Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 6, 2021)
“Golden Age” Hollywood stars don’t come much bigger than Bette Davis and Errol Flynn. They appeared together twice, with 1939’s The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex as the second of these efforts.
Set in the late 16th century, Queen Elizabeth (Davis) sits on the throne of England, but she encounters a rival in the form of Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex (Flynn). He returns home the charismatic victor in battle and he boasts aspirations to become king.
While Elizabeth fears this threat to her reign, she also falls in love with Essex. She combats her inner passions with her outer desire to remain queen as she works through this complicated relationship.
With Davis, Flynn and Olivia de Havilland in front of the camera and Michael Curtiz as director, Lives looks like a movie that should’ve garnered tons of Oscar attention. Indeed, it did snare five nominations.
However, these all came in technical categories, so Lives received no nods received no nods for acting, directing or Best Picture. What happened?
1939 happened. More than 80 years later, 1939 remains the go-to answer for many viewers’ choice as Hollywood’s single best year ever, so with all that competition, I guess Lives got lost in the shuffle.
Did the movie deserve greater recognition than it received? Not really, as beyond its star power, Lives lacks much to make it work.
Adapted from Maxwell Anderson’s play, Lives usually feels “stage bound”, as it concentrates on a few interior settings most of the time. Not that a movie can’t succeed in these locations, but Curtiz fails to bring the necessary energy to the material to overcome the limited number of areas we visit.
This means the movie largely relies on its characters for drama, but none of them become especially compelling. Davis gives Elizabeth the haughty grandeur she needs and reminds us why she became such a legend, but even so, she can’t turn the Queen into a particularly interesting role.
The screenplay just leaves Elizabeth without much substance beyond paranoia and insecurity. Davis does her best to distract us from these weaknesses, but she can’t correct the script’s concerns all on her own.
Flynn was more of a screen idol than a strong actor, so he falters when pitted against Davis. Flynn makes for a handsome Essex, of course, and if Lives focused on that character’s heroic side, he could turn in a capable performance.
Unfortunately, Lives requires Flynn to actually act, and he lacks the ability to flesh out the role as necessary. Perhaps if paired with a lesser foil, Flynn would seem fine, but against Davis, his weaknesses come to the fore.
The main issue here remains the thin nature of the tale and characters, though. Lives could – and should – become a compelling drama with a psychological bent – or at least a decent love story with complications. However, the film fails to find much substance across its narrative or roles, so it winds up as a disappointment.