his honor or reputation.

Before he goes, she gives him a ring from her finger, saying that if ever their enemies should part them, and he wishes to remind her of his special claim on her, he should send her the ring. Before parting they fervently vow their love for each other, he with no doubts and she filled with apprehension.
The Queen is right, as usual. The English troops under Essex' command are decimated, and enemies at home intercept both Elizabeth's letters to Essex, and his letters to her, including increasingly desperate requests for more troops, arms, and supplies. Tyrone, having completely defeated his enemies, magnanimously allows Essex to take the survivors home. Enraged by what he perceives as the Queen's betrayal, Essex uses his own wealth and popularity to march on the palace in an official revolt (this really happened).
Now the conspirators worst fears are realized; Essex tells the Queen that he has written over and over and gotten no reply, and she tells him that she did indeed write. She furiously dismisses the court, and agrees to speak with him privately. As soon as they are alone, they immediately reconcile, both realizing that they have been duped.
But the differences between them -- their incompatible views of the role of the monarch -- soon arise. Elizabeth is determined to keep England free from want and war; he wants to make war on their enemies, feeling that the glory of conquest is worth the sacrifice of lives. He feels that she is unfit to rule because she is a woman, and cannot understand the whole idea of honor. He tells her honestly that his ambition is stronger than himself. He urges her to share the throne with him, asking only that she give him her word. She does. And the minute he dismisses his guard, she has him arrested.
Essex sits in a cell in the Tower of London awaiting execution. The Queen sits alone in another part of the building. She desperately hopes he will send the ring she gave him and plead for his life, but he doesn't do so. Finally she sends for him. Again, they reaffirm their love for each other; she begs him to give up his ambition, and says she will share her throne with him. She offers him a pardon, but he refuses, saying that if he were able he would try again to take the throne from her -- so he prefers to meet his death instead of becoming a threat to her. He returns to his cell to prepare for his execution.
Essex accepts his death

Elizabeth is left sitting alone, listening to the sound of the crowd outside the window, and then the final drum roll.

This movie has an excellent supporting cast, but is completely dominated by the two stars, and they are mesmerizing. Both give wholly thought-out, passionate, and intense performances, and frankly I think he is every bit as good as she is. It is a moving and tragic love story without melodramatic tricks, because none were needed -- these two people really did love each other, but each one really did represent the greatest threat to the other. One of them had to die.
Elizabeth alone

It's fascinating to see this film after seeing The Sea Hawk, in which Errol Flynn stars as a completely different man serving the same Queen -- because he is a different man; his thoughts, feelings, and actions are those of a wholly new person. He does this with intelligence and skill, and frankly never got credit for being the truly fine actor that he was (while he was alive). 
So Bette Davis was right to change her mind. Looking back over Errol Flynn's career, which was after all rather short, it's amazing how much high-quality work he achieved; there are really very few duds in his catalog. The fact that so many of his films are still important explains why he is still so popular; good looks and charm are very nice, but they don't take you that far. I'm glad he has fans today -- both old and new -- but I can't help thinking how surprised he would be! 

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