1.Kenneth Branagh as King Henry V
1989 Henry V
What Laurence Olivier’s popular, celebrated version did for ’40s audiences, Branagh (who was only 28 at the time) does more so for modern filmgoers — make Shakespeare thrillingly, viscerally alive. And if Olivier was constrained by wartime concerns to tone down Henry’s darkness, Branagh, as actor and director, was free to show him in all his charismatic colors: belligerent, coldhearted, haunted (in that stunning post-battle tracking shot), and finally sweet and ardent in love. It’s a ballsy, impassioned performance that met its match on Oscar night against Daniel Day-Lewis’ equally stirring portrayal in My Left Foot.
2. Cate Blanchett as Queen Elizabeth I
Before she won her Oscar for 2004’s The Aviator and acclaim in a host of roles, Blanchett was a virtual unknown as the Virgin Queen, transforming herself from free-spirited innocent to steely leader. Most actresses would rely upon wardrobe and makeup to effect the change. Blanchett accomplishes it with a gradual draining of joy, warmth, and trust from the eyes. ”Must I be touched by nothing?” she asks. Her expressionless mask at the end is the answer, a monarch’s sacrifice for the privilege of ruling. Good as she is, it was Gwyneth Paltrow who ascended Oscar’s throne as Best Actress for Shakespeare in Love.
3. Nigel Hawthorne as King George III
1994 The Madness of King George
It is good to be king but not always easy. If you prick royals, they bleed, just like us. In this splendid drama, Hawthorne inhabits England’s George III with a zesty liveliness, and all’s a hoot until the randy, nonsensical ramblings become worrisome. ”Do you think that you are mad?” inquires Helen Mirren’s Charlotte (her first nominated outing as a queen). ”I don’t know,” he replies, blank and dismal. In an unusually strong year for actors, neither Hawthorne nor John Travolta (Pulp Fiction) nor Morgan Freeman (The Shawshank Redemption) could beat the powerhouse of Tom Hanks’ Forrest Gump.
4. Audrey Hepburn as Princess Ann
1953 Roman Holiday
Who else but Hepburn (in her first starring role) could bring such freshness, dancer’s grace, and infectious delight (puffing a first cigarette, visiting her first nightclub) to the part of a fictional princess who goes AWOL and falls for Gregory Peck’s dreamy American journalist? And who else could pull off that heartbreaking, wordless farewell to Peck with just a slight glistening of the eyes and tremor of the lips and chin? Granted, the Best Actress competition wasn’t too stiff that year (Ava Gardner for Mogambo? Maggie McNamara for The Moon Is Blue?), but Hepburn absolutely deserved her first and only Oscar.
5. Charles Laughton as King Henry VIII
1933 The Private Life of Henry VIII
In a smashing turn as England’s fat king, Laughton struts around like a lecherous rooster, tears into obscene piles of food, belches, dispenses wisdom with a wink (”If you want to be happy…marry a stupid woman”), and spars charmingly with the mischievous Anne of Cleves (played by the actor’s real-life wife, Elsa Lanchester). For perennial scenery-chewer Laughton, it was a perfect meshing of star and larger-than-life role. The other Best Actor nominees (Paul Muni for I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang and Leslie Howard for Berkeley Square) didn’t stand a chance.
6. Laurence Olivier as King Richard III
1956 Richard III
Decked out in an alluring Jane Russell wig, resplendent attire, and a prosthetic nose that gives his profile a nasty sharpness, Olivier’s Richard is like a gaudy, deadly weapon. Stealthily, the actor seduces us with his handsome androgyny, killer’s glint, and lustrous voice. Like a medieval Hannibal Lecter, he lays out his dastardly deeds for us plainly and clearly, and we’re still sucked in. He even provokes our pity (”My kingdom for a horse!”). Despite this finesse (and the star’s previous nominations for playing royals in Henry V and Hamlet), the Best Actor award went to Yul Brynner for playing a very different king.
7. Peter O’Toole as King Henry II
In the opening moments, O’Toole is stripped of his shirt, exposing a pale, scrawny frame. For the rest of the film, he strips away the layers of Henry’s soul, showing us a childish man enraptured with Richard Burton’s Thomas (until he becomes archbishop) and tortured by Thomas’ murder. Though both stars were nominated, neither won. (It was Rex Harrison’s turn for My Fair Lady.) O’Toole would take on Henry again in 1968’s The Lion in Winter, becoming the rare actor nominated twice for the same role. He lost again, but costar Katharine Hepburn won for her grand but mannered Eleanor of Aquitaine.
8. Judi Dench as Queen Elizabeth I
1998 Shakespeare in Love
Speaking of rare repeats, how often have two actresses been nominated for playing the same character in the same year? (The answer: thrice — Dench and Blanchett; Kate Winslet and Gloria Stuart for Titanic; Dench and Winslet for Iris.) Dench’s Elizabeth takes up sometime after Blanchett’s leaves off. Outfitted like an ornate bird, she’s now a crusty dame who doesn’t mince anything, let alone words. ”She’s been plucked since I saw her last and not by you,” she hisses to Colin Firth’s Wessex about Gwyneth Paltrow’s Viola. Though on screen for only eight minutes, Dench walked off with a Best Supporting Actress Oscar.
9. Rex Harrison as Julius Caesar
Thanks to Harrison’s spot-on Caesar, the first half of director-coscreenwriter Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s infamous epic almost lives up to its literate ambitions. With more than a dash of Henry Higgins, he rattles off a mouthful such as ”You, a descendant of generations of inbred, incestuous mental defectives! How dare you call anyone barbarian!” — giving the line snap and wit. He lifts everyone around him, even Elizabeth Taylor (well, sorta). Unfortunately, after Caesar’s exit, the film quickly sinks like an overloaded Nile barge. The Best Actor award went to Sidney Poitier for the more popular Lilies of the Field.
10. Joaquin Phoenix as Commodus
Ah, there’s nothing like a crazy Roman emperor. Peter Ustinov milked amusing mileage and an Oscar nomination from playing the psychotic Nero in 1951’s Quo Vadis. As Commodus, Phoenix takes a similar tack, bringing a creepy, cobra-like villainy to the warped, whiny leader with daddy issues and an unsavory interest in his sister. When he threatens to harm his little nephew, you can practically taste the venom. On Oscar night, there were awards for the film (Best Picture) and Russell Crowe (Best Actor), but none for Phoenix, who lost out for Best Supporting Actor to Benicio Del Toro in Traffic. Vexing, indeed.