It pays to play the king (or queen, as the case may be.) Whether it's comedy or drama, on television or the big screen, we love a good portrayal of the British royal family. And a small number of talented actors and actresses have been rewarded for just that--delivering award-winning performances as British monarchs.
I've been a Colin Firth fan since I first saw him in Shakespeare in Love as the snobby and sniveling Lord Wessex, and I've been an Anglophile for as long as I can remember, so there was no way I was going to miss him play the stammering King George VI in The King's Speech. I saw it this past weekend, and it actually rendered me speechless--a rare moment. Firth is magnificent in this clever film, which is about much more than George's speaking difficulties. The movie explores what it is to be a public figure, depicts the deep concern and affection that can exist between loving friends and families, and considers the meaning of duty to family and nation. But Colin Firth's King is the absolute star of the show, and he is well-deserving of the Golden Globe he won this past weekend.
Yet he's not the first to receive acclaim for acting royally. Shakespeare in Love, in fact, features Firth's character bowing to Queen Elizabeth I when she wins a bet that his future wife loves the theater more than she loves him. The Queen was played by Judi Dench, who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1999 for the role even though she was only onscreen for about fifteen minutes. Interestingly enough, the Best Actress Oscar in 1999 was also given for a portrayal of Queen Elizabeth I, but it was won by Cate Blanchett for Elizabeth. In this role, Blanchett plays a young queen, early in her reign, learning to maneuver among the politics, threats, and plots surrounding her court. Joseph Fiennes, who plays Elizabeth's suitor Robert Dudley, garnered several award nominations himself for his role as William Shakespeare in Shakespeare in Love. (To make this really circular, a quiz: who is the actor that appeared in all three of the films I've mentioned so far?)
While I'm discussing Elizabeths, I would be remiss to leave out the current monarch, and Helen Mirren, one of my favorite actresses of all time, received many accolades including the 2007 Best Actress Oscar for depicting Queen Elizabeth II in The Queen. Even though the film was as much about Tony Blair as it was about Queen Elizabeth, it was a spectacular and spectacularly British movie. Lest we forget the other formidable female, Queen Victoria, she can be seen played by Emily Blunt in The Young Victoria (who was nominated for a Golden Globe for the role last year), and by the ubiquitous Judi Dench in Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown (who won the Golden Globe Best Actress award for it in 1998). Unfortunately, DPL doesn't own the movie.
On the kingly side, Peter O'Toole seems to be the overall favorite, who won the Golden Globe Best Actor in 1969 for portraying Henry II in The Lion in Winter (he was also nominated for the Oscar, and Katharine Hepburn won the Oscar for the role of Eleanor of Aquitaine in the film). O'Toole had played Henry II before, in Becket, for which he won the Golden Globe. Kenneth Branagh also won awards for playing a Henry; he was nominated for an Oscar for his lead role in the screen adaptation of Shakespeare's Henry V in 1990. Finally, you shouldn't miss Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Henry VIII in the Showtime series, The Tudors. It's totally over-the-top, but very entertaining, and Meyers was nominated for the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Dramatic Series in both 2008 and 2009.
God Save the Queen!