By Uma Anyar
How do movies such as The Queen and The Iron Lady, both masterful bio-pics about remarkable female figures (Elizabeth II and Margaret Thatcher), affect our notions about these women as leaders?
Leader. A word that functions only in tandem with its opposite – follower. A leader needs a society in which to flourish. There is an unspoken and vulnerable trust between the two. Some leaders are elected, while others are born into their posts of power, privilege and responsibility. Queen Elizabeth II of England is an example of the latter and Margaret Thatcher, the former. Thatcher was the ambitious daughter of a grocer and an Oxford graduate who, despite the highly improbable odds of sexism and classism, became the leader of the Conservative Party and the first female Prime Minister of The United Kingdom. She exceeded her own vision of what was possible in the political climate of her time. She herself stated, “I don’t think there will be a woman Prime Minister in my lifetime.” If that isn’t impressive enough, she held her office from 1979 to 1990, the longest anyone has held the position in the twentieth century.
The Queen of England is more than just a person. She is a historical institution that many Brits complain about as an unnecessary and expensive anachronism. Others feel she is what makes England, well… Great Britain. She has little direct political power but much influence. Prime Ministers come and go but the Queen is Queen for life.
Over the last few years biographical films about these prominent female leaders have been shown worldwide and have affected millions of viewers’ notions of the real women. Both Helen Mirren’s and Meryl Streep’s portrayals have far exceeded mere impersonations. Mirren (The Queen, 2007) and Streep (The Iron Lady, 2012) won Best Actress Oscars as well as a slew of other major awards for their extraordinary performances.
Margaret Thatcher’s death on April 8, 2013, at age 87, produced an avalanche of press coverage examining and analyzing “The Iron Lady,” a nickname bestowed on her by a Soviet era journalist who characterized her uncompromising politics and leadership style back in the 1980s.
While watching news coverage on Thatcher’s death, I was amused to learn the Taiwanese station CTI Cable had shown footage of Queen Elizabeth while the newscaster reported on Thatcher’s passing. Also, Thai Channel 5 accidentally used images of actress Meryl Streep as Thatcher rather than pictures of the actual former Prime Minister. Passing these incidents off as mere mistakes does not deal fully with the question: how do we know what is real in this time of simulacra? Also, how do we know what the real identity of a celebrity leader is, and how does that change when we see a movie representation?
I decided it was worth re-watching The Queen and The Iron Lady in order to reflect on these remarkable women leaders. How does a smart, sexy and somewhat sassy actress like Helen Mirren affect our sense of the proper, reserved and somewhat dowdy Queen Elizabeth II? The answer is she makes the Queen more interesting and more human. How do contemporary viewers who strongly disliked Thatcher’s policies come to feel compassion for an aging, lonely woman as they watched her sympathetically portrayed by the gifted Meryl Streep? And, why did a liberal like Streep take on the role of an addled conservative post-Prime Minister?
Streep explains taking on the challenging role because she was looking for a chance to portray old age, which she felt had been under-represented in films. When Iron Lady director Phyllida Lloyd approached her with Abi Morgan’s script (based on Carol Thatcher’s book, A Swim-on Part in the Goldfish Bowl: A Memoir), Streep came on board explaining she was interested in Thatcher’s later years and, as Streep described it, “the diminishment of power, the denouement of a big life.”
Streep does not sentimentalize Thatcher, but rather humanized a woman who, like all leaders, no matter how powerful, must deal with the humbling loss of mental faculties that ageing often inflicts. A scene taking place in a corner store, where no one recognizes Thatcher or pays her any attention, offers brilliant ‘show, don’t tell’ examples depicting the fleeting nature of fame. If Margaret Thatcher’s legacy is affected by the sympathetic interpretation Streep brings to the screen, what changed in Streep during her immersion into this role?
Streep shared, “The more I learned, the more my view of her changed. Wherever you stand on her policies – and many people didn’t like her – the scale of her influence and the fact that she got things done was extraordinary. And the mental, physical, spiritual energy that it took to live every one of those days as head of the government was phenomenal. It’s humbling to consider that she was at 10 Downing Street for ten and a half years. I admire that achievement. I stand in awe of it, even though I didn’t agree with a lot of her policies.”
Although Thatcher was renowned for having said, “‘If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman”, she would have considered it insulting to be called a feminist. She allegedly remarked to her adviser, Paul Johnson, in 1982, “The feminists hate me, don’t they? And I don’t blame them. For I hate feminism. It is poison.”
Hadley Freeman, a columnist at The Guardian newspaper wrote, “She was dubbed ‘the best man‘ in the cabinet. I submit that because she was not a feminist. She had to put her gender, and all the values and graces that go with it, aside in order to fight her way up through sexism and classism, and to her credit, she succeeded but she lost her humanity along the way. She didn’t even like other women. And did nothing for them or female workers while in office. Far from ‘smashing through the glass ceiling’ she was the aberration, the one who got through and then pulled the ladder up right after her. Contrary to an increasingly common belief, ‘a woman who is successful’ is not synonymous with a feminist.”
But the gender issue always plagued Thatcher. Curiously, it is this feminist focused interpretation that makes Streep’s version of Thatcher more appealing than the actual anti-feminist Prime Minister.
Whether or not Thatcher admitted to her struggles in politics as gender battles, she was lucky to have had Phyllida Lloyd directing the scene filmed from a bird’s eye view in which we watch the only pale blue hat amidst a herd of dark suits and balding heads treading into Parliament like a constituency of penguins. This shot drives home the point that she was the ‘odd man’ out simply because she was a woman. It is not surprising she was referred to as the best man in her cabinet. She had to be.
The movie, The Queen, written by Peter Morgan and directed by Stephen Frears, deals with the tragic death of Diana, ‘the people’s princess’.
Documentary footage from the automobile accident and from Diana’s life is included in the The Queen. The film takes place during the week that follows the tragic deaths of Diana and her boyfriend, Dodi Fayed. It reveals the struggle between the image-conscious Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and Her Royal Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, over how to handle an event, which, due to the Royal Family’s desire to stick with tradition, threatened to bring down the Monarchy.
The film depicts the Royal Family’s disconnect from the British peoples’ need to participate in a public grieving. Queen Elizabeth has to accept the reality about how much Diana was actually adored by people all around the world. She finally follows Tony Blair’s advice to return to London, fly the flag over Buckingham Palace at half-mast, and join her subjects in mourning Diana. The Queen is a small, rather poetic movie which uses restrained humor and symbolism to convey complex and conflicted feelings brewing inside Elizabeth II as she is faced with the dilemmas surrounding Diana’s shocking death.
The scene I found most touching and beautifully acted was the Queen’s mystical encounter with the fourteen point stag that Prince Phillip hopes to shoot while they are at Balmoral Castle. Prince Phillip (James Cromwell) is eager to hunt with his grandsons saying “let them take it out on the stag.”
The deer, which Elizabeth knows is in danger, gazes at her like a mythical character from an Arthurian legend. She is stunned by the animal’s majesty and wants to protect it. In her awe and helplessness all she can do is wave her hand and say, “shoo”.
It is a tender and touching scene all the more significant because it is presented matter-of-factly. Later when she sees the decapitated deer carcass suspended over a drain in a cold room on a neighboring estate, she is deeply moved. Viewers grasp that the Queen feels sorrow not only for the innocent deer but also for the long hunted Diana and all beautiful creatures in danger. The open-ended symbolism allows viewers to distill what they want from this transformative moment.
If there is a lesson to be gleaned from these two portrayals of women leaders, then I submit that the feminine strengths of flexibility, compassion, and the ability to change one’s mind should be encouraged in all leaders. Perhaps, like Margaret Thatcher, we have honored toughness too much and equated flexibility with weakness for too long. Margaret Thatcher’s dictum, “Never compromise” may have seemed like a principled position but it turned out to be politically detrimental as well as a recipe for personal loneliness. Both films show the isolation of these leaders, but it is exactly that loneliness which helps us to empathize with them.
Film is a powerful and ubiquitous medium. It is up to talented teams of collaborators to create movies that respect reality while providing us with remarkable fiction that is capable of altering our views of prominent real life leaders. Paradoxically, this alchemy of fact and fiction will inevitably blend together to become: history.
Uma Anyar is the pen name of Tamarra Kaida, a photographer who has published, Ogoh-Ogoh: Balinese Monsters in 2011 with Sarita Newson and Tremors from the Faultline in 1989. Tamarra collaborated with Pulitzer Prize poet Rita Dove on The Other Side of the House in 1988, a poetry and collotype photography book. She has participated in more than 100 photography exhibitions. Her photographs are in the collections of The Museum of Modern Art in New York, The George Eastman House Museum in Rochester NY., Center for Creative Photography Tucson, Az., The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and The State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia among others.
She was a professor of art photography in The School of Art at Arizona State University, in Tempe, Arizona, USA from 1979-2004.
Tamarra retired from university teaching in 2004 and moved to Ubud, Bali in order to live a more balanced, slower paced lifestyle and spend more time with her husband, Paul.
She took the name Uma Anyar (means ‘new rice fiel and new beginnings in Balinese) as her pen name and wrote short stories and worked on a novel. In 2009, Asia Literary Review published the short story Angry Ghosts. Uma Anyar has been writing book reviews for the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival column in The Bali Advertiser since 2005. She started writing film reviews for Inspired Bali in 2013. She loves movies, books, photographs and creating beautiful, unique environments.by