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Women’s Biopics in Classic Hollywood – Queen Christina (1933) TOtal 4 parts

In the same year as King Kong, MGM released the classic women’s biopic Queen Christina, starring the already legendary Greta Garbo and her former real-life lover John Gilbert, another huge star. The film was a highly fictionalized story of a love affair between the peace-loving, intellectual 17th-century Swedish queen (ruled 1632-1654) and the Spanish ambassador, Don Antonio Pimentel de Prado. We’ll look at Queen Christina as a women’s biopic of the classic Hollywood era (1910s-1960s). Although it was poorly received on its release and viewers were scandalized by gender confusion, a woman-to-woman kiss and a morning-after boudoir scene, the film is considered one of Garbo’s iconic roles and director Rouben Mamoulian’s best. The ending is magnificent.

Look over the Women’s Film List in Canvas Files. Most of the items in the list are women’s biopics. Use this list to choose a 5-page essay film or do further research in the genre. Of course your 5-page essay can be about any other genre. (NOTE: As you see in the syllabus, the 5-page essay is due May 16–as we get closer to that due date I’ll be telling you more in detail about it. Right now you can see my newly published 5-page essay description under Assignments)

Biopics, themselves a subgenre of the drama and epic film genres, relate the life of an important person or group with varying degrees of accuracy and fictionalization. Biopics cross genre types, e.g. the Western, musical, political drama, combat film, courtroom drama, romance. Recent male examples are Tom Cruise in American Made, Jake Gyllenhaal in Stronger, Steve Carell in Battle of the Sexes, Brian Cox in Churchill, Bradley Cooper in American Sniper, Jamie Foxx in Ray.

The vast majority of women’s biopics are about female rulers – mostly queens of England or European countries (Sweden, France, Russia), often wives of male leaders (Evita Peron, Eleanor Roosevelt, Dolley Madison, Ann Todd Lincoln, Hillary Clinton).

Often the plot is a conflict between duty to office and personal feelings, i.e. love. The woman wields power by performing a role: queen, ruler, wife, mistress, woman in love. She needs to maintain her work-life balance!

Devices used in women’s biopics differ considerably from those used in monster movies, but some overlap. When biopics need to depict power over millions, conflict between nations, a relationship between the ruler and her people and foreigners . . . what techniques are most effective?

Ask these basic questions to come up with common elements of the women’s biopic:

  • Why and how is the childhood of the subject introduced, if it is?
  • What is the subject’s legacy (family and ethnic origin, parental issues, previous tragedy)?
  • What stage(s) of the subject’s life does this biopic emphasize most?
  • How is the subject’s appearance, and maintenance of it, significant to the film?
  • How does the film show that the subject is remarkable, different from the rest?
  • Is the subject cursed or burdened by some recurring force?
  • What is the basic plot of this biopic? How are the events of her life narrated into a story?
  • Who are the most important members of the subject’s inner circle (family, friends, associates)?
  • What is the subject’s relationship with her public, if there is one?
  • What objects, symbols, animals, people, words recur in this biopic?
  • What is the role of romantic love in the subject’s life? The role of sexuality?
  • Does the film trace the subject’s transformation? If so, what kind?
  • How do other characters fight over the subject woman, and for what reasons?
  • What is the takeaway about this woman’s life?
  • How strong are traces of other genre films—epic, war, romantic comedy, melodrama—in this biopic?

A) Ask 3 discussion questions of your own regarding the film. The questions can be about specific techniques used in specific scenes, the characters, the nature of the office of queen, the plotline, unexpected outcomes, the ending.

B) Answer 3 discussion questions posed by other students.

A.

1. In the beginning of the film during her coronation, Christina promises to be a good “king” to her people. Consequently, she is referred to on different occasions as a “boy” or as “milord”. Comment on the ways she strips herself of her femininity to fit the role of “king”?

2. How does love transform Christina? Analyze her change in character and dressing after she falls in love with Antonio.

3. Analyze Christina’s definition of a human being. How does her duty as queen prevent her from truly living?

D. Historical biopics, according to AMC Filmsite’s article, are known to sometimes “stretch the truth and tell a life story with varying degrees of accuracy.” This tendency to rewrite history was greatly exercised in the making of Queen Christina, the biopic about the Swedish monarch whose life story is significantly altered throughout the film. The level of accuracy employed in portraying Christina’s is relatively small compared to how much is stretched. The filmmakers rewrite the story of her abdication, turning it into the quintessential tale of love trumps duty when in real life, the reason for her abdication is widely unknown but is speculated to be as a result of her unpopularity as a monarch. Moreover, Christina is portrayed in the film to be a formidable monarch who has the love and respect of her subjects which greatly contradicts the truth of her extravagant spending and so called sexual promiscuity that put her at odds with her people. The only facts maintained in the film are bisexual relationships, her masculine dressing, and her love for foreign artists and writers. In my opinion, the life of Christina would have made for a far more compelling biopic guaranteed to have sparked conversations about sexuality, gender roles and marital conventions. However, all of this was forgone for the simple overdone narrative of “love trumps duty” that wasn’t at all factual. This naturally leads one to wonder why the filmmakers opted to make for this option. Why did they choose to make love the focal point of this compelling figure’s (who so happens to be a woman) story?

C) Respond to at least one other student’s post with polite agreement or disagreement, giving evidence for your point of view. Answering another student’s question doesn’t count.

other’s post:

A. My Questions:

  1. Do you think it’s possible that this movie was not well received because it portrayed a woman doing typical masculine things? What actions of Queen Christina could be considered masculine?
  2. Queen Christina was released months after the Great Depression “ended” and within months of Adolf Hitler rising to power in Germany. What does this movie say about leaders in power and greediness towards money and wars? Does Christina follow these views?
  3. In the end Queen Christina is no longer Queen, and no longer has a potential husband. In the final moments of the film, what do you think is going through her mind?

D. As the textbook says, “if these movies concluded sadly, we would not classify them as romantic comedies” (121). It would be an interesting conversation to compare whether or not Queen Christina is a romantic comedy or not: is she sad at the end? If she is, it isn’t a romantic comedy. Is she happy she now has freedom to roam and travel? If so, perhaps it is a romantic comedy. I think it is a romantic comedy: Christina fell in love, unburdened herself of the throne, lost her potential husband, but gained a newfound freedom to do whatever she wants.

D) Read 3 things:

Comment on something in one of these readings that would pertain to an interesting discussion of Queen Christina.

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